Dreams on ice
Matt Phillips was in the early stages of his career as a North Texas quarterback when he noticed the extremes that teammate Johnny Quinn would go to in the hopes of maximizing his potential as an athlete.
While the rest of his teammates rested in the offseason, Quinn ran track. When there was a line to use the benches in the weight room, Quinn dropped to the floor and cranked out sets of sit-ups, hoping to gain the slightest edge.
Going to extremes in pursuit of excellence is just part of Quinn’s nature, and maybe the biggest reason the UNT Athletic Hall of Fame wide receiver will compete in the Winter Olympics in Sochi this month.
Quinn has spent the last four years working to make the U.S. Olympic bobsled team despite the fact he suffers from motion sickness. When millions of people are watching his four-man team shoot down the course at the Sanki Sliding Center at speeds exceeding 80 mph beginning Feb. 22, Quinn will push for 50 meters, jump in and shut his eyes tight.
Quinn found out shortly after he made the transition from football that the twists and turns on bobsled courses that resemble that of a roller coaster turn his stomach.
“I keep my eyes closed so I don’t throw up,” Quinn said.
Flying blind allowed Quinn to land a spot on the Olympic team as a push athlete, the unsung heroes who work to get a bobsledding team off to a good start and then hop in and hope for the best. The setup is one Phillips described as quintessential Quinn.
“He’s a freak of nature,” Phillips said. “He went above and beyond everything [UNT strength coach Chris] Seroka laid out for us to do. If we were told to run 10 110-yard sprints, Johnny ran 15. He made that extra effort. That’s a big part of who he is.”
Quinn has never stopped striving to capitalize on every iota of athletic talent he possesses, but is considering making Sochi the end of a remarkable journey in athletics that has taken him from McKinney High to UNT, two NFL training camps, the Canadian Football League and finally to the Winter Olympics.
“It’s exciting,” Quinn said. “I put in four years of work on the bobsled and look at it as an eight-year reward. I turned pro at 22 and have had a very humbling professional career. At age 30 I will be an Olympian. I’m thankful and ready to represent the United States of America.”
Quinn is assured of being a member of the USA’s four-man bobsled team with driver Nick Cunningham and fellow push athletes Justin Olsen and Dallas Robinson. He also could be selected to compete in the two-man event that will take place beginning Feb. 16.
There will be plenty of people who helped Quinn along the way watching back in Denton, where Quinn’s journey began and his reputation as a tireless worker developed.
“Just being around the sport, there has never been a guy who works like he works,” said Zach Muzzy, a wide receiver who played with Quinn at UNT and now is a high school coach at League City Clear Creek. “He worked as hard as he could to win at everything we did, from conditioning to games.”
Those who know Quinn best say that drive is why he accomplished so much in a career that nearly never included a stop at UNT.
Finding a home at UNT
The story of how Quinn ended up playing for the Mean Green has become something of a legendary tale in program history.
There weren’t many receivers in Texas more productive than Quinn during his senior season at McKinney, when he led Class 5A players in receptions (80), ranked second in receiving touchdowns (15) and was third in receiving yards (1,106).
Quinn’s problem was that he didn’t fit the profile for a college receiver. He was barely 6 feet tall, 191 pounds and not particularly fast. UNT was interested in signing Quinn anyway.
“He was on our board the whole time,” former UNT head coach Darrell Dickey said. “[Former Cowboys and UNT wide receivers coach] Kelvin Martin kept pushing for him. We were only going to take one wide receiver. I kept asking if there was a taller or faster guy. Kelvin and the rest of our offensive coaches would always say Johnny was who they wanted.”
UNT took Quinn but not until the last minute.
Dickey asked Quinn at the end of his official visit to the school to join the team as a preferred walk-on. Quinn and his father walked out.
“I thought that was the last time I would talk to North Texas,” Quinn said. “Two days before signing day, I got a call from coach Dickey, who said they had a scholarship. I immediately jumped on it. Looking back, North Texas was a fantastic place for me.”
Quinn redshirted his freshman season and quickly found every outlet to develop his skills, including joining the track team.
“He worked extremely hard,” former UNT and current Northwood track coach Rick Watkins said. “He struggled early but stuck with it and got faster. He had to work at it.”
Quinn called the early stages of his track career one of the most humbling experiences of his athletic career. He routinely would be one of the last athletes to cross the finish line in every event he ran in but continued to compete.
By his senior year, Quinn was a member of UNT’s 400-meter relay team that won back-to-back Sun Belt Conference titles and advanced to the NCAA regional meet.
The work Quinn put in on the track paid off in football, where he was a natural from the start. He led UNT in receptions for four straight seasons beginning in 2003 and is the Mean Green’s all-time leading receiver with 2,718 yards, despite playing in a run-first offense.
