Just moments after putting his hands around the George Halas Trophy and coming to the realization he would be playing in Super Bowl XLV, Andrew Quarless sifted through hundreds of congratulatory text messages.
As the Green Bay Packers’ rookie tight end scanned through the texts, there was one message that meant the most to him.
“It just said, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ ” Quarless recalled during a phone interview from Green Bay.
The message wasn’t from a family member or a friend, but rather from someone whom Quarless said was supportive of him since his freshman year at Penn State.
“My response to my former Penn State tight end coach Bill Kenney’s text was, ‘Thanks coach. It’s been a long journey,’ ” Quarless said.
To say it’s been anything less than a long journey is something Quarless won’t shy away from talking about. Though he’s been in the National Football League for less than 12 months, the former Nittany Lion is well aware that his football career could’ve come to an abrupt end a few years ago.
However, when Quarless runs out of the tunnel Sunday night in Dallas as a member of the Green Bay Packers, his past struggles will be behind him. The rookie looks forward to the adrenaline rush of playing in Super Bowl XLV, but he also understands how much he’s grown in the past five years.
In 2008, the 19-year-old Quarless found himself sitting in Joe Paterno’s office and pleading with the coach to let him keep his scholarship. He had been suspended from the team because of a DUI, and Quarless wondered if he would ever step foot on the football field again.
The DUI, coupled with being cited for underage drinking two weeks before the 2007 season, gave Quarless a place in Paterno’s infamous doghouse. But the Uniondale, N.Y. native begged Paterno for one last chance at redemption, and to this day, Quarless is appreciative Paterno agreed.
“He was ready to let me go,” Quarless said. “I’m thankful that he allowed me to stay because it could’ve been a whole different situation if he took my scholarship away. I just kept telling him, ‘I’ll show you. I’ll show you that it’ll be different.’ ”
Quarless was right.
The tight end bounced back to finish his collegiate career on a high note, as he became one of quarterback Daryll Clark’s most reliable targets. By the time Quarless graduated from Penn State with his telecommunications degree in 2009, his name was cemented in the school’s record books, and his run-ins with the law were a thing of the past.
Ranking first in receptions by a tight end, both in a season and a career, and coming in second all time for receiving yards at the position made Quarless an NFL hopeful.
Yet questions about his character continued to mount, as teams looked into his past and became concerned about which Andrew Quarless they would be drafting.
However, when the Green Bay Packers’ secondary coach, Darren Perry — who intercepted 15 passes during his career at Penn State — called coach Kenney to find out about Quarless’ background, Kenney said he was up front with Perry, the former Penn Stater.
“From a coach-to-coach standpoint, he had a very strong opinion about Andrew, and I had a very strong opinion about Andrew,” Kenney said. “I think the Green Bay Packers understood Andrew was a young man whose life was really moving in a positive direction, and that he had put some negative issues behind him.”
Perry reported back to the coaching staff, with a positive impression of Quarless, and at least one team felt the tight end wouldn’t be a risk.
But those who know Quarless best said his maturation phase at Penn State was something he needed to fight his way through.
Growing up in a household with strong Baptist ties, Dr. Duncan Quarless said he and his wife tried to instill the family mantra of “humble and hungry” in all four of their children.
Being thankful for the blessings in their lives always took priority over sports, though Duncan said he could tell his son was different from the other children when he coached Andrew in Little League.
“There were some kids that would come to the plate, and they were I think gripped at a certain level with the fear of failure,” Duncan recalled. “And I don’t think that kind of thing ever really factored into Andrew’s competitive drive. He seemed to always be anticipating something and sort of thrilled with the idea that he was having the opportunity to compete.”
Whether this meant being the first player to complete 100-yard sprints during every Monday football practice at Uniondale High School — or being the player who didn’t quip when asked to play quarterback, wide receiver, running back, middle linebacker, punter or kicker — Quarless had a tremendous passion for the sport.
“I knew from the beginning that this guy was going to be absolutely phenomenal because of one thing: His heart,” said Greg Didio, Quarless’ high school coach. “He has so much heart that I knew. I’ve had other players with a lot of heart, but Andrew is special. I know that Andrew is a good soul, and that’s the honest truth.”
