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Facing an uphill battle to the NFL with a cancelled college season, an incomplete D-III resume and a ballooning belly, Quinn Meinerz was at a crossroads. Then fate, hard work and a little luck intervened.

By Chase Goodbread | March 9, 2019

FRISCO, TEXAS -- The gut had gone too far. Quinn Meinerz first came to that realization in December 2019, as he sat in the Wisconsin-Whitewater football facility reviewing tape of the 41-14 thrashing his team had just absorbed from North Central (Ill.) days earlier. Up until then, he'd always felt his girth had served him, not saddled him. It was easy enough to be jovial about his belly, as long as he could impose his will on defensive linemen. But this was too much. He'd lost something beyond the scoreboard in the 2019 NCAA Division III national title game, known as the Stagg Bowl.

He'd lost his way. He weighed 335 pounds, and he was no longer carrying it well.

"I looked disgusting out there, that's the way I put it," Meinerz said. "I wasn't moving very well, and I looked gross. I'd started hearing my name mentioned (as a draft prospect), and I couldn't be looking like that. It's not professional."

Meinerz had always had a solid relationship with his belly; indeed, it's carried something of its own persona for the last seven years. He was nicknamed The Gut at Union High School in Hartford, Wisconsin, and would proudly tuck his jersey under his shoulder pads and show off his girth with a smile, convinced there was also a practical purpose of helping him stay cooler during hot practices. As a heavyweight wrestler, he'd write "The Gut" on a piece of tape affixed to his headgear before destroying the biggest opponents rival high schools had to offer.

Meinerz gave birth to The Gut as a means to an end. In 2013, as a ninth-grade offensive lineman, he was promoted from the freshman team to junior varsity for a couple of weeks, only to be sent back down after being told he wasn't big enough to contribute.

At the time, he was 5-foot-9 and just 180 pounds.

Meinerz privately vowed that if he wasn't good enough to play for Union High's varsity offensive line the next year, it wouldn't be because he was too small. Over the offseason, a commitment to the weight room conspired with a remarkable growth spurt and a voracious appetite marked by gallon-a-day milk consumption, six-egg omelets and two of everything in the school lunch line. That confluence made Meinerz all but unrecognizable to the Union coaching staff when he reported for preseason practice as a sophomore. In less than a calendar year, he'd grown five inches and put on 80 pounds -- from 5-9, 180 to 6-2, 260.

The Gut was born.

It served him well, and with a determined commitment to exercise, he kept it in decent check -- big, but not so big as to be a detriment to his play -- until it got away from him in his junior year of college. The timing could not have been worse. The COVID-19 pandemic struck just as Meinerz had begun re-shaping his body for what was supposed to have been a triumphant senior season in 2020.

It shut down spring practice. It shut down Division-III football in the fall. And it shut down any hope Meinerz had of putting pads on to show NFL scouts his newfound fitness before the 2021 NFL Draft, until a phone call from Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy changed his trajectory as a draft prospect in a way nobody -- not even Meinerz himself -- could have possibly imagined.

Without an all-star game invite, Meinerz faced a shaky resume as a "sloppy" D-III player who hadn't played meaningful football since 2019. (Michael McLoone/UWW Athletics)
Without an all-star game invite, Meinerz faced a shaky resume as a "sloppy" D-III player who hadn't played meaningful football since 2019. (Michael McLoone/UWW Athletics)

There are plenty of places to run at the EXOS training facility in Frisco, but few places to hide. The complex, at 145,000 square feet is, in a word, cavernous. So when Meinerz got the call on Jan. 14 that he'd been invited to the Senior Bowl, just 10 days before reporting to the all-star event in Mobile, Alabama, the best he could do with his attempt to cry in private was to start walking across multiple basketball courts, conjoined without walls, away from anyone who could see him.

He points to the spot where his emotions got the best of him, on an empty basketball court several hundred feet away -- the farthest he could get -- from any prying eyes.

He thanked Nagy profusely, ended the call, and immediately called his father, Aaron, and shared Cry No. 2. Just days earlier, he'd told Aaron Meinerz that he'd all but given up on being invited -- the Senior Bowl, after all, was just a couple of weeks away, and rosters were full. He knew he was somewhere on Nagy's waiting list -- a handful of reserves who could get a late call to replace a withdrawal -- but didn't know if his name was at the top or the bottom. He moved up a notch when Alabama center Landon Dickerson had to withdraw due to a knee injury suffered in the SEC Championship Game, but it took yet another injury among accepted invitations along the interior offensive line -- a toe injury to Ohio State center Josh Myers -- to trigger the call to Meinerz. However it came about, 12 months of hard work without playing a single game of football had finally put Meinerz exactly where he'd hoped.