Quinn played with Patrick Cobbs and Jamario Thomas, who won back-to-back national rushing titles in 2003 and 2004.
“He was the best receiver I ever played with,” UNT Hall of Fame quarterback Scott Hall said. “He made a lot of great catches for me. There were balls he would go and get just because he wanted it more than anyone else out there.”
A string of disappointments
Quinn’s goal from the time he began playing football was to make it to the NFL.
That goal was always just out of reach once Quinn left UNT. He was passed over the in the 2007 NFL Draft in which 34 receivers were selected, then he signed with the Buffalo Bills.
Quinn was cut by the Bills. He signed with the Green Bay Packers in 2008, played in four preseason games and was cut.
Quinn played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL and started four games in 2009 before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. The Roughriders released Quinn before the beginning of the 2010 season, despite the fact that he was back to full strength after only 5 1/2 months of rehab.
At that point, Quinn knew he had run out of options in football.
“It was really hard seeing football come to an end,” Quinn said. “As a kid, I always dreamed of being a professional football player. High school turned out very well for me and so did my career at North Texas. I was looking to build on that success in the NFL. To not be able to do that was very humbling.”
A new avenue in a bobsled
While Quinn’s football career was over, he wasn’t ready to give up his dream of being a competitive athlete.
Quinn’s agent represented Todd Hays, the coach of the U.S. women’s bobsled team and a 2002 Olympic silver medalist. Quinn’s mother, Terri, worked with Chuck Berkeley, a member of the U.S. bobsled team.
Berkeley put Quinn in contact with bobsled driver Cory Butner, who invited him to a race in 2010 when one of his push athletes came in overweight.
“I told Cory I would come but that I had never pushed a bobsled in my life,” Quinn said. “He flew me in the night before the team trials. My first time on the ice was at the U.S. national team trials.”
Quinn quickly found out that he had the physical skills to succeed as a bobsledder.
“My track and field background at North Texas has really helped prepare me for bobsledding,” Quinn said. “From the football standpoint, you are always playing a little beat-up and learn how to play through injuries. With bobsledding, I see that part carry over.”
Quinn won a World Cup silver medal this year in the two-man event and says his four-man team has a chance to win an Olympic medal.
“We have a shot,” Quinn said. “The end goal is not just to be an Olympian — it’s to be an Olympic medalist, to be on the podium and see our flag fly in Sochi.”
Quinn has trained in Germany and competed in a series of events leading up to the Olympics.
Quinn’s team has experienced what he described as an up-and-down year. His team was in third place heading into the final run of an event in Switzerland before crashing and was seven-hundredths of a second away from winning a bronze medal in an event in Austria.
The Olympics might be Quinn’s last chance to capitalize on all the time and effort he has put into the sport.
Quinn is working on a master’s degree and runs The Athlete Watch, a service that helps high school athletes market themselves to colleges. The cause is one that is special to Quinn, who struggled to find a scholarship before UNT came through at the last minute.
“He wants to help kids who are going through what he went through,” Phillips said.
Quinn is getting married this summer and has a lot to consider when it comes to determining the next step in his winding athletic career. He could come back and try to make another Olympic team or turn to a new chapter in his life.
“Our focus is to get a medal and get on the podium,” Quinn said. “Once the Olympics are over, I will re-evaluate.”
Quinn’s former teammates and coaches will be watching, hoping that his athletic career that included so many great moments at UNT will include a medal-winning performance at the Olympics.
Quinn will miss the majority of the race, his eyes closed tight as his team speeds down the course in Sochi, but his friends following his career back home wouldn’t miss it. Hall plans to plant himself in front of the television with his kids, whom he will tell, “I played football with that guy.”
Muzzy also will be watching.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Muzzy said. “I thought it was kind of funny at first that he would compete in a sport like bobsledding. He told me it was hard at first, but I knew he would be the kind of guy who would keep at it until he got it right.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
College: North Texas
High school: McKinney
UNT football career: Quinn set a UNT record with 2,718 career receiving yards and led the Mean Green in receptions for four straight seasons beginning in 2003. He was a three-time All-Sun Belt Conference selection and a first-team all-conference pick in 2006. He was inducted into the UNT Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011.
Pro football career: Quinn went to training camp with the Buffalo Bills in 2007 and the Green Bay Packers in 2008 and played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2009 before a knee injury ended his career.
Bobsledding career: Quinn has competed with the U.S. team since 2010 and will make his Olympic debut in Sochi.
Notable: Quinn founded The Athlete Watch, a service that helps high school athletes market themselves to college programs across the country. The service’s website is http://theathletewatch.com.