UNT grad, Olympic bobsledder career endured twists, turns

Johnny Quinn. Courtesy Johnny Quinn USA

Johnny Quinn. Courtesy Johnny Quinn USA

University of North Texas alumnus and NFL football player turned U.S. Olympic bobsledder, Johnny Quinn, spoke about the ups and downs of his career during an annual Transportation Breakfast Seminar presented by the University of North Texas Center for Logistics Education and Research, May 16. Though he represented his county, many people know Quinn for an incident that occurred well before the bobsledding competition.

“While I was in Sochi, I got stuck in my bathroom, and I had to break down the door,” Quinn said. “I put it on social media, and it just went crazy. Twitter sent my agents the metrics. In one night, I picked up 20,000 followers. My tweets were retweeted over 29,000 times, and were seen by people all over the world. So you spend all that time training as an athlete to be known as the guy who busted down a door in Russia.

“There are not a lot of Texas bobsledders, believe it or not. It’s a unique sport. We go 80–85 mph down an icy track with four guys in spandex, sitting in a tight, tight position. We wear burn vests made out of Kevlar and they do that because sometimes we crash. In my career, I have crashed eight times. And I don’t want to crash anymore.”

Quinn’s career initially began on a local high school football team.

“I grew up in McKinney, Texas. I’m a local guy and I had dreams of playing in the National Football League (NFL),” he said. “As a senior at McKinney high school, I led the state of Texas in receptions. So, we were taught as a family if you score all the touchdowns, you make all the plays and win all the awards – you’re going get scholarships. And boy, were they wrong. We stood back, and we waited, and hoped, and no scholarships came in, and two days before signing day, I had one scholarship from a Division I University, and that was the University of North Texas (UNT). What an honor to play and compete and graduate from UNT. They gave me a chance to fulfill my dream.

“During my time at UNT, it was a little challenging as a football player. I was a little bit undersized, so I red shirted. My first year in the program, I remember being in the weight room and the strength and conditioning coach would put us in groups by position. So the receivers would be in a group, the linebackers, linemen and that was a group you lifted with.

“Well when I went in, the strength coach put me, a scrawny, small receiver with two linebackers. So I’m 180 pounds with two guys who weigh 230 pounds; it didn’t make sense to me,” Quinn said. “I remember early on in my career every time I would lift with those guys we would have to take some weight off.

“At one point during my freshman year, I just got tired of stripping the weights. I remember that challenging point in my career at UNT where I could have gone to the coach and complained, but I trusted in the program. I trusted in my leadership. By the time I left UNT, I set the bench press record, the power clean record and the incline press record.

“Fast-forward 11 years later, I just broke the power clean record at the Olympic training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., becoming the first athlete to power clean over 400 pounds,” he said.

“I share that story not to brag, but to show I had to trust the process at a time that I felt a little bit uncomfortable. During the time I was embarrassed, I was tired of taking off the weights, I was tired of being in a situation where I was a little uncomfortable, but it was the best thing for me.

“While I was at UNT, I had a chance to walk onto the track and field team. I knew that if I was going to play in the NFL one day, I had to outrun some people.

“My first two years on the track team at UNT were very, very humbling,” Quinn said. “With football, you can kind of hide. You’ve got your shoulder pads on, you’ve got your helmet and there are 80 guys on the sidelines. You can kind of blend in.

“Track and field is a little different. You’re back in spandex, you’re in a lane and everybody can see your face. My first two years I kept getting last-place or pretty darn close to last. I knew I wanted to play in the NFL. I had to outwork some people, but I was tired of taking a four hour bus ride to University of Oklahoma to get dead last, while my buddies were on the Lake. I wanted to join them, but I knew the end goal was more important.

“By the time I left the University of North Texas, I set the 40-yard dash record and ran a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash for the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs,” he said. “I got tired of getting last-place. I got tired of being in the back of the pack.

“There were some challenging times in my career, and that really prepared me for where I am today. As a bobsledder, it is all about speed. A lot of people asked me, ‘Are there a lot of similarities between football and bobsledding.’ Absolutely not. There is none. But to track and field – that energy, that commitment I made – really paid off when I became a bobsledder.

“At UNT I had a very fortunate career. I was fortunate enough to leave as the school’s all-time leading receiver. I was at UNT and had a very, very good time. We won four conference championships. We played in four bowl games.

“When I left North Texas in 2007, I enlisted in the NFL draft. That year they took 34 wide receivers. So as my agents were looking at the numbers and comparing the stats on all the wide receivers that were coming out, I was in the top 10 statistic career receptions, career yards and career touchdowns,” Quinn said. “Sure enough the draft comes, and I don’t hear my name.

“Shortly after the draft, I signed my first NFL free-agent contract with the Buffalo Bills. What a dream that was, but I was a little disappointed, because I was told, if you produce, you’re going to see the results. If you produce, someone’s going to pick you up and draft you. If you produce, you’re going to sign that big contract.