"I felt so much weight off my shoulders. Not just mentally, I mean I physically felt lighter, less tense," Meinerz said. "Getting into the Senior Bowl was that important to me."

It was this important:

  • He'd had a full blood panel examination to help him dial in the right diet -- chicken, rice and vegetables has been the staple meal ever since his January reckoning with his weight.
  • With some help from Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis, he talked his way into training at NX Level Sports Performance in Waukesha, Wisconsin, operated by former Whitewater star Brad Arnett and the offseason training home of NFL stars J.J. and T.J. Watt.
  • A left guard at Whitewater, he knew he needed more versatility for an NFL career, so he trained himself for center by snapping footballs into a garbage can laying on its side, directly behind him. For shotgun snaps, he stood the garbage can upright and attached a metal pizza peel to the rim; he'd know the snap was accurate if he heard the football strike the metal.

Until last summer, however, Meinerz thought these efforts were preparing him for Whitewater's 2020 season. Crushed to hear on a Zoom call from Bullis that there would be no Division III football in 2020, two realities occurred to him: 1) The most recent Whitewater tape NFL scouts would see of him was from 2019, when The Gut was out of control; and 2) an all-star game would be his only realistic chance to show them a better version of himself before the draft.

One of the earliest online scouting reports on Meinerz described him as having "a sloppy midsection." Being nicknamed The Gut had never bothered him, but this was offensive.

"When you think sloppy, you think lazy, and that's not who I am at all," Meinerz said. "The adjective bothered me."

Meinerz had already lost a lot of weight when the damning scouting report first came to his attention. But it was an unnerving reminder that, absent an all-star-game invitation, he might not get a chance to make a different impression. Whitewater conducted a few practices in October, but NFL scouts weren't allowed to visit college practices due to COVID-19. Knowing this, Meinerz wasn't even sure it was smart for him to participate. Ultimately, the chance to resume full contact drove his decision to log a couple weeks of practice with no games to prepare for.

"If you get contact-traced, you lose two weeks of training, which I couldn't afford," he said. "When I found out they were practicing in helmets, I passed. I only changed my mind when they went into full pads."

Fall began giving way to winter, with no all-star opportunity in sight.

On Oct. 27, the East-West Shrine Bowl was canceled. On Nov. 13, the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl followed suit.

"When I started seeing the dominos fall, I got a little nervous," Meinerz said. "I understood why things were canceled, but it was making my chance of getting seen a lot harder."

Only the Senior Bowl, the most prestigious of the three all-star games, remained. Invitations to it are rarely extended to Division III players, as more highly regarded prospects typically fill out even the very bottom of the roster.

"As a scout, (if) you put even a seventh-round grade on a D-III guy, you're putting your reputation on the table," Nagy said. "In 18 years (as an NFL scout), the only D-III guy I ever put a draftable grade on was (Mount Union and longtime NFL wide receiver) Pierre Garcon."

With his hopes of an all-star invitation dwindling by the day, Meinerz continued training in case of a Senior Bowl miracle. He traveled to Dallas to spend three weeks at Michael Johnson Performance with private offensive line coach Duke Manyweather, who works regularly with both NFL veterans and draft prospects. Soon after, it was off to EXOS with a mindset that a pro day workout, not the Senior Bowl, was probably the only thing left for him to prepare for.

The reality was this: Had Meinerz not gone through 12 months of conditioning to regain control of The Gut, the Senior Bowl call would never have come. Nagy had seen a dominating Division III player but also an out-of-shape one when he evaluated Meinerz's tape from 2019. However, Meinerz's agent, Dallas-based Ron Slavin, had made sure Nagy was aware of his client's conditioning efforts. That culminated with a workout video Nagy received from Meinerz's November training sessions with Manyweather.

"I saw him flat-foot dunking (a basketball) and there were clips of him repping side by side with (Northwestern tackle) Rashawn Slater, so you could evaluate them together. You could see how much fitter and quicker he looked," Nagy said. "That made a difference for us. He wouldn't have received an invite based strictly off his tape. It was a dice roll because you want to invite guys based on tape. But with Quinn, we invited him based more on his workouts."

