Former UW player nearly died twice in 8-month span

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LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — J.J. Quinlan died for 45 seconds.

It was Dec. 21, 2009, and the doctors told Bill and Teresa Quinlan their son was in for a "rough night." The doctors had just removed the future Wyoming Cowboy's tonsils. They said there would be some blood, effects of a surgery they'd completed countless times before.

The bruising defensive end wasn't worried, and why would he be? He'd taken worse hits on a football field. He was tough. He was a Quinlan.

He spent that night in the living room, sprawled on a recliner while his mother worked and his father slept a few rooms away. His companion was a plastic bucket, once an empty white but now gradually filling with red. Occasionally throughout the night Quinlan leaned over and vomited blood, depositing more of himself with a splash as the hours meshed and faded.

Quinlan's memory became hazy as the bucket overflowed, a gallon of J.J.'s insides unnaturally spilling out. He tried to stand but couldn't. He tried to yell but didn't. The words were missing — buried in the rubble. Two hundred-forty sluggish pounds slid off the recliner and landed with a thud on the floor, dead weight floundering in a pool of its own blood.

"I just remember trying to lift my head up to say, 'Dad, Dad,' to call out for him. Nothing came out," Quinlan said. "It was just air coming out."

The next few hours existed only as passing images, a flipbook of scattered visions captured in rare moments of consciousness.

His mother is standing over him, screaming, as one side of J.J.'s face stares back at her and the other lay engulfed in the puddle.

He's riding in a car on the way to the hospital, his parents' voices ringing in his ears, the world passing him by in bright lights through the window.

Doctors are forcefully inserting a breathing tube into his mouth, holding him down as he fights unfamiliar faces, struggling to process a scene he doesn't understand.

And then nothing. He was gone.

J.J. died for 45 seconds, lying unresponsive in a hospital room while his blood soaked into a rug at home. The doctors told his parents that he was beyond saving. If they wanted to call a priest, now was the time.

"We were absolutely in shock," Bill Quinlan said.

Defibrillator paddles were used to pump an electric current to J.J.'s heart, a desperate attempt to jump-start an engine that had lost most of its fuel. At this moment, there was a body on the table, but it wasn't Bill and Teresa's adopted son.

Quinlan thinks about it sometimes, the things he would have missed out on if he didn't wake — the people he wouldn't have met.

He sees his wife, Amanda, and his son, Devonte. He sees a college degree from the University of Wyoming, and a car, and a job. He sees a touchdown on a sunny day in Las Vegas.

At some point, J.J. must have decided that 45 seconds was plenty. The doctors re-started his heart, and he lay in a medically induced coma for two and a half days.

Then, on Christmas Eve, he woke.

"It felt like one of those times when you just went to bed and your alarm clock is already going off," Quinlan said. "That's how it really felt."

He stared up at a host of faces, of people crying and laughing and hugging and yelling. He didn't yet understand it, but the joy in the room overwhelmed his confusion.

J.J. Quinlan, once dead, was alive.

Quinlan learned about toughness from his parents.

His father, a landscaper, once fell off a ladder, broke his back and crawled the remaining distance to the hospital.

"He didn't want anyone to know that he was hurt," J.J. says with a perplexed grin. "So . mental toughness is pretty big in our family."

His mother works two jobs, providing in-home elderly care and teaching at a physical therapy school. She spent much of J.J.'s childhood at work, sleeping two or three hours at a time before embarking on another day's shift. She cared for her family and her patients and rarely worried about herself.

She has multiple sclerosis but spends her days serving others.

Eight months after J.J. Quinlan died, he nearly died again.

It was 5 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2010, and Quinlan and three Wyoming teammates — Trey Fox, C.J. Morgan and Ruben Narcisse — hopped into Fox's Toyota Tundra and embarked on the brief, winding drive on U.S. Highway 287 from Fort Collins to Laramie.

Fox was driving, with Morgan beside him. In the back, Quinlan and Narcisse played paper-scissors-rock to determine who would lie down across two seats, and who would have to sit upright and endure a restless trip. Narcisse won — or so it appeared — and the freshman linebacker sprawled across his new territory.

Quinlan quickly fell asleep anyway, a notorious snorer, his head leaning on the back left window behind Fox.

When he woke about a half hour later, the car was already rolling. Quinlan estimates it was on its second or third revolution, after Fox fell asleep and the vehicle veered off the west side of the road and down an embankment.

It's an odd feeling, he says, careening toward your inevitable death. There's no fear, no epiphany, no slideshow of familiar faces flashing in front of your eyes.

As his world turned upside down, then right side up, Quinlan propped his hands against the roof of the car, trying to hold himself in place and regain some sense of control.

But control, in a crashing metal nightmare, is elusive. At some point, the car stopped rolling, but Quinlan was unconscious before it did.

He was greeted by the smell of burning rubber and Morgan's screams a short time later, waking with glass embedded in his arms but a surreal absence of pain. He crawled out the side window that had minutes earlier been a pillow, wiggling through jagged edges to escape the monstrous wreck.

There was no one beside him, just two empty seats.

Rattling them off now, Quinlan's injuries could fill a grocery list: cracked C-2 vertebrae in neck, major concussion, scar tissue, ligament damage. And yet, here he was, standing and walking to the other side of the car.

Quinlan knew he was hurt before his body did.

"It was all adrenaline," he said. "It wasn't until later at the hospital that my entire back was like a cheese grater."

He arrived outside the passenger seat, where Morgan was still buckled in — arm clearly broken, bone protruding through skin. Quinlan helped his teammate out of the car, then heard more screaming in the distance.

Narcisse.

