Commentary

L.I.'s Quarless thankful for his chances

From trouble at Penn State to Super Bowl XLV, Uniondale kid has come a long way

Updated: February 4, 2011, 9:46 AM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

IRVING, Texas -- Three years before he would become the Green Bay Packers' starting tight end in Super Bowl XLV, Andrew Quarless took a walk of shame across the Penn State campus, winding up on Joe Paterno's doorstep. He was there to plead for forgiveness.

"It was a long walk, and I had a lot to think about," said Quarless, born in Brooklyn and raised in Uniondale, L.I. "I had to man up."

[+] EnlargeAndrew Quarless
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesAndrew Quarless, in his high school coach's words, was "the soul" of Uniondale, L.I. during his High Sschool days.

Quarless was serving his second suspension for an alcohol-related offense, putting him in Paterno's doghouse -- not a comfortable place for anyone. He feared his days at Penn State were numbered, so he decided to make an unannounced visit on a Sunday to the legendary coach's house.

It was akin to visiting Oz and asking for an audience with the Wizard.

On that particular day, Paterno was in no mood to show mercy, according to Quarless, who ended the five-minute chat with a promise.

"He was ready to let me go. I just told him, 'Coach, I'll show you,'" Quarless said this week at the Packers' team hotel. "That was my message I left him, because he really didn't want to hear too much."

Quarless showed him, all right.

He capitalized on his reprieve, finishing as the leading tight-end receiver in Penn State history. He was drafted by the Packers in the fifth round, a late-round, risk-reward pick. He wasn't supposed to play this season, not with the talented Jermichael Finley ahead of him, but Finley suffered a season-ending knee injury in October.

Now here he is, preparing to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the biggest football game on the planet, a second-chance story at the Super Bowl. Actually, it's a third-chance story.

"I was lucky because a lot of guys don't get that third chance," said Quarless, who made 21 receptions and a touchdown in the regular season, plus another four catches in the postseason. "I was enough to have God on my side -- and Joe. He gave me that chance."

Quarless was highly recruited out of Uniondale High School, and he wound up starting as a freshman. That year, he was best known as the guy that wiped out Paterno, an accidental sideline collision that left the coach, now 84, with a broken leg and knee-ligament damage. The play was all over ESPN, and Quarless received dozens of text messages from friends saying, "You broke Joe Paterno's leg."

Paterno could forgive him for that, but he started to lose patience when Quarless was cited for under-age drinking in the fall, 2007. The following spring, he was stopped by police for a DUI. He was suspended for spring drills and wound up missing four games over two seasons because of suspensions. That included one game for being in an apartment where a small amount of marijuana was discovered.

Quarless finally realized he was wasting a promising career. Paterno was hard on him, once telling reporters, "He was spoiled. There's nothing worse than a hot shot from Long Island." Quarless never felt he had a drinking problem, but he promised the Penn State coaches that he'd give up alcohol -- and he did, according to tight ends coach Bill Kenney.

"For his last 18 months at Penn State, he never had another drink," Kenney said in a phone interview. "I'm proud of him. He was willing to walk away from drinking. A lot of 19- and 20-year-olds wouldn't do that. He dedicated himself to finding out how good he could become."

At the time, Paterno said he decided to reinstate Quarless because his work in the classroom improved, telling reporters, "He was a pain in the backside for a while, but he's grown up."

In high school, Quarless was the model student-athlete, according to Uniondale coach Greg Didio, who called him "the soul of this community." He visited Quarless for a late-season game in Green Bay, and he was struck by something Quarless said after the game at dinner: "I'm a good young man, coach."

Didio's said he replied, "You always were."

It didn't always seem that way at Penn State, where Quarless admitted he was "having a little fun and wasn't too responsible." It got him into serious hot water -- or, as he put it, "I was on the edge."

That prompted The Visit, which took guts. Quarless described it as an 11th-hour move to save his career. In retrospect, he believes it made him grow up.

"I had to make decisions that would affect the rest of my life," he said. "I had to prove it to him that I wasn't that guy. He didn't want to hear it. He was like, 'What else can you tell me?' I spoke my piece and I left."

It was a long walk home -- and a short trip to the Super Bowl.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

EDITORS' PICKS

  • Watt Will You Do, Blue?
    Can the Giants contain J.J. Watt, the best defensive player in the league?
  • A 'Real Test'
    Masahiro Tanaka makes his MLB return on Sunday vs. the Jays.
  • Tainted Memory
    Derek Jeter moved into ninth place on baseball's all-time runs scored list.
  • Reversal Of Fortunes?
    Week 2 was a blast for the Bears and a gaffe-fest for Gang Green.
  • Is He Out?
    Dilson Herrera was removed from the game with a right quad strain.