The best throwing arm on Wisconsin-Whitewater's 2019 offensive line belonged to right tackle Lonnie Chambers. Nobody has more knowledge on this meaningless subject than Meinerz, whose final act of his Warhawks pre-game warmup routine was a sprint from the 20-yard line to the back corner of the end zone to catch a fade pass from one of his fellow linemen. A certain level of difficulty was required -- if an underthrown pass fell into his chest with ease, he'd run it again until he got one he could high-point, pull in one-handed or at least require a toe-tap to stay in bounds. At more than 300 pounds, he'd even throw in an inside head fake around the 10-yard line.

"Just like the receivers do," he says with a grin.

That's how warmups would end. They'd begin with Meinerz and fellow lineman Kyle Gannon playing some catch, in defiance of the frigid temperatures that beset late-season games in Southeastern Wisconsin -- "my favorite conditions to play in," Meinerz says -- wearing nothing but shorts and T-shirts.

Such were the quirks that made Meinerz not only Whitewater's most talented and hard-working player, but also its most fun. What's not to like about an offensive lineman who's been known to binge all 11 seasons of SpongeBob SquarePants, and who drove a Volkswagen Jetta so small for his 320-pound frame that the driver's side front tire would go bald before the other three?

"The first offensive line meeting we ever had when we came in as freshmen, someone told a joke, and he lets out this huge, loud belly laugh that just took the room by storm," Gannon said. "Ever since then, he's been a larger-than-life figure here."

Table inside Article
Dan Arnold Tight end Arizona Wisconsin-Platteville
Matt Gono Tackle Atlanta Wesley College
Ben Bartch Tackle Jacksonville St. John's (Minn.)
Derek Carrier Tight end Las Vegas Beloit
Michael Joseph Cornerback Chicago Dubuque
Mason Kinsey Wide receiver Tennessee Berry
Jake Kumerow Wide receiver Buffalo Wisconsin–Whitewater
Nicholas Morrow Linebacker Las Vegas Greenville
Ali Marpet Guard Tampa Bay Hobart
Taylor Russolino Place-kicker Denver Millsaps
Niles Scott Defensive tackle Las Vegas Frostburg State
Brandon Zylstra Wide receiver Carolina Concordia (Minn.)

Another trait that's endeared Meinerz as a teammate is the way he treated newcomers, particularly at the high school level, where seniors' treatment of freshmen in the locker room can be demeaning at worst, dismissive at best. At Union High, seniors would lead stretch lines before practice, with freshmen typically in the rear, and Meinerz was known to run to the back of the line and high-five the youngsters as the stretch concluded. It didn't matter that they might be light years away from a varsity contribution; anytime the entire program was together, Meinerz made a point to be inclusive. When they huddled for a team breakdown, seniors would lead it from the center -- except Meinerz, who would circle the outskirts and tap freshmen on the helmet. Suffice it to say, Meinerz won't be the type of NFL veteran to order rookies around with errands.

"When I was a high school freshman, I understood how nervous you could be," Meinerz said. "I wanted to be someone that they could talk to if they needed help. Especially the way I was sent back down from the JV."

With a bold personality and unbridled team spirit, Meinerz adds a near-maniacal work ethic that never quite gets its due when one's nickname is The Gut. Whitewater strength and conditioning coach Lee Munger claims he never once saw Meinerz short-cut a workout. When NFL scouts came through Whitewater, prior to the NFL's restriction on scouting travel due to the pandemic, Munger told each one that his workouts began with players running two laps, at their own pace, around a 200-meter track that surrounds the facility. Meinerz routinely finished first -- not among linemen, but everyone.

"He knows only one gear," Munger said. "Max effort."

When last assessed by Whitewater in March 2020 in the standard testing used at the NFL Scouting Combine, Meinerz posted marks of 30 bench-press reps at 225 pounds, a 4.5-second pro-agility drill and a 7.5 clocking in the three-cone drill. Those results would have ranked fifth, second and third, respectively, among offensive linemen at the 2020 combine.

"I've coached 33 years now and been around a lot of motivated human beings," said Bullis, the Whitewater head coach. "He might be the most intrinsically motivated person I've ever known."

Hector Lake in Ontario, Canada, served as a summer getaway for Meinerz during two of his college years. (Courtesy of the Meinerz family)
Hector Lake in Ontario, Canada, served as a summer getaway for Meinerz during two of his college years. (Courtesy of the Meinerz family)

Sixty miles north of International Falls, Minnesota, in Ontario, Canada, lies Hector Lake Fly-in Camp. Owned and operated for decades by Tim Meinerz, Quinn's uncle, the popular fishing hole is accessible by floatplanes for customers who fly in from nearby Nestor Falls and spend seven days angling for prize-size trout, northern walleye, bass, perch, pike, and more while staying in one of a half-dozen cabins.

