Andrew Quarless already feels like he got a second chance at a football career, and he plans to make the Green Bay Packers the beneficiary of that.
The athletic pass-catcher from Penn State ended up setting school records for the most receptions by a tight end in one season, with 41 his senior year in 2009, and in a career, with 87 overall. That production prompted the Packers to select him in the fifth round of the NFL Draft on Saturday, the 154th overall pick.
But he was nearly kicked off the team by legendary coach Joe Paterno long before setting those records, with two years remaining in his college career. Prior to the 2008 season, Quarless was involved in a second underage drinking incident, this one including a DUI charge.
He literally had to plead with Paterno to keep his scholarship, having already been given a reprieve after an underage-drinking incident as a freshman, and he vowed to stay sober, a pledge he has kept since that night in 2008. He calls it the sacrifice he had to make, and it couldn't have been a better decision.
"The day after my DUI, I went to Coach Paterno's house, and he really didn't want to hear it," Quarless said. "He was ready to let me go. But I spoke my piece and told him I was going to change, and he gave me that one more chance. I had to sacrifice drinking for my life and I think it was very productive."
On the field and off. After serving a one-game suspension at the start of 2008, Quarless basically lost his job to teammate Mickey Shuler. But he rebounded with a vengeance last season, catching 41 passes for 536 yards (13.1 avg.) and three touchdowns, roughly half his career production of 87 catches, 1,146 yards and eight scores. He was named honorable mention all-Big Ten in 2009.
"He's had some problems in the past," said Green Bay tight ends coach Ben McAdoo, who interviewed Quarless extensively at the combine and discussed the transgressions at length. "That being said, I think we felt comfortable with him. He's a young man that's been held accountable for his mistakes, and he's held himself accountable, and as we move forward we think his best days are ahead of him."
Quarless defended his blocking abilities when questioned by the media, but McAdoo noted that's clearly the area he'll need to focus on most to improve. That's not unusual at all for pro prospects, particularly the way the college game is developing, and Quarless comes into the NFL a lot like new teammate Jermichael Finley, whose blocking has improved considerably in his first two years as a pro.
"He's typical of tight ends coming out now," McAdoo said. "You don't see a lot of polished blocking. That's something he's going to have to grow in obviously in the run game."
But if he can, his potential as a pass-catcher is intriguing. At 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds with good speed, Quarless could become a weapon and a tough matchup for defenses, similar to Finley. McAdoo called the thought of Finley and Quarless on the field together "exciting to think about."
"I definitely feel like I'm able to stretch the field vertically, really attack the middle of the field, which in the long run will really help the receivers outside," Quarless said.
In addition to Finley, Quarless also joins tight ends Donald Lee and Spencer Havner on the Green Bay roster, so the competition at the position in training camp should be pretty intense.
But the first priority for Quarless is to continue to make good on his promise to Paterno, and himself.
Later in 2008, his name was mentioned for the wrong reasons again when police found marijuana in an apartment he shared with three Penn State teammates, but drug tests proved Quarless was clean and the marijuana was his roommates', not his.
Those are the kind of close calls that will have fans and the NFL questioning him from here on out, fair or not. Quarless knows that, and is determined to keep any trouble in his past as he takes on the challenges of life as a pro athlete.
"The point I'm at in my life, I feel like I'm already focused," he said. "Those were life lessons I had to learn, and I'm happy I learned them early. I have that tunnel vision right now that nothing can stop me."