CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Robert Quinn slid into the chair, extended his hand, and with an easy smile introduced himself.
Quinn paused for a moment to gather his thoughts and for what probably seems like the one-millionth time since arriving on campus at the University of North Carolina, launched into a condensed version of his medical history over the past year. With the tall pines of Kenan Stadium serving as a backdrop, Quinn recapped the facts and symptoms that led up to the emergency brain surgery he underwent a year ago this weekend like a detached doctor tells a patient about a common head cold.
The fact that Quinn is talking about his brain tumor and his freshman season as a starting defensive end with the Tar Heels in the same sentence, and not lying in a coma in the intensive care unit at Medical University Hospital in Charleston recovering from a life-threatening surgery, doesn't seem to phase the soft-spoken former Fort Dorchester High School star.
"When I first had the surgery there were some doubts that I might ever play football again," Quinn said. "But as soon as the doctors told me everything was going to be OK I knew I was going to get back on the field. I had no doubt that I would play football again. I wasn't going to let something like this keep me off field, no way."
Eight games into his collegiate career, not only is Quinn playing for North Carolina, but he is also the only true freshman starting full-time for the Tar Heels on either side of the ball.
"In all truthfulness, prior to training camp, I didn't think Robert, as a true freshman, would be able to come in and make the kind of impact he would be making this season," said North Carolina head coach Butch Davis. "His medical condition notwithstanding, not many true freshman, especially freshman on the defensive line, are ready to make an impact their first season. Ideally, you would like to redshirt them, get them in the weight room, get them bigger and stronger, and then hopefully get them on the field the next season.
"However, it became pretty evident about midway into training camp that Robert was going to be a very special player for us. He was going to eventually get on the field this season."
Blessed with the speed and quickness of a defensive back and strength of a pickup truck, the 6-5, 260-pound Quinn was on every college football coaches' recruiting list. Only Summerville's A.J. Green and Bamberg's DaQuan Bowers were considered in the same class as Quinn in the state of South Carolina.
"I can't think of a major program that didn't offer Robert a scholarship," said Fort Dorchester coach Steve LaPrad. "He probably got more than 100 offers."
But early on during his senior season there were signs that something was wrong.
"In preseason and during scrimmages you'd see guys that a year ago didn't belong on the same field with Robert, competing with him," LaPrad said. "At first I thought it was great because maybe our offensive linemen was getting better. But as the preseason went on, you could tell that there was something wrong."
His mother, Maria Quinn, remembers her son complaining constantly about headaches and then his eyes began to have a yellowish tint to them. He had trouble remembering simple things and once got lost coming home from the Waffle House, which was just minutes away by car, after a game against Summerville.
"I knew something was wrong, but the doctors said they couldn't find anything," Maria Quinn said. "When he got lost coming home that one night from the Waffle House, I remember asking him 'what's wrong Robert.' I mean he took a right turn when he should have turned left. We had to go out and find him and he followed us back to the house. At first I thought someone had put something in his drink."
On the field Quinn wasn't himself either. His father, James Quinn, began to suspect something was wrong after the first game of the season. A week later against Berkeley High, running back Andre Ellington, a freshman at Clemson this season, ran within a few feet of Robert and got little or no reaction out of the normally aggressive Quinn.
"(Ellington) ran right by him, almost hit Robert," James Quinn said. "Robert just kind of put his arm out, kind of waved at him, but he never tried to make a tackle. The year before, he would have put him on the ground."
LaPrad said Quinn would forget plays, turn to players in the secondary to find out what formation they were in.
"He just wasn't himself," LaPrad said. "This wasn't the same Robert Quinn we had been watching for the last three years. As a coach you think that something might be wrong with his girlfriend or maybe he doesn't want to get hurt because he doesn't want to lose his scholarship. It could be a lot of things. It might be senioritis or something more serious, like drugs. But I knew what kind of person Robert was and he would never do anything like that."
Twice LaPrad called Quinn into his office to find out what was wrong, but Quinn didn't have any answers.
"I didn't think anything was wrong," Quinn said. "I knew I wasn't playing great, but I just figured other teams were running away from me. I think it's harder to see when things are wrong when they're happening to you. It's easier for people around you tell that there's something wrong."
The Sunday after the Summerville game, Quinn collapsed in the family's bathroom. When he regained consciousness, he was rushed to the MUSC emergency room.
"I don't remember much," Quinn said. "I blacked out. I'm not sure how long I was unconscious."
A CT scan revealed a tumor was blocking his spinal cavity. As a result of the tumor, there was a buildup of fluids that was causing swelling in his brain. During the five-hour surgery that followed, a small plastic tube, a shunt, was put in place in his head to relieve the buildup of fluids. A biopsy was taken of the growth.
A nurse told Robert his athletic career was over. James Quinn wasn't so sure.