Meinerz, who spent two of his college summers here working for his uncle, can attest to this much: Canada's reputation for cold weather doesn't apply at Hector Lake in July. Temperatures can get as hot as 90 degrees, which wouldn't be too bad in shorts and a T-shirt. But if Meinerz were spending any time in the island's wooded areas, horseflies and other flying pests forced him to don full-length Duluth Trading Company pants and long-sleeved shirts, boots, a hat, gloves and even a bug net.

He'd work much of the day carrying 100-pound propane tanks that fuel the cabin amenities, clearing trees so that fishing boats could launch, and other herculean tasks that burned calories much faster than he could consume them. In his second summer there, a generator died, and Meinerz was tasked with dragging a working generator, weighing about 250 pounds, back and forth between cabins. Its wheels were solid rather than inflated, and Meinerz had to use 2x8 boards to push or pull it across rocky, elevated terrain.

"I'd try to move it when it wasn't full of gas," he said. "Trying to work smarter, not just harder. My great grandpa, Archie Meinerz, his saying was, 'Don't lift anything you can drag; don't drag anything you can roll.' "

After a full day helping to operate the camp -- it was a volunteer job, as he couldn't get a work permit as a non-Canadian -- he'd work out to prepare himself for football season. His first summer there, he just trained with resistance bands and body-weight exercises like pushups. But his weight room numbers dipped upon his return to Whitewater, so the following summer, he hauled a barbell, weights and a bench to the camp so he could maintain more strength.

He'd sweat all day, then at night, sweat some more.

"There's no air conditioning, and the sun goes right through the cabins and heats them up like an oven," he said. "Some nights I'd jump in the lake in the middle of the night to cool off, then try to go to sleep real quick before I started sweating again. And you're constantly eating fish, which is a very lean meat, so I'd lose a lot of weight."

It's little wonder The Gut stayed more fit than fat through most of Meinerz's time at Whitewater.

As challenging as Hector Lake was, Meinerz loved the place. His father had taken him there for week-long trips throughout his childhood, and on the first of those trips, he caught a massive trout with a top-water lure, a near-impossible feat, given that trout swim 60-80 feet deep in the lake. He's looked forward to time at Hector Lake -- bugs, heat, chores, and just one hour of internet service per day be damned -- ever since.

"It was a flush to get away and get some time to yourself," Meinerz said, "reflect on who you are."

Practicing at center during the Senior Bowl, Meinerz quickly fit in alongside his big-school teammates on the National team. (Vasha Hunt/USA TODAY Sports)
Practicing at center during the Senior Bowl, Meinerz quickly fit in alongside his big-school teammates on the National team. (Vasha Hunt/USA TODAY Sports)

Among draft prospects from places like Notre Dame, Ohio State and LSU, Meinerz's purple Warhawks T-shirt doesn't exactly stand out at the Frisco EXOS facility as he trains for pro day at Whitewater. He takes a call for a guest spot on a radio show, holding his phone to one ear and plugging the other with a finger so the echo of basketballs bouncing around him doesn't interfere with his hearing.

"No sir, it's Meinerz ... like coal miners," he politely explains before going on the air. A lot of people still don't know how to pronounce his name, he says, but thanks to six whirlwind days at the Senior Bowl, a lot of people have learned to pronounce his name just fine.

On Monday, the night before the first practice, he learned that all his reps, not just a few, would come at center. Less than 24 hours later, his phone was lighting up with hundreds of notifications from friends, family and strangers alike congratulating him for being one of the event's Day 1 darlings. Just to get some sleep, he called his girlfriend, Alexis Thompson, for help in figuring out how to shut down the noise without powering down his phone. His social media accounts exploded from hundreds of followers to thousands. He got a call from Ben Bartch, who rose from a D-III unknown to become a fourth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars last year after a stellar week at the Senior Bowl.

The Gut was a hit, both with his belly-exposed look and with his play.

A day later, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah showered him with praise, noting repeated pancake blocks against top prospects from Power Five college programs, including one on Washington DT Levi Onwuzurike. These were the first live reps he'd ever had at the center position, against opponents from blueblood programs.

He dominated, particularly as a run-blocker.

Meinerz was not only a completely different player from the one who ended 2019 overweight, he was also answering the biggest question NFL scouts have of any D-III prospect: whether they can hold up against tougher competition.