“The first contract I signed in the NFL was a three-year deal for $1.2 million, and I was 22 years old. So, as a young graduate, I was moving up. When I got to Buffalo, I was one of the first guys to get cut. To see that dream come to reality, to see those numbers on paper and see that taken away at 22 years old, that was tough.

“At 23, I was picked up by the Green Bay Packers. They picked me up for a three-year deal for $1.4 million. My dream is back. I’m ready to rock ‘n roll. I get selected as off-season performer of the week. We go into the pre-season, my first game as a Green Bay Packer is on Monday night football at Lambeau Field versus the Cincinnati Bengals. I have my first reception. It was an unbelievable moment. Three weeks later I get cut.

“Talk about an emotional roller coaster,” he said.

“I can see that door in the NFL coming to a close, so my agent sends me to the Canadian football league. I get picked up by the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Things are going very well. We’re winning. We’re first of our division. I am starting. I score my first professional football touchdown: one week later, a blow my knee out. I tore my ACL.

“At 26 years old, I’ve been cut three times and have a blown out a knee. At 22, when I turned pro, I had everything in front of me. By 26, I was a little beat up and had a lot of things taken away. I knew I still wanted to compete.

“As I rehabbed my ACL, as my agent continued to look for football teams, no one was knocking on the door,” Quinn said. “I began to have some dialogue with a pilot at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y. in September 2010. He said why don’t you come out to Park City, Utah in November, push a bobsled around, and see if you like it. We recruit football guys.

“I said, “Okay, but if my agent finds a football team going.’

“Well, in October, one of his guys shows up overweight. So he calls me two days before the four-man team trials at Lake Placid, and says, ‘Do you want to come up and push a bobsled?’ I said, ‘I’ll come up, but I’ve never pushed a bobsled in my life.’ He said, ‘Well, all you have to do is get in the sled.’

“The first time I had ever seen a bobsled was the four-man team trials competition,” he said. “I slip, but get in, and we take third place. That is how I got involved with the sport of bobsledding.

“Fast-forward four years later, I become an Olympian and represent United States of America on its greatest stage athletically. This was such an on believable moment.

“You’re walking to your position for opening ceremonies and are passing all the other countries because ‘U’ is at the back of the alphabet. You see Argentina, Brazil, Germany and all these countries. You realize these are the best of the best their countries are sending to the world stage. You hear, ‘And now the United States of America,’ and you walk out. It was such a special moment to be part of that.

“As an athlete, you want to get on the ice immediately and compete for your country. Bobsled was one of the last events, so I had to wait about 17 days until our competition. Luckily, I broke the door down on day one, so everything changed for me,” Quinn said.

“Making the transition for the National Football League to the Winter Olympics has given me an opportunity to share my message about overcoming adversity. During my time at North Texas, I came across a guy of the named Gary Newell. He is a successful entrepreneur in the Northwest.

“He talks about this universal law of success. The success law works all the time, every time. It works whether you believe in it or not. It is the law of seedtime, progression time, harvest time.

“When you plant corn, you don’t go dig it up in two weeks to see if there’s corn. Plant the seed, you take care of it and after a little while a stalk begins to grow. It has no corn. It’s just a progression it must go through. Once that stalk is fully grown, corn begins to grow on the side of the stalk.

“In other words, there is a seed time that you planted,” he said. “There’s a progression time. And then there’s a harvest time. And though I only planted one seed of corn, it comes up with ears of corn.

“Once I understood that, all I had to do was sow the seed. It will come up later than I sowed it, and more than I sowed it. And that is how I went from being cut three times and blowing my knee out at 26 years old to at age 30 an Olympian for the United States of America. Why, because I was carrying bags of seed. I said, ‘If that’s all it is, I’ll throw it everywhere. The bigger the bag, the greater the chance I had to grow a big crop.’

“I’ve been around some guys and gals who didn’t believe they could be the very best, because there seed bag had about one or two kernels in it and they tossed them on the ground.

“It didn’t matter to me how big my opponent was, how fast the other guy was, because there’s universal law of success that says if I will sow, I will reap through that progression time when it is over. Once I got that, everything changed for me.

It’s a thought process. When you understand this, there is no room to be discouraged. Once I understood the law, I knew I was going to win. When you know you’re going to win, it’s not hard to go into the fight. Once I got that, I was on a quest to work harder and smarter than anyone around me, because I’ve learned that’s what the very best do, and that’s how they win,” Quinn said.

About the Author

Jess Paniszczyn

Jess discovered an aptitude for writing in high school. After earning a B.A. degree in English he joined the ranks of the working class where he quickly found he did not work well in a corporate environment. He took a series of technical writing contract jobs working for such companies as AT&T, Sykes Enterprises – where he worked on IBM projects – and Lomas Mortgage. To support himself during lulls between contracts, he began working with the Dallas Morning News in operations where he worked part-time for several years, eventually migrating to the Irving Daily News in its final year of publication.
Jess was the first writer hired by The Rambler Newspapers and has been with the company since the publication of the initial Irving Rambler Newspaper. He has found a home at the newspaper that as a young writer he never thought would ever find working ‘in the real world.’