Mean Green Hall of Famer Quinn's Commitment Never Ends

Feb. 19, 2014

Quinn Olympic Photo Gallery
Quinn North Texas Photo Gallery

By Eric Capper
Senior Associate Athletic Director, Athletics Communications

"Don’t let daily routine be confused with commitment."

That’s how Johnny Quinn closed each email he sent to a close group of family and friends over the past three years while he tried to segue from being a successful football player to an Olympic bobsledder.

The emails arrived on a semi-regular basis, from places like Igls, Austria; Whistler, British Columbia; Koenigssee, Germany; and Calgary, Alberta. They were chock-full of information that flew miles over my head, but I read them all word-for-word because the passion that Quinn had for becoming a successful Olympic athlete was palpable in the text.

Four-Man Bobsled on TV

Johnny Quinn will compete for the United States at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, this weekend in the four-man bobsled. The competition begins Saturday, Feb. 22, at 10:30 a.m. central time, and will be broadcast on tape-delay at 8 p.m. on NBC.

The competition concludes on Sunday, Feb. 23, and will be carried live at 3:30 a.m. on NBCSN and on tape-delay on NBC at 2 p.m.

He was going to succeed in a sport he knew little about, where the learning curve was higher than the 8,500-foot peak atop which he will compete later this week as a part of USA four-man bobsled team in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.  He will become only the second North Texas athlete ever to participate in Olympic competition, the first since Bill Schmidt captured a bronze medal in the javelin throw at the 1972 Munich summer games. And it can be credited to that single word he used in closing his emails: "commitment."

Quinn came to North Texas on a football scholarship after a successful - but widely overlooked – career at McKinney High School. He reported to Denton as a true freshman in 2002 at 6-0, 190 pounds, and, like most true freshmen, he didn’t stand out on a team that was littered with 16 all-conference performers. He did, however, make an impression with his work ethic.

He routinely finished conditioning drills at the front of the pack. Despite his youth and inexperience, he didn’t back down from a challenge - which often included one-on-one battles with two of the most physical and talented defensive backs in North Texas history, Jonas Buckles and Craig Jones. Quinn looked at it as a learning experience and a chance to get better, and believed his toughness and tenacity would eventually pay dividends. He was right.

I remember a conversation I had with an assistant coach about Quinn following the 2002 season. He told me Johnny was not the fastest player on the team, not the strongest player on the team, probably not even the most talented receiver on the team. But this coach believed that Quinn would leave North Texas as the school’s all-time leading receiver because he was coachable and because of his willingness to learn, his work ethic and his commitment to success.

In 2003, Quinn became only the third freshman ever to lead a North Texas team in receptions and receiving yards for a season. He became the primary option in the passing game, and he led the team in punt returns as well. It was a breakout season for Quinn, but he was overshadowed by Patrick Cobbs, who led the NCAA in rushing that year, averaging 152.7 yards per game. Quinn accepted his role and continued to learn.

Part of his learning included not being satisfied with the status quo. In wanting to become a better and more versatile athlete, Quinn decided to walk-on to the North Texas track team. It was a humbling if not humiliating experience. He routinely finished last in his races, and for each of those football workouts in which he finished ahead of the pack, he had a track practice where he finished at the back. His learning curve was monumental.

But he was coachable and committed to improving his times. After steady progress, Quinn eventually earned his way on to a 4 X 100 relay team that won a conference championship and qualified for the NCAA postseason meet. He is one of a very few North Texas athletes ever to earn all-conference recognition in more than one sport.

When Cobbs was injured in 2004, Quinn was hopeful that he would be the guy to lead the offense in the quest for a fourth-straight conference championship and fourth-straight bowl appearance.  What he couldn’t have predicted was that true freshman running back Jamario Thomas would burst onto the scene and lead the nation in rushing by averaging 180.1 yards per game. Quinn had the best year of his North Texas career with 49 catches for 785 yards and nine touchdowns earning second team all-conference honors, but his individual accomplishments were eclipsed by the performance of Thomas.

Regardless, Quinn relished his role of helping the team to another conference title and bowl appearance. However, it was both rewarding and deflating for Quinn. Two years of outstanding individual accomplishments, both of which were surpassed by teammates and both of which helped the team achieve its ultimate goal.

