Burwell: Robert Quinn Offered Hope In Fellow Player's Time Of Need
Burwell: Robert Quinn offered hope in fellow player's time of need
By Bryan Burwell
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Nancy Butters doesn't know all that much about football, but she sure knows plenty about people. Butters is a social worker at Duke University's Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, and you can learn a lot about people when you spend your working hours dealing in the incomprehensible sadness and uncommon inspiration inside a hospital pediatric ward.
This is where Butters first set eyes on a 19-year-old Robert Quinn sitting amidst a room full of kids his age and much younger. Some of the children in the room were laying in beds with IV needles in their arms. Many were frail and bald, barely clinging to life.
But there was nothing frail about Quinn. He was a well-muscled football player, not a terminal cancer patient. It was the fall of 2009, two years before the talented University of North Carolina pass rusher would become the first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams. Here he was, two years removed from being told rather clinically that he had a tumor growing in his head and that soon he potentially could end up brain dead.
"The nurse told me that, then made this very dramatic walk out the room," Quinn remembered. "It was kind of like that Boobie Miles moment (in the movie "Friday Night Lights") when they told him he would never play football again. I looked at my mom and just lost it."
But Quinn was one of those medical miracles Nancy Butters prays for every day. He was lucky because the doctors not only discovered that his tumor was benign, soon after an operation to shrink the tumor and reduce the swelling to his brain, Quinn was back playing sports and on his way to becoming a scholarship athlete and a future NFL first-round draft pick.
And now here he was at the hospital — at her request by the way — trying to provide some inspiration for another young football player named Lavelle Sloan, who had recently learned that he too had a tumor lodged on his brain.
"It was the most amazing thing," Butters said. "Think about it for a moment. It can't be the easiest thing in the world for a kid that young to have survived something like this like Robert had. And you could understand completely if the last thing he wanted to do would be to go into an environment where everyone around him was acting as a reminder of what he'd gotten through. It could have been the last thing he wanted to see or do. But here he was walking right into this ward with kids taking (chemotherapy), and he handled it wonderfully."
Before you start questioning what sort of character the Rams may have drafted with the No. 14 selection in the first round, you might want to check in with Nancy Butters. You have heard the stories about the kid being permanently expelled from NCAA competition for accepting "illegal benefits" from an unscrupulous South Florida jeweler, and maybe you're wondering if the Rams have brought some sort of unsavory scoundrel to Rams Park.
If you feel that way, ask Butters what she thinks. She can't stop finding fine things to say about Robert Quinn.
"I was sitting there watching him get drafted (Thursday) night and I can't tell you how good that made me feel," she. "I know all the things that were said about him and the trouble he got in with the NCAA, but the Robert I know is a fine young man. ... If you know what I know, you'd understand exactly why I feel this way."
A time of hope
So what does she know that you don't know?
This is not the sort of thing you will find on his football curriculum vitae. The story begins in May, 2009, in a small North Carolina town of Spring Lake when a 5-foot-5, 170-pound running back at Pine Forest High School near Fayetteville named Lavelle Sloan was rushed to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center with blurred vision, severe headaches and vomiting. The 18-year-old Sloan underwent tests that revealed a golf ball-sized tumor growing on the right side of his brain.
One day later, he was at Duke undergoing exploratory surgery. When he came to hours later, Sloan sat in his hospital room with his parents and listened as doctors and social workers tried to explain what was wrong. They called it a grade 4 glioblastoma, a malignant cancerous growth that is aggressive and difficult to eradicate. But when you are an 18-year-old kid with a lifetime of dreams floating in your head and some stranger in a white coat starts such sobering conversations, surely all you can hear are the most frightening fragments.
They told him he would have to give up football, but Lavelle kept hoping, praying and believing that he would beat cancer and find his way back onto the football field for his senior year. The treatments made him too weak to play, but one day in the fall of '09 he was watching a UNC football game on television with his father, Randy McLaughlin, when they heard the commentators talking about Robert Quinn and how he had overcome his brain tumor and gotten back on the football field.
"He's been through what I have," Lavelle said at the time. "He gives me a lot of hope."
In October of 2007, early in his senior year at Fort Dorchester High in North Charleston, S.C., Quinn began waking up each morning with severe headaches. The headaches got worse, and Quinn began acting strangely. "I noticed things were going on," his mother, Maria, said. "The color of his eyes were changing, he was complaining of headaches. He was going to bed early, and that wasn't him. Then one night he went to bed at 9 o'clock on a Saturday and I knew something was wrong. But I just figured he was tired. But the next day he woke up, and something was really wrong."
