College Football

The NFL draft’s biggest curiosity is a bare-bellied outdoorsman who trains like Rocky

WHAT WILL BE the most famous gut in the 2021 NFL draft wasn’t always an object of adulation, envy and wonderment.

Quinn Meinerz never forgot the scouting report an agent shared with him, the one that described his “sloppy midsection.” Meinerz, a standout offensive lineman for Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, had taken pride in his gut, baring it to the world. Not even Whitewater’s 2XL jerseys could contain the belly.

“When I hear ‘sloppy,’ I hear ‘lazy,’ and that’s something that’s 100% not who I am,” Meinerz said. “I really took offense to that and I wanted to prove him wrong. It’s solid, man. It is big, but it is solid.”

The truth is, Meinerz loves jabs like “sloppy midsection.” Every word, phrase or sentence of doubt about what he can achieve is stored away, even now, as he has defied the odds to virtually secure a spot in this month’s draft. “Free motivation,” he called it.

Meinerz is hardly the first NFL prospect to seek criticism as kindling. But most prospects have more counter material: a strong recruiting ranking in high school, the backing of a big-name college program, a productive season leading into the pre-draft evaluation period.

Meinerz had none of that.

Since 1990, only 21 players from Division III have been drafted, according to The man soon to become the 22nd has taken a path likely never to be replicated. Meinerz had his senior season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic; he spurned the transfer portal to spend the summer and fall training; and he got his big break when the Senior Bowl needed a late fill-in at a position he had never played.

He’s projected as a likely Day 2 pick in the draft later this month. ESPN’s Mel Kiper now lists Meinerz as the No. 4 center prospect.

“I bet on myself,” Meinerz said. “I know what I do. I know how hard I work every single day, and how dedicated I am to my goals.”

As Meinerz rose from reserve to first-team All-American and team captain at Wisconsin-Whitewater, coach Kevin Bullis would ask the lineman: What’s the fire in your belly?

“The motivation is to prove myself right and to prove others wrong,” Meinerz said. “Those sweet victories.”

JIM NAGY’S CALL came in mid-January.

Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, was inviting Meinerz to the premier pre-draft all-star game only after several centers — Alabama‘s Landon Dickerson (knee), Ohio State‘s Josh Myers (toe) and Penn State‘s Michal Menet (hamstring) — suffered injuries. Meinerz’s game tape from 2019 wouldn’t have earned him the invite, Nagy said, but his progress in training — from flat-foot basketball dunks to a reconfigured body — plus the positional need, sealed the deal.

“Quinn got choked up, there was a long pause at one point,” Nagy said. “That was an emotional call. It was really, really cool. I’ll never forget it.”

Emotions again hit Meinerz on the first ride to the stadium.

“It was confidence and then not-so-confident, and then I’m excited to be here, and emotional, like, ‘I can’t believe I’m here,'” he said. “It was nice to have that 20-minute bus ride.”

When Meinerz entered the locker room Jan. 26, put on his pads and grabbed the familiar winged Warhawk helmet, his nerves settled. He hadn’t played meaningful football in 404 days, when Wisconsin-Whitewater lost to North Central in the 2019 Stagg Bowl, the Division III national championship.

As his cleats clapped the concrete on his way to the field, Meinerz put on his helmet and heard music playing in the stadium. All the feelings running through him coalesced into two.

“Just straight confidence, and I was a little angry, too,” he said. “I was angry that whole week. To see all these D-I guys and to be counted out as a D-III player. I was a last-minute call, didn’t have a football season.

“I just wanted to prove something so bad.”

Meinerz started the week as an outsider. He saw other players look at his purple helmet with confusion — TCU? Kansas State? — unable to pinpoint its origin. By the end of the week, most knew his name and his story.

The 6-foot-3, 320-pound Meinerz not only held up in workouts, but excelled, despite the competition jump and a new position. He faced players such as Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike and UCLA’s Osa Odighizuwa — both included among Kiper’s top-five draft-eligible defensive tackle prospects — and often held the edge. The National Team’s defensive linemen voted him as the top offensive lineman they faced.

