Cowboys defensive end Robert Quinn grew up obsessed with becoming a professional athlete. From 8 years old through his junior year of high school in North Charleston, S.C., there were countless dedicated hours toward honing his craft: the ollies, the kickflips, the grinds, visions of Tony Hawk during daring daydreams.
“I wanted to be a professional skateboarder a lot more than football. I was a lot more focused on that,” Quinn said. “Vert ramps, get to the skate park whenever I could, that was my deepest passion for a long time. I was always a little oversized for my age, and it was good for balance. Doing the tricks was challenging, but you do it long enough and it wasn’t that hard.”
One of the challenges for the Cowboys this season, if not the challenge, is rushing the quarterback. Rod Marinelli’s defense finished with 39 last year, which tied for 16th in the league. DeMarcus Lawrence led the way with 10.5, this despite seeing a plethora of double teams coming off a breakout All-Pro campaign in 2017. Second on the squad was Randy Gregory with 6.0, but for now he remains suspended, his future still uncertain.
The X factor for the Dallas D therefore is the former aspiring boarder, who is making his debut with the Cowboys against Miami after being suspended himself for the first two games for using a masking agent, a questionable decision handed down by the league.
Of course, overcoming obstacles is nothing new for Quinn. After all, within a year of committing himself on the gridiron rather than the half pipe back as a teenager, he was told pointblank by a doctor that he wouldn’t be leaving the hospital. Well, outside of his funeral.
In October 2007, in the midst of his senior year at Fort Dorchester High School, Quinn was waking up each morning with vicious headaches. In short time, the color of his eyes were changing and he was going to sleep hours earlier than usual. One morning he collapsed in the bathroom and his parents rushed him to the hospital.
A rather large tumor was found on the right side of his brain, just above his forehead, and if it wasn’t removed, Quinn would soon be brain-dead. A highly risky surgery was the lone alternative, and even then there was no way of knowing if it was benign or not.
“They told me I wouldn’t make it out of the hospital,” Quinn said. “I was 17 and the doctors walk out, and I look at my parents. I mean, I’m crying and so are they, and I say, ‘This might be the last week I’m going to be seeing you all.’ It’s hard keeping my emotions together right now talking about this, so you can imagine what it was like in that room.”
Showing extraordinary maturity, though, Quinn felt sorry for himself for all of half an hour. There would be no more tears, at least from his eyes, no more self-pity.
“After about 30 minutes, I got myself together and decided if I’m going to go, I’m going to make sure everyone else around me is happy,” Quinn said. “I did my best to keep smiling and keep the positive energy around me the best I could even though we were going through a tough time. If you’re going to go out, why go out sad? I know that sounds crazy.”
Family, friends, relatives and teammates flocked to see Quinn at Duke University’s Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center the week or so before the surgery, and while for many this could have been the time to empty out those emotional feelings seldom if ever spoken about – maybe even saying farewell, you know, just in case – there was none of that.
“We didn’t say goodbyes before the surgery, not even with my parents,” Quinn said. “As much as I was facing the reality of not waking up, I wasn’t ready to take it on so when people came and saw me, we kept a positive vibe. If death was the end result, at least we were going to end it with laughs and smiling.
“At a young age, I needed to be strong. Showing weakness, if that news came down, that wasn’t going to help anyone.”
Standing in front of his locker in the far back corner of the Cowboys locker room in Frisco, Quinn pauses for a couple of seconds at this point of the narrative, looks away ever-so momentarily before resuming eye contact with a smile, “Man, tough to think about, but that was my reality at the time. I don’t think any parent wants to bury their child. We all have to go one day but not like that. It was tough on me. It was so much tougher on them.”
In the words of the doctors who performed the operation, Quinn is a medical miracle. The surgery was an overwhelming success, the tumor was benign and shrunk enough to relive any pressure, although the answer to one of the first questions upon waking up was a resounding no, there would be no more playing sports.
Less than six months later, Quinn won the state heavyweight wrestling championship. Six months after that, the pass rusher extraordinaire was playing at North Carolina en route to becoming a first-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2011. While the tumor is technically still in his brain, it has never grown, so outside of yearly checkups, there have been no further effects.
“I went from you’re not going to make it out of here alive to you’re never going to play football again to the tumor isn’t cancerous,” said Quinn. “More and more positive words were coming my way after that. This won’t come as a shock, but experiencing that, at that age, it changes your prospective on life.
“Positive energy is the best way to make the world a better place. Stay away from the negative comments and negative people. Enjoy each day like it’s your last. One day it will be all of ours last. That has real meaning for me.”
In the autumn of 2009, in the midst of his sophomore year for the Tar Heels, Quinn received a phone call from Nancy Butters, a social worker at Duke’s Tumor Center. The two had become close during Quinn’s time there a few years earlier.
There was another high school football player named Lavelle Sloan who had just been diagnosed with a tumor in his brain, and she was hoping for an autographed photo or maybe even a jersey. Instead, Quinn showed up the next day with both, the first of several visits and numerous phone calls with Sloan and his mother.
“I needed to grasp what words to say to him,” Quinn said. “When I was going through my situation, they told me I was going to die. When I went to see him and his mom, I tried to bring the most positive energy I had. It would be all right no matter what the outcome was. Why go out sad and upset when you know what your fate is? Put a smile on and enjoy what you can.”