But the 2005 and 2006 North Texas football seasons were all about Johnny Quinn. He led the team in receptions and receiving yards both years, and was a second-team all-conference selection as a junior and a first-team selection as a senior. When his Mean Green career was over, he held every career receiving record in North Texas history. He was the only player in history to lead the team in receiving four-consecutive years. The skinny kid from McKinney left North Texas as one of the most decorated players since Mean Joe Greene, and he believed his football career was just beginning.

Just as in high school, Quinn emerged from North Texas mostly unnoticed by NFL scouts. Quinn suffered an ankle injury during his senior year at North Texas, which carried over into his preparation for NFL tryouts. He rushed his rehab and was eventually given a chance by the Buffalo Bills, but, while working out with the Bills in organized team activities (OTAs) in the spring of 2007, Quinn suffered a hamstring injury and was cut before training camp began.

Quinn returned home to Texas, but didn’t give up on his dream. In January of 2008, after proper rehab of his ankle and hamstring injuries was complete, Quinn was invited to try out with the Green Bay Packers. Healthy again, Quinn quickly began to turn heads during off-season workouts, standing out for his work ethic and his commitment. He was the proverbial first one to arrive and last one to leave and excelled through all the off-season workouts, mini-camps and OTAs. The unheralded, undrafted, smallish wide receiver from North Texas had a legitimate chance to make the final 53-man roster with one of the most prestigious franchises in the NFL. Packers beat writer Tyler Dunne described Quinn during 2008 training camp as "the receiver whose height is three inches too short, yet whose heart is three sizes too big." He played in four preseason games, yet was let go by the Packers on the final day of cuts. His NFL career was over.

Quinn signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League in 2009, played in eight games, caught 13 passes for an average of 16.8 yards per reception and one touchdown. He was becoming comfortable with the thought of a long CFL career, but suffered an ACL injury in the last game of the 2009 season. His football career was finished.

After surgery on his injured knee, Quinn knew he was done with football but his competitive spirit could not be shelved. Through a contact from his agent and a co-worker of his mother, Quinn was introduced to the world of bobsledding. It was a sport that his unique skills of explosive speed and power as both a football and track athlete could serve as a distinct advantage. Without previous training, he was a late addition to an event in the fall of 2010, and the first time he ever pushed a bobsled was in competition. His team took third place, and a new dream was born.

Over the next four years, his routine became repetitive, possibly even mundane. He immersed himself in the training necessary to become a better bobsledder. Every day, at an elite training facility in Texas or remote mountain sites around the world, Johnny Quinn was working toward his new goal. His commitment was extreme. In his mind, he made the distinction between training to be a competitor and training to be the best. He was committed to making the 2014 Olympic team.

To those of us who have been around him, the content of the emails came as no surprise. Improving his speed and power over three years, it became a very real possibility that Quinn could make the Olympic team. In an email last summer, Quinn reported that he was stronger and faster than other any time in his life, which was proven in USOC bobsled team combine testing to measure strength and speed, when Quinn finished second.

A few weeks later, Quinn set a weightlifting record for U.S. Men’s National Bobsled team with a power clean of 401.5 pounds (to put that in perspective, the North Texas football-team record for power clean is 400 pounds by former linebacker Cody Spencer).

When Quinn told me that he was going to try bobsledding, my initial reaction was to laugh. What does this kid from McKinney know about sledding down a mountain on a sheet of ice at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour? Then I remembered who I was talking to. It wouldn’t matter if it was football, bobsledding or the sport of cricket; if Johnny Quinn committed himself to it, I wouldn't be the one to bet against him. Time and time again, Quinn has proven the doubters wrong. The fuel that burns inside him is accomplishing feats that others thought he couldn’t. Though he would never admit it, I think he thrives on being able to tell himself and others, "I told you so."

Quinn will have the collective attention of the Mean Green nation when he makes his first Olympic bobsled run this Saturday. North Texas fans will bask in the glory of being able to say "I knew him when…" This is the time to enjoy a shared sense pride for the heights he has reached.

In 13 years, I’ve seen a lot of student-athletes come and go. The amount of loyalty and the continued connection they maintain to the university, this athletics department and Mean Green fans varies wildly. Johnny Quinn sets the bar. He comes to every football game that he can. He wears his Mean Green apparel with a sense of pride. He throws us the eagle-talon hand signal during opening ceremonies. He loves North Texas.

Routine is defined as a customary or regular course of procedure. It is habitual, unvarying and unimaginative. Commitment is far beyond that. It is a pledge, a promise, a level of engagement beyond what is expected. Johnny Quinn embodies commitment, and that’s why he’s standing on a mountain top in Russia this week.



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