“Those players, they’re like, ‘Man, he’s one of the strongest guys we’ve ever gone up against. When he gets his hands and his body on you, he can really move people,'” Nagy said.

“They’ll make it especially hard on the centers in this game. You’ll get guys in one-on-ones, they’ll shade themselves on the snap hand.

“For him to be able to do that says a lot.”

It’s not charity when Nagy distributes Senior Bowl invites, even for last-minute fill-ins. Everyone who comes to Mobile, Alabama, is a draftable player in his mind. But as a longtime scout, Nagy also knows the pressure to place any draft grades on Division III players. “You’re putting your neck on the line,” he said. By the end of the practice week, Meinerz had eased all anxieties.

On the morning of the Senior Bowl, Meinerz called Paul Shelsta, his offensive line coach in high school. Meinerz said he would be wearing a helmet sticker honoring Shelsta’s daughter, Alaina, who suffers from a form of GLUT1 deficiency syndrome, a rare metabolic disorder that often causes seizures and other neurological problems. Alaina, 14, receives complex treatment or the condition, which has been diagnosed in fewer than 300 people.

Meinerz wrote “Hugs 4 Alaina” on the sticker, noting the fundraiser to help find a treatment for her. He later launched “Belly of the Beast” apparel — T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats — with all profits going toward Alaina’s family.

“It’s right before the Senior Bowl, right before his morning meeting, and he’s thinking of my daughter’s situation,” Shelsta said. “That was just an incredibly special moment for me. We showed her. She thought that was pretty cool.”

A broken bone in Meinerz’s hand prevented him from playing in the game — he still suited up and lobbied Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores for field time — but the Wisconsin-Whitewater lineman with the exposed belly generated more discussion on the NFL Network broadcast than any other player.

“He took full advantage, he knew he belonged,” Nagy said. “You don’t invite players because of a potentially cool storyline, but when it happens organically like that, and a guy just blows up and has a great week, yeah, it’s great.”

MEINERZ DOESN’T COME from a long line of high-level football players. But the most significant ingredient to his NFL rise is part of his DNA.

“We all use it as motivation when somebody says we can’t,” said Meinerz’s father, Aaron. “Then, we’re definitely going to do it. From birth, that’s a general trait. That’s just ingrained into us. We’re all kind of strong-minded, strong-willed. Sometimes I think he’s looking for it. It’s almost like, ‘OK, good, somebody gave me something.'”

Quinn was born big — “We were always getting the husky clothes,” Aaron recalled with a laugh — and gravitated toward sports, but didn’t project as a top athlete. Growing up in Hartford, Wisconsin, about 30 miles northwest of Milwaukee, he came to high school as a 5-foot-8, 180-pound freshman. Meinerz was “just another guy,” Paul Shelsta said, and not among the small group of freshmen promoted to junior varsity.

Then, between his freshman and sophomore years, Meinerz grew 6 inches and added 80 pounds. He began lifting weights in the basement with Aaron. As a sophomore, Quinn started at right tackle for the varsity squad and flashed his power against teams with Division I prospects. His development continued but, at 6-foot-2, he received no Division I offers and only one from Division II.

“He didn’t have that height, but he was so strong, so powerful,” Shelsta said. “In my head, I went, ‘This is a D-I guy. No one’s found him yet.’ I couldn’t believe nobody was taking a look.”

After a former Wisconsin-Whitewater player from Hartford emailed Bullis about Meinerz, a Whitewater assistant soon watched Meinerz wrestle, reporting back, “This guy’s a beast.” Bullis worried about losing Meinerz to a scholarship program, but none stepped up and Meinerz picked Whitewater, a Division III powerhouse about an hour’s drive from Hartford.

“We were really fortunate to get him,” Bullis said.