Butters was blown away by the maturity and compassion of the then 19-year-old, later telling the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “It was the most amazing thing. Think about it for a moment. It can’t be the easiest thing in the world for a kid that young to have survived something like Robert had. And you could understand completely if the last thing he wanted to do would be to go into an environment where everyone around him was acting as a reminder of what he’d gotten through. It could have been the last thing he wanted to see or do. But here he was walking right into this ward with kids taking chemotherapy, and he handled it wonderfully.”
Quinn invited Sloan to join the team for any practice or game he could make but unfortunately, the latter was never strong enough and by Christmas it was obvious the treatment wouldn’t be successful. There wasn’t going to be another medical miracle. On April 14, 2010, Sloan’s brave battle ended peacefully at home with his mother. When Quinn received word, he broke down in tears.
The following April brought much happier circumstances, the start of Quinn’s NFL career as the 14th overall selection in a draft class loaded with pass rushers, including Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Justin Houston and Cameron Jordan. And while that group has combined for 24 Pro Bowl and 10 All-Pro nods, only Miller and Kerrigan have more sacks and forced fumbles than Quinn’s 69 and 23, respectively.
The overwhelming majority of those, 45, came in his first four years, including 19 in his All-Pro campaign of 2013. At 24 years young when that season ended, Quinn appeared destined for Canton, 52 tackles for loss, 14 forced fumbles and two Pro Bowl selections. However, the next few seasons were injury plagued, 15 games in all, and his numbers suffered, just 17.5 sacks his last three years with the Rams, who traded Quinn to the Dolphins in March 2018.
“When I was traded to Miami, it was a slap in the face,” Quinn said. “I found out in a weird way. Twitter. Then my agent called me. It is what it is. When the Dolphins were talking about dealing me they at least gave me the chance to kind of pick and choose. Made it less of a slap in the face. We understood what was going on. This transition went a lot smoother.”
Dallas landed Quinn for a 2020 sixth-round pick, which seems a like a no-brainer considering the impact he could bring, not only in terms of sacks and pressures but relieving some of those double-teams from Lawrence on the other side of the line. The coaching staff couldn’t have been more pleased with his performance during the offseason workouts and training camp, with Marinelli saying, “I’ve just really been impressed with his work habits here. He’s a real pro. He comes to work every day. Effort. Details. He doesn’t say much. And I’m telling you, he’s really going to be a good run defender, just like ‘D-Law.’”
For most, Quinn’s career would be by all accounts successful. He’s already ranked among the top 100 in NFL history for sacks and tackles for loss, and is in the top 50 for forced fumbles. There are a couple of Pro Bowls, too. This is going to be his ninth season, double the league average, and he has a decent shot at reaching the century club for sacks, which currently only 32 players have accomplished.
“No, I’m actually kind of in a word frustrated and disappointed in myself,” Quinn said of his career. “My goals are set through the roof and I haven’t achieved those goals year in and year out. But all I can do is put the work boots on and go to work. We have competitiveness in all of us. I always believe in Vonn, my favorite pass rusher in the league. You see his numbers, and I’m like, ‘Shoot, if I did this or did that, or played the whole year,’ wishing I didn’t get hurt, wishing I could have made another play.
“Nothing wrong with wanting to be the best, and wanting to be better. I want to be one of the greatest who have played. I have fallen short of my goals the last few years. I’m coming to work even if I come up short, but I’m not going to sell you short while I’m out there.”
When talking about some of the elite pass rushers in league history, and how each kind of redefined himself as he was approaching 30 years of age, Quinn said he was looking at the career sacks list that very morning and even corrected a reference to Reggie White having 195.
“Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s 198,” Quinn said accurately. “I obviously have a ways to go, but Reggie started hot like I did, had a lull and got back hot again. It shows the work those Hall of Fame types put in day in and out. It’s the little things that people don’t see on camera, the offseasons, every day, how you eat, the work, the film study, the work ethic.
“As you get older you get a little bit smarter, understanding pass protection, offseason line sets, how they use their hands. You stick around long enough, you add some tools to the toolbox, and you’re hitting on all cylinders again.”
Make no mistake, this season is critical to Quinn’s career arc. Another injury or two, another five-sack campaign, and the end is likely near, maybe a one-year deal with another team in 2020.
Or there could be a career revival, a reinvention like, say, Pro Football Hall of Fame pass rusher Kevin Greene. After eight seasons, with the Rams coincidentally, Greene had 72.5 sacks, but just 13 his last two years. Many figured he was finished, and he signed with the Steelers. Over the next seven years, Greene tallied 87.5 sacks, led the league twice, and finished third on the career list with 160.
Along that path, if Quinn registers a double-digit sack campaign, the Cowboys and many other teams would be more than interested in a multi-year deal. The opportunity is there for the taking, another multiple Pro Bowler on the bookend side, a brilliant coordinator, the sacks, the pressures, the forced fumbles. They are ready to be shipped. The only question remaining is the delivery date.
“I’m laid back, people don’t know how to read me sometimes,” Quinn said. “This offseason has been about building a brotherhood and being one of the boys in the room and that’s been fun. The locker room environment is pretty great. There’s a happy spirit here and a demand for excellence. Can’t ask for more.”
It has been quite the ride for Quinn, literally from his boarding days to staring at a cruel death to a miraculous recovery and football glory. No matter what life brings next, Quinn will face it like he always has – positive energy and the deepest appreciation for the day ahead.
Because he knows the alternative better than most.