The headaches were so severe that he collapsed in the bathroom, and his parents immediately took him to the hospital where they discovered a benign tumor on the right side of his brain just above his forehead. He underwent emergency surgery to reduce the size and remove fluid from around the tumor that was causing the swelling in his brain and causing the headaches.
Before the operation, that's when the nurse made the dramatic announcement on the severity of the tumor. "They told us he would never play sports again," Maria said. "I said that was up to God."
Her husband, James, a former world-class high hurdler in college, said the only thing he wanted to know about was "whether (the tumor) was cancerous or not. When it came back that it wasn't cancerous. I was relieved. Then, when they said he might not be able to play sports again, I was okay with that as long as my son was going to be alive. That was my biggest concern."
But Robert was devastated to hear he would never play sports again. He was an undefeated heavyweight state wrestling champion and was receiving countless football scholarship offers, and he couldn't fathom a life without sports.
"I cried like a baby when they told me that," Robert said. "But a few months later, I was back on the mat and winning the state wrestling title again."
Lavelle Sloan heard that part of the story, and he knew he had to meet Quinn. Nancy Butters remembers the conversation she had with him about his new favorite sports hero, and she decided to see if she could get the two kids together.
"But Nancy told me not to tell Lavelle because she wasn't sure it was going to happen," Sloan's mom, Marilyn, recalled.
"To be honest with you, I was just hoping he'd send us a jersey or an autographed picture," Butters said. "But here comes Robert. He showed up, and it just immediately lifted Lavelle's spirits."
The first time they met was when North Carolina played Miami in Chapel Hill on Nov. 14, 2009. Sloan and his family were invited to their first-ever college football game, and during warm-ups he was allowed on the field. Quinn came across the field and brought a few of his teammates with him, and they all gave Lavelle hugs and encouragement. Then, Quinn promised they would meet again.
Two weeks later, when Sloan came to Duke for his intravenous chemotherapy treatments, Quinn came to the hospital to visit.
"I don't know to this day what they talked about in that room, but whatever it was, it lifted Lavelle's spirits," his mother said.
"It was just guy stuff," Quinn said. "We talked football. We talked about life. We talked about the tumor. I told him he was going to make it through. I told him the doctor told me I was supposed to be brain dead, so I'm living testimony that it can happen. I didn't want to go in there and tell him something negative no matter how serious his condition was. I wanted to give him hope. I had to give him hope, because at times like that, that's all you have to cling to."
By Christmas, things were not going well. Lavelle was losing more weight and getting weaker. He could not take Quinn up on an invitation to visit the team as Quinn and the Tar Heels prepared for a bowl game against Pittsburgh. The first round of chemotherapy wasn't working, and the cancerous tumor was getting more aggressive and doctors were changing him to a physically and emotionally draining 21-day cycle of oral chemo.
Just before Christmas, Robert sent Lavelle a color photograph of Quinn in action, bursting around the edge of some hapless offensive lineman. Across the bottom of the photo was Quinn's autograph and a short message.
"He wrote, "Keep your head up,'" Marilyn Sloan said. "The day that photograph arrived, Lavelle saw it and for the first time in weeks, he got up out of the bed. He was strong and energized. It was such a wonderful thing."
And then there was a long sigh.
"Unfortunately, it didn't last long enough," she said.
On April 14, 2010, Lavelle Sloan died peacefully in his mother's home in Spring Lake, just a week shy of a special graduation ceremony his high school had planned for him. On the day he passed away, Robert Quinn said someone sent him a text message to inform him of Sloan's death.
"I remember looking at my phone and I just broke down in tears," Quinn said. "I just kept thinking about what his mother was going through."
A week later, officials from his high school presented Marilyn Sloan with her son's diploma and his football jersey. She buried him in his jersey. "He kept working, and he was trying to make it to graduation," Marilyn Sloan said. "It was his dream to go to Wake Forest."
One year later, on the day after the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, Marilyn Sloan was in her car listening to the radio and they were talking about Robert Quinn being drafted into the NFL, and she just started to smile.
"It made me think of Lavelle and all the kind things Robert did for him," she said.
Nancy Butters felt the same way as she watched the draft on TV.
"Meeting Robert was the highlight of the last 12 months of Lavelle's life," Butters said. "If you saw what he did with Lavelle and how much time he spent with him and how much he cared for Lavelle when he really didn't have to, you would understand why I feel the way I do. To me Robert was an angel."
Re: Burwell: Robert Quinn Offered Hope In Fellow Player's Time Of Need
This is unbelievable. I am so sad for the kid and mother. Robert truly is a great person. I hope he finds true success here.