"Now, people have gotten to see me do that against the best players," Meinerz said. "It means everything."

Beyond a solid year of training, Meinerz came in prepared mentally, as well. Upon receiving his invitation, he scoured YouTube for clips of all the defensive linemen he'd be facing in practice and jotted down notes of their strengths and weaknesses. That would be an advantage, he figured, because clips of Wisconsin-Whitewater would be no easy search for any opponents looking to do the same.

Nagy, upon evaluating practice film the week after the game, said Meinerz helped his draft status significantly.

"Tuesday (on the first day of practice), he got overextended a little bit, a little over-aggressive, and ended up on the ground a few times. But once he settled in, what stuck out is that he is a strong, strong dude," Nagy said. "When he gets his hands right, there is no pushing him. If he does play center, which I think he can do, he's going to be one of those unique centers who can get some movement for you in the run game."

Early in his final practice on Thursday, during individual drills, Meinerz struck a bag awkwardly with his right hand and fractured the metacarpal bone below his ring finger. An initial X-ray didn't indicate an injury, so Meinerz buddy-taped his ring and pinky fingers together and finished practice in the same dominant fashion he'd shown the previous two days. But when a post-practice X-ray revealed the fracture, National squad and Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores told Meinerz he wouldn't be playing in the game Saturday.

At an event where players, often at the behest of their agents, are known to withdraw from the practice week or the game due to even the mildest of injuries, Meinerz pleaded to play injured. Snapping was out of the question with a cast on his right hand, so he lobbied for action at guard. He went to the head athletic trainer, to Nagy, back to Flores again -- anyone who would listen, but Flores wouldn't budge.

Meinerz, instead, helped hand out water to teammates on the sideline during the game, even though the Senior Bowl had support staff handling that task.

"That's something we did at Whitewater," he said.

And in a deal he made with Flores if the National squad were to win, he took the field with 40 seconds left on the clock to snap two plays in the victory formation.

One way or another, he was going to finish the week.

"Quinn's willingness and absolute want-to to play in the game and continue to prove himself was refreshing and appreciated," Nagy said.

In a Mobile hotel room in the hours after the Senior Bowl, a large Domino's pizza -- sausage and pepperoni with ranch dressing, Meinerz's favorite -- served as the celebration centerpiece. Surrounding Meinerz were some of the people he loves most but could see the least throughout months of out-of-town training: father Aaron, girlfriend Alexis, brother Dane and stepbrother Brody. They basked in his success during the practice week. And for once, Meinerz wasn't counting calories.

"I hadn't had a cheat meal in forever, and probably hadn't had pizza in six or eight months," Meinerz said. "It had been rice and chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner for I don't know how long. It was great. My family and girlfriend mean so much to me, and because we'd been in the (virus-testing) bubble all week, I'd barely gotten to see them."

His practice performance was all NFL scouts needed to see to solidify him as draft-worthy; one scout on hand compared him to New England Patriots guard Shaq Mason. He got one-on-one interview time with 31 clubs, an irreplaceable opportunity to the extent that interpersonal contact is better than yet another Zoom call. He'd even gotten a chance to honor Alaina Shelsta, the daughter of his high school position coach, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder called GLUT1 deficiency syndrome. Nagy had stickers placed on each helmet that said, "I am playing for __," and Meinerz called Paul Shelsta to ask permission to fill in his blank with Alaina's name.

Aside from a busted hand, the week that almost never was could not have gone more perfectly. National squad defensive linemen and linebackers voted him the team's offensive lineman of the week, with a couple of them telling Nagy that Meinerz was "the strongest guy to ever lay hands on them." And when he looked up at Hancock-Whitney Stadium's jumbotron after the final practice of the week, he saw a clip of Jeremiah donning a Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks T-shirt from the NFL Network broadcast booth.

In the aftermath, recounting the events of the week, he nearly brings himself to tears at the good fortune, and the months of training it took just to secure his spot on Nagy's short list of replacement options. Thirteen months between meaningful football action, he not only showed no rust but emerged as a completely different player. COVID-19 wiped out his senior season, but it spared the most important week of Meinerz's life. He'll give NFL scouts another look at The Gut at Whitewater's pro day workout on Tuesday.

But the proving ground for a Division III draft prospect doesn't come in T-shirts and shorts; it came in Mobile, in January, against the only NFL-caliber competition Quinn Meinerz had ever faced.

"I answered the competition question," he said. "At this point, a pro day is just icing on the cake."

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter.

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