Along with the football recruiting snubs, Meinerz found other provocations. Someone told him he had a limited ceiling in the shot put. As a senior, he made state. He also excelled in wrestling, where he would write “THE GUT” with a Sharpie on athletic tape and slap it onto his headgear.

“I’ve just got to hear one word or one sentence from someone that’s doubting me, and I’ll go away for a year or whatever it takes to prove them wrong,” Meinerz said. “That’s what I’ve done this past year, leading up to this draft. Alright, say everything you guys want to say. I’ll take it in, save it, put it in my notes and I’ll use it every day.”

BEFORE THE 2018 SEASON, NFL scouts flocked to Whitewater to evaluate an offensive lineman. Warhawks center Nate Trewyn would go on to earn All-America honors that fall.

Scott DiStefano, a longtime Denver Broncos scout who covered the Midwest, was among the first to arrive. While watching Trewyn, he pivoted and asked Bullis, “Who’s 77?”

“I said, ‘That’s Quinn Meinerz. He’s a sophomore,'” Bullis said. “That was a pretty common question that fall: ‘Who’s 77?'”

By early 2020, regional scouts were visiting Whitewater for Meinerz. Then, the pandemic hit, shutting down college football at all levels. Meinerz returned to Hartford.

While many people struggled with being homebound, Meinerz utilized the basement (weightlifting), the backyard (snapping footballs into trash cans and pizza peels), the front yard (Olympic-style overhead lifts) and, of course, the kitchen.

Admittedly looking “a little sloppy” in the 2019 Division III championship game, he worked to slim down and tone up. An initial diet of chicken, vegetables and rice helped Meinerz shed about 10 pounds to reach his goal weight of 320. Then, he incorporated more ground beef. He dropped his body fat from 18.5% to 14% over the summer and fall.

He didn’t have to quit drinking because he had never started.

“I’ve got the big belly and everyone thinks it’s from beer,” Meinerz said. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s from ground beef and rice.’ It’s the strongman belly.”

Two key developments took place in the summer. In late July, the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, where Whitewater plays, canceled the season. Around the same time, an NFL scout arranged a Zoom call so scouts and the Whitewater coaches could discuss Meinerz.

“We thought it was just going to be with a couple scouts,” Bullis said. “When I popped on, there were 37 people on that Zoom and only four of them were our staff members. We knew then that there was probably a chance this could blow up.”

The canceled season left Meinerz with three choices: Return to Whitewater in 2021, transfer to a higher-division college team with a fall season, or begin preparing for the NFL draft. The transfer portal was a nonstarter — “It just sounds like a mess,” Meinerz said — and as the fall went along, the path became clearer.

Meinerz practiced with Whitewater, even working some at center. Sensing interest for pre-draft all-star games, he declared for the draft in November. Invitations to the College Gridiron Showcase, the Shrine Bowl and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl soon followed.

His next stop was Dallas, where he began working with noted offensive line trainer Duke Manyweather. Meinerz brought his laptop to finish final exams.

For three weeks, he trained Monday through Saturday alongside Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater, who opted out of the 2020 season and projects as a top draft pick (Slater appears at No. 9 in Mel Kiper’s latest Big Board).

“I was like, ‘Sweet, this is going to be my first real chance to see what it looks like and how someone like that, at that caliber, what does he do?'” Meinerz said. “To go down there and try to keep up as much as I could, and I feel like I was close, it was cool to have that experience.”

Ron Slavin, Meinerz’s agent, sent Nagy a stream of workout clips, from basketball dunks to drills. Nagy saw a linemen who was no longer top-heavy — a twitchier, fitter athlete with more lower-body flexibility who looked quicker out of his stance.

Meinerz emerged from 2020 as a bona fide draft prospect.

“A lot of people were having a lot of mental struggles during the quarantine,” he said. “I wasn’t really having any. A year like this, I had almost an advantage because of how motivated I am intrinsically. Waking up every single day and going down to the basement during the pandemic and working out, I love it. Going out to the backyard and snapping into a garbage can, I loved every moment of it.”

