Neither Ban Nor Tumor Can Stop Top NFL Prospect

April 24, 2011

Phil Harrell

Normally, when a college player has health concerns or disciplinary issues, his NFL stock goes down.

This year, though, teams are clamoring to draft an exciting prospect out of the University of North Carolina — a kid with a tumor in his head who was suspended from college football for life.

Robert Quinn enters Thursday's NFL draft as one of its top defensive prospects. With the NFL doling out huge contracts to first-round picks, every player is a risk. Quinn presents a unique appraisal challenge to NFL front offices.

Longtime NFL scout Dan Shonka considers Quinn the top defensive end available, despite the medical and disciplinary red flags. He's not alone; against all odds, consensus is building for Quinn to become a top-10 selection.

The Tumor: Better, But Still There

Reporter Andrew Miller of Charleston's Post and Courier has covered Quinn since his freshman year of high school football. Miller was there when Quinn faced his most serious obstacle, the tumor that almost killed him.

"It became pretty clear early in his senior season that something was wrong," Miller says. "He was missing tackles, he was missing assignments; he was kind of looking around the field and, at times, wondering what the play was — what formation they were in."

After Quinn collapsed in his family's bathroom and was rushed to the hospital, doctors discovered a benign tumor had been blocking his spinal cavity. That caused a build-up of fluids in his skull, which had to be drained.

They opted against trying to remove the tumor. An operation that close to the spinal cord was deemed too risky, so the tumor is still in Quinn's head. Not only did he make a full recovery, but two months after the surgery, doctors cleared his return to football.

Banned For Life

After two years as a star defensive lineman with the University of North Carolina, however, Quinn faced trouble again.

"In the summer of 2010, before his junior season, Robert accepted cash and gifts — most notoriously a couple of watches — from a person that he did not think was an agent," Miller recounts.

But that person was acting for an agent, and that's strictly forbidden by college athletics' governing body, the NCAA. During their investigation, Quinn reportedly compounded the problem by lying about the incident.

As a result, Quinn was banned from college athletics — for life.

"I've been covering college football for 25 years, and that's the first time I've ever heard of a player having a lifetime ban," Miller says.

A Questionable Draft Pick

Shonka, who works for an independent scouting service, talks to teams all around the NFL. He hasn't found one willing to seriously downgrade Quinn. Quinn's agent refused to make his client available for this story, but Shonka says answers to the big questions are out there.

The tumor? It gets checked out by doctors every six months and hasn't been a problem since.

The gifts and the lying? A onetime mistake for an otherwise model student-athlete.

Shonka predicts Quinn could crack the top-10 next week. "The sixth pick in the draft with Cleveland — I think that would be his high point," he says.

Last year's No. 6 pick signed a $48.5-million contract, with $30 million guaranteed. That's a huge risk for a team to take on any player, even ones without red flags.

But, Miller says, "All you have to do is look at how he battled through the brain tumor and the ensuing rehab and recovery process to know what kind of person he is."

"He was put on the face of the Earth to play defensive line in the National Football League. There's no question about that." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.