Quinlan's freshman teammate had been deposited roughly 60 feet up the hill, presumably ejected from the car during one of the early rolls. Quinlan and Fox — who was also able to walk — helped dislodge Narcisse's foot from a crevice between two boulders. A few minutes later, he was standing, telling his friends that he was fine.

Eventually, paramedics arrived. Narcisse and Morgan were flown by helicopter to the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colo., while Quinlan and Fox were rushed to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie.

Before they separated, Narcisse asked Quinlan — his locker neighbor and surrogate brother on the team — if Wyoming coach Dave Christensen would be angry if he missed practice.

"Don't worry," Quinlan told him. "I'll see you tomorrow for workouts."

At mile marker 386 just south of the Wyoming border, Quinlan should have died — again. He chose paper, and so he lived.

Narcisse didn't make it through surgery.

It was March 2011, and the defensive end whose black hair stretched skyward had overcome it all. Ten weeks of concussion symptoms were behind him, road bumps on the winding path back to Jonah Field. Months of guilt and anguish tore at him, but he managed to tuck them away.

He could have let the accident bury him, but then why crawl out of the car?

"He had to ask, 'What am I doing? What are my options?'" Bill Quinlan said. "His best option was to persevere."

J.J. didn't know it at the time, but he wasn't done persevering. On that otherwise average day in March, Quinlan attempted to break Wyoming's linebacker bench press record. Lying on his back, his arms gripped the metal bar while his biceps bulged out of his t-shirt and 365 pounds of resistance pushed back.

Running back Tedder Easton stood behind him, ready to step in at the slightest sign of trouble. His teammates hovered on both sides, a cheering section of big, sweaty men decked out in brown and gold.

As Quinlan lowered the weight to his chest, they cheered, a chorus of voices willing the bar back up.

He began to lift, and then he couldn't.

Snap.

"It wasn't like I finished and said, 'Hey, my arm hurts,'" Quinlan said. "I was benching, my arm was coming up and it just snapped. My elbow was hanging."

Easton helped set the bar in place, then ran with Quinlan to the trainer's room for help.

Quinlan tore his left pectoral muscle. His Wyoming debut would have to wait another year.

His left arm in a sling, Quinlan rehabbed for months. He began practicing again in late 2011, then switched to offense and caught his only career touchdown a year later on a sunny Saturday at UNLV.

In another trying moment, Quinlan could have thrown it all away. But yet again, he opted for the comeback. His father's words rang true.

His best option was to persevere.

All J.J. Quinlan ever wanted was an opportunity.

A lot of people didn't expect him to get one. On the day of his junior high school graduation, a physical education teacher he butted heads with predicted he'd be dead by 16. He said Quinlan would never leave Everett, Wash. He told the teenager he was nothing.

"Nothing" would not have survived, though. "Nothing" wouldn't have crawled out of the car.

By November 2013, Quinlan was on the verge of a college degree. He had a scholarship to play the game he loved, a beautiful wife and a healthy baby boy.

Sure, his path was littered with rocks. Sometimes it's difficult for him to breathe in cold weather, an effect of the surgery that went awry. The car crash rendered him unable to turn his head to the left, and his arms are lined with tattoos that mask the scars from embedded glass.

He's damaged, but he isn't broken.

Ask him about what he's been through, and J.J. will recreate each scene in bloody detail. He isn't jaded by his past, angry at a world that never stopped challenging him.

When Wyoming lost four consecutive games last season, he didn't hang his head.

Given the context, how could he?

"By the time I get on the plane (after a loss), I'm just sitting there thinking, 'I get to go home to my family right now. I get to see my wife and my son,'" Quinlan said in November. "I'm still in college. I'm the first one in my family to get a degree.

"I can dwell on the losses, but I had that opportunity to lose. My teammates in high school and my friends, no one else is in college. I'm the only one getting to play football on a national stage for the whole world to see.

"Just to have an opportunity to win or lose is huge."

Devonte Quinlan will learn about toughness from his father.

He'll see a man who survived it all — the blood loss, the crash, the humbling lack of playing time. He persevered because that's the way he was raised — because that was his best option.

His teammates see Quinlan, too — the kid he was, the family man he is. In some ways, he never changed. In other ways, he had to.

"His whole story is just amazing," former Wyoming defensive back Marqueston Huff said. "He came in like we all did, as a silly, goofy kid. Just watching him mature and grow into the man he is today and take responsibility and take care of his family, it just amazes me to be a part of it — to see the whole transformation."

The first college graduate in his family, Quinlan works as a district manager at a data processing company in Aurora, Colo. He just bought a new car. A house might be next. Life is certainly different than it was a few months ago, when he woke early to feed the baby before strapping on pads and heading to practice.

That was his passion. This is a 9 to 5.

Just like his parents, though, J.J. is doing his job. Once he arrives home, he opens the door and sees the love of his life — Amanda. He drops everything and holds his son, who just recently started saying "Da da."

In these moments, it becomes increasingly obvious J.J. was destined to live.

"I think it was meant to be that way, and we always say that Ruben is looking down on us smiling, because I think he'd be really happy for us," Amanda Quinlan said. "It's crazy how quickly life can change."

Despite injuries and ailments, J.J.'s has changed for the better.

"I can't explain it," he said. "It was meant to be, I guess. I should probably just buy a lottery ticket."

Football, too, isn't over just yet. Quinlan plans to take a year off from the sport, then train next winter for Wyoming's 2015 Pro Day. Either a team will give him a chance, or his career will be over and a new chapter will begin.

It will be difficult, though, for the next chapter to exceed the last one. Since he arrived at Wyoming, Quinlan earned a scholarship, met his wife, witnessed the birth of his son, graduated from college, landed a job and found happiness in Laramie.

In the years since he died, J.J. Quinlan has really lived.

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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