"I've always been the kind of person that wants to get all the information before I react," James Quinn said. "Until they said something definite, I wasn't going to jump to any conclusions."
Less than a week after the surgery, the biopsy on the tumor came back benign.
"It was the greatest news I could have heard," Maria Quinn said.
The news for Robert continued to get better after the surgery. Quinn was released from the hospital less than two weeks after being rushed to the emergency room.
And although his doctors could not remove the tumor, they didn't have to leave the shunt in his head to continually drain the fluid. That meant his athletic career was probably not over.
"The doctors told me as long as I took things slowly, I was probably going to be able to do anything I wanted," Quinn said. "As soon as I heard that I knew no matter what I was going to get back on the field."
Nearly all of the coaches recruiting Quinn called to check on his recovery. Alabama coach Nick Saban told Robert that the school's scholarship offer was still good no matter if he played or not. By the end of the week, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and North Carolina's Butch Davis joined the growing list of schools that had scholarships waiting for Quinn even if he never played a down of football.
"That made me feel like they cared about me as a person and not just as a football player," Quinn said. "I was a little surprised by that. When you're getting recruited you kind of feel like a piece of meat and not a person. I realized they cared about me as a human being."
He spent the next month at home recovering. He nearly drove his mother crazy.
"Robert is not the kind of person that's going to sit around and do nothing," Maria Quinn said.
Finally he returned to school. Within a few days of getting back to Fort Dorchester, he was secretly lifting weights without permission from his doctors or his parents.
"I noticed he was getting a little bigger so I asked him if he was lifting weights again," Maria Quinn said. "He could hardly look me in the eye, so I knew he was. I couldn't believe it. He's kind of hard-headed."
Nine weeks after his surgery, Quinn was cleared by his doctors to return to competitive athletics. Not only was Quinn a standout football player, but he had also been a dominant wrestler in his sophomore and junior seasons. He eventually went on to win his third straight state wrestling title.
"It was one of the most amazing accomplishments I've ever seen," LaPrad said. "Considering how far he had come in such a short period of time, but that's the kind of character and drive he has."
His decision to sign with North Carolina came down to a "gut" feeling. He picked the Tar Heels over South Carolina and Alabama.
"It just felt right," Quinn said. "It wasn't one thing I can point to, it just felt like family here."
Quinn wasn't sure what kind of reception he would get at North Carolina. He remembers never being as nervous or as excited as he was on the first day of fall practice.
"Training camp is usually the hardest part of the season for me," Quinn said. "There are lot of practices and it gets to be a grind. But that first day, I couldn't wait to get on the field. I was ready to hit someone."
After finding out about Quinn's surgery, North Carolina junior defensive end E.J. Wilson had his doubts that the "big kid" from the Lowcountry would be able to contribute this season.
"I was like there's no way he is going to be able to get anything done this year," Wilson said. "I thought for sure they were going to redshirt (Robert) and kind of ease him back into everything."
After a week of preseason practice Wilson became convinced that Quinn would be a starter by the end of the season.
"You could tell after the first couple of practices that he was a player," Wilson said. "He just wasn't going to be denied. He's a warrior. He's very tough. I think when it's all said and done he's going to be one of the best D-linemen they've had here."
Quinn saw his first action in the second game of the season against Rutgers. He had three tackles in a 44-12 thumping of the Scarlet Knights.
"When I made that first tackle, I was like, 'OK, here we go. I'm back. Let's play some football,' " Quinn said. "The tumor was the furthest thing from my mind."
The following week against Virginia Tech, Quinn got his first start and had three tackles, a tackle for loss and recorded his first collegiate sack when he stopped sophomore quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
"The first snap of the game, I had missed a chance at (Taylor)," Quinn said. "I was determined to redeem myself. A couple of series later, I got another chance and I made the sack. It was a great feeling. It was a huge crowd. They were going crazy. They were really loud. I can't put into words the emotions I was feeling then."
The game with Virginia Tech nearly gave Maria Quinn a heart attack. Twice against the Hokies, Quinn's helmet popped off after making a thunderous hit.
"I was screaming, 'Robert, get that helmet back on,' " she said. "And then he was still trying to tackle someone after his helmet came off. It didn't happen once, it happened twice. I made Robert promise me not to let it come off again."
In eight games, Quinn already has five tackles for loss, including a sack. His potential, Davis said, is unlimited.
"He is so physically gifted with his balance and the use of his hands," Davis said. "His tenacity play-in and play-out is incredible to watch. He has an amazing motor. You're going to get everything out of Robert you can get. He's going to leave it all on the field. He has played very well. We're very pleased with him."
Quinn continues his six-month checkups with his doctors.
"So far, so good," Quinn said. "To be honest, that's about the only time I think about (the tumor) any more."
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