“To have all your dreams and goals come true — get invited to the Senior Bowl, run a sub-5 40, do all these things — I really don’t know what to say. It really is crazy.”

MEINERZ’S WORKOUTS IN Texas helped get him to the Senior Bowl. Another workout made him a darling of draft-stock watchers.

The YouTube clip begins with Meinerz lacing up black Nikes to run down a dirt road. Then, he’s cross-stepping and lunging along a wooden walkway. Next, he’s carrying a kerosene tank on his back as he lumbers uphill.

As The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” plays, Meinerz bench-presses in the woods, then knocks down a tree. Now his shirt is off, as he carries long planks of wood on his back, while flashing a peace sign toward his brother, holding the camera. One moment, he’s chopping wood. The next, he’s applying blocking techniques to a tree trunk. The clip ends with Meinerz curling water jugs and sledgehammering volcanic rock, native to an area known as the Canadian Shield.

“Everybody compares it to the ‘Rocky [IV]’ montage,” Meinerz said.

Unlike Rocky, Meinerz wasn’t in Siberia, but rather northwest Ontario, at a fishing camp on an island his great-uncle Tim owns near Hector Lake that is mostly accessed by floatplane. In 2018 and 2019, Quinn spent the entire summers on the island, which he has been visiting since he was about 10. He shed about 25 pounds the first summer, which didn’t go over well with his Whitewater coaches. So in 2019, rather than flying in, he loaded Aaron’s old weight rack onto a truck and drove north, navigating treacherous logging roads.

Quinn stayed in football shape while at his happy place. As a kid, he’d bike around Hartford with a fishing rod sticking out of his backpack, looking for ponds. In Canada, he had entire lakes and streams filled with walleye, lake trout, Northern pike and large and smallmouth bass. He’d help his great-uncle with tasks around the island: moving 400-pound generators, building wooden walkways, clearing off portages, fixing boat motors and cleaning fish.

“When it comes to moving something, he puts his back into it, and it moves,” said Tim Meinerz, who bought the island in 1991. “All it takes is a strong back and a weak mind for the kind of work I put him through up in Canada, but that boy, he’s smart. I’m sort of hoping the NFL drafts him and he buys an island from me.”

Tim will miss Quinn this summer, as his grand-nephew will be in an NFL camp. But Quinn plans to return, ideally with some future teammates.

“I’m going to have to get heavier beds if they’re all linemen,” Tim joked. “One year, we almost had Larry Bird come up with some friends. How do I handle a 6-foot-9 guy in a bed? Quinn was bad enough.”

ON THE AFTERNOON of March 9, the NFL came to Perkins Stadium. Twenty-nine teams sent representatives to watch Meinerz at Wisconsin-Whitewater’s pro day.

Normally, Division III prospects participate in pro days at bigger schools nearby. Wisconsin also held its pro day March 9, but Meinerz became a big-enough draw that scouts made the 50-minute drive from Madison. Meinerz ran the 40-yard dash in 4.86 seconds, further solidifying his draft position.

“It was special,” Meinerz said, “how many teams that are there, but even more to do it at my home field, where I was able to build myself up, at Whitewater, Wisconsin. To be able to have it come full circle … was a cool moment.”

In recent months, Meinerz has heard from many lower-division college players, asking how he reached this point. He replies to every message on social media, stressing priorities and goal-setting, and how moving toward a career in football means moving away from the typical college lifestyle.

“Just straight-up never did any of that,” he said. “My priorities were, I wanted to be the best football player I could be.”

Meinerz, who is healthy after being fully cleared from his hand injury Monday, projects himself as an interior swing player in the NFL. He’s comfortable at guard but eager to learn more at center. Wherever he lines up this fall and whatever jersey he puts on, two things are certain: The gut will be out, and the fire will burn inside.

“That’s always going to be there,” he said. “There still is that underdog mentality. I don’t think it will ever, ever go away. I enjoy it too much.”


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