The intelligence Quarless had about the game made him stand out right away and was the major reason why he made his way onto the field at Beaver Stadium as a true freshman, Kenney said.
But the same teen, who once wrote a four-page essay for a high school English class that earned him school-wide recognition and the high school’s journalism award, wasn’t making the smartest choices off the field once he arrived in State College.
“Sometimes I think as a parent you lay out a road in your mind that your child is going to travel,” Duncan said. “And you know, I would dare say that with all of my children in most cases, the unfolding of their travel, their journey was never exactly the way I had pictured it. And in Andrew’s case, I can say the same is true.”
There was no running away or denying the mistakes Andrew made, but Duncan believes it’s “providential” that his son had to go through so much before landing back on his feet. But through the off-field issues, Duncan said he kept reminding his son about the importance of maintaining his faith.
Though the message was internalized, Quarless took it upon himself to make his religious beliefs a visible part of his body. Wanting to make his faith a constant reminder and focus, he had his first tattoo inked on his arm which reads, “Fear nothing with God.” While his second tattoo was a verse of scripture from Philippians 4:13, his most notable piece of body art didn’t go over exactly the way he anticipated.
“I think by his own words, it was not being interpreted in the way that he had hoped it would be,” said Duncan about his son’s “Gods Gift” tattoo, in which the words are split between Quarless’ left and right triceps and have earned the tight end national attention.
The misunderstanding between Quarless’ intention of the original “Gods Gift” tattoo bothered him so much that he didn’t want to seem conceited and added the letter “S” to gift after his senior season.
But which NFL team would draft “Gods Gifts” became a pressing topic as family members gathered in the Quarless’ living room last April. After sitting through Day 1 of the draft and not hearing his son’s named called, Duncan headed out for work Saturday morning. But luckily, he was fortunate enough to come home and walk into the living room as the Packers were on the clock with their fifth-round draft choice.
When he saw his son’s name flash across the TV screen, Duncan said he couldn’t help but feel thankful for the opportunity that was awarded to Andrew.
“I definitely did not think everything would work out as well as it did,” the tight end said. “Coming in here to training camp, I just wanted to get better, and whether that meant being in a backup role or whatever, I just wanted the experience.”
When Quarless arrived in Green Bay, he said there was the need to talk with one of his new teammates, first-round draft pick, Bryan Bulaga. He wanted to tell the former Iowa Hawkeye something that had been on his mind for a little while.
“I told him first off, it’s nothing against you, but I will always hate Iowa,” said Quarless with a chuckle, as he reflected on the Hawkeyes ruining the Lions’ chance at an undefeated season in 2008. “But besides that, we’re all family.”
Quarless even had several talks with Darren Perry, and while the topic often comes back to Penn State football, the tight end said it’s nice to have a Penn State alum to talk with throughout the course of the season.
Quarless’ plate quickly filled up as he got more playing time than he anticipated when the Packers’ starting tight end, Jermichael Finley, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game of the season.
Finley’s absence made way for Quarless, who caught his first pass in the same Week 5 game against the Washington Redskins and scored his first touchdown in a late-October clash against the division-rival Minnesota Vikings.
Though the grind of a 16-game regular season, plus four preseason games and now four postseason games is more than Quarless imagined when he signed his contract in July, he’s not about to squander his opportunity to play in the biggest game of his career.
“When I come out of the tunnel, I’m not going to try to think too much about the butterflies,” Quarless said. “I’m really focused on not doing that and not being too anxious and am just focused on doing what I have to do and knowing that I’m ready.”
With his high school coach planning to wear a Green Bay Packers jacket as he watches the Super Bowl from Syracuse, and Quarless’ family attending the game in Dallas, the tight end said he’s thankful for all the people who helped him come so far.
And keeping Quarless’ humility in perspective is something his father has discussed with him several times leading up to Sunday’s game. Calling his son and reciting to him Psalm 65:11: “You crown the year with goodness and your path drips with abundance” helps the Quarless family deal with the anxiety of Sunday’s Super Bowl.
But regardless of the outcome of the game, the strides Quarless has made both on and off the field are what have impressed his family and friends the most.
“He’s at the biggest game at the biggest moment in time come Sunday,” Kenney said. “And I know he’s really challenged himself to stay the course, so in that regard, I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished.”