Dan and Stacey Quinn were in Oahu, following through on their plan to get away from football for a few weeks before the Falcons head coach needed to return to Atlanta and prep for the 2019 NFL draft. Yet shutting the sport out completely proved impossible two Sundays ago, with the Saints hosting the Rams in the NFC Championship Game at 10 a.m. local time in Hawaii. There were the Quinns at their vacation home, yelling at the television as Drew Brees and the Saints took the ball in overtime. “C’mon Dante! C’mon Dante!” Stacey hollered. And from more than 4,000 miles away, Dante answered.
The Rams’ outside linebacker, Dante Fowler Jr., met the Quinns during his freshman year at Florida, when Dan was Gators defensive coordinator and Fowler was a five-star defensive line prospect out of St. Petersburg. Six years later Fowler found himself in the NFC title game, spinning off of Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk and colliding with Brees as he released a pass. The ball whimpered, wobbled and fell into the waiting arms of Rams safety John Johnson III. Five plays later Greg Zuerlein would hit the game-winning 57-yard field goal.
In between, Fowler’s been the No. 3 pick in the draft, questioned his own love of the game, fought depression, been arrested and later, traded. It all started with an injury. Those who have suffered it say can it affect the mind as much as or more than the knee itself. Before he’d ever taken a snap, Fowler tore his ACL on the first day of rookie minicamp for the Jaguars in 2015. He would miss the entire season, setting the course for his downfall in Jacksonville and rebirth in Los Angeles. Fowler had never before waited on success, never suffered so drastic a setback. And few knew that better than Quinn.
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“Some guys have so much success in high school and college,” Dan Quinn says. “Then they go to the NFL and you don’t get the respect; it has to be earned. So when he got injured he didn’t have that chance to earn the respect on the field, and it was really humbling. It takes a lot of soul-searching to say I’m gonna battle through this and come out the other side.”
For three years and some change, it didn’t look as if Fowler would ever climb out of that rut. He played in 16 games for Jacksonville in 2016, starting one, and collected four sacks. A rookie third-round pick, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, supplanted Fowler on the depth chart that year, and the coach who drafted Fowler, Gus Bradley was fired after Week 15.
“After I tore my ACL I feel like they gave up on me going into my next training camp,” Fowler says. “These three years I was trying to prove to them I was a guy they could trust, and I was trying to be the guy they drafted me to be. But I never got a chance to start a game. When it’s all said and done, I feel like they gave up on me.
“Yannick came and did what he was supposed to do, and that’s when I fell back into the shadows. I used to always go and ask why I was sitting on the bench. I can admit, I was depressed. I’ve never been in a bad place like that before, and that was one of the darkest times of my life. It made me question my love of football. I dreaded going to work, knowing how people feel about you and think about you. I had a dark cloud following me.”
Fowler can speak freely now as a member of the Rams, who, amid an 8-0 start, sent third- and fifth-round picks to the Jaguars in late October for a 24-year-old who had up to that point started just one game as a pro. Fowler also had recently earned a suspension from Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone for engaging in multiple fights in practice. To Rams players who had grown accustomed to general manager Les Snead’s splashy roster moves working out, this one still seemed odd.
“When we got Dante, I was like, Whoa, where did this come from?” says L.A. guard Rodger Saffold. “But he came in and bought in. All these guys bought in to [Rams head coach Sean] McVay and what we have here. We have a culture that can be hard to mesh with. There’s so much accountability. You have to be able to say, I made a mistake. For guys to come in and buy into that honestly was shocking.”
If Rams players had any lingering doubts, they were erased in the NFC Championship Game, when Fowler turned in his best performance of the season and made the critical hit on Brees. Exhausted and glossy-eyed as he sat at his locker after the game, Fowler had a lot to be thankful for. He rattled off the names of teammates who’d helped him learn the playbook in November: Aaron Donald, Samson Ebukam, Matt Longacre and Ogbonnia ‘Obo’ Okoronkwo.
Says Fowler: “That’s when I knew this team was special, because Obo’s a rookie. He don’t even play, and he’s teaching me the defense. I can’t thank those guys enough. In walkthroughs, practice, they’d take me through the plays, take me through the steps. They took me under their wing and just showed me the way. I just told them thank you all the time. They didn’t have to do that.
“That’s when I could tell everyone was for one goal. I was traded for, and there wasn’t an elephant in the room or anything. I’m grateful to work with a group of guys like that. We have a lot of star power, guys with accolades, rings, Hall of Fame credentials, but these guys are humble and they put all that behind them. They keep the main thing the main thing.”
Fowler says Jacksonville’s locker room had a hard time with that concept. He believes that after the Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game in 2017, players thought too much of themselves. “It took me coming here to realize that we weren’t humble about it,” Fowler says. “Other teams were hungrier than us.”
Personally, there wasn’t much Fowler could say or do even if he had diagnosed the problem in Jacksonville at the time; he was the highest-paid backup on the team, earning $23.49 million over four years as a former third overall pick. Also, he’d branded himself an off-field risk during his third offseason. Depressed but hopeful going into the 2017 season, Fowler was back in his hometown of St. Petersburg when, according to a police spokesperson, he was driving through an apartment complex and heard a man comment on his driving. Fowler got out of the car, an argument ensued, and Fowler punched the man, allegedly stomped on his glasses after they fell from his face, and threw the man’s grocery bag full of liquor in a nearby lake. He was arrested without incident.
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“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” Fowler says. “I was working out, had my baby boy, everything was going good, and I hit a bump in the road. When I was getting booked I was thinking about my kids and all the kids that look up to me. I just thought, who are you right now? When I went to training camp and saw all the kids, it made me real emotional. I realized I wasn’t just doing it for myself; I’m doing it for all the people who look up to me. That’s when I grew up.”
Fowler started seeing a therapist after the arrest, and though his status with the Jaguars was diminished, he maintained a love of the game and an eagerness for his next opportunity. Along the way, Quinn was a text or a phone call away, providing guidance when necessary. Years ago he’d been taken with Fowler’s competitiveness as a prep star, and later, as a freshman at Florida.
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“You saw all this raw talent,” Quinn says, “And there was zero fear. Sometimes guys go from high school to college and there’s that feeling-out period, but there was no doubt with him that he was ready to play. That was really cool to see.
“I left right [Florida] after his first year, so I just wanted him to know that even though I was leaving he could ask me questions about the process. I tried to mentor from far away. I wanted him to know he had a relationship with me forever.”
Fowler played in 13 games as a Gators freshman, then started 24 over the next two seasons before entering the draft with a year of eligibility remaining. Quinn took a job as Seahawks defensive coordinator in 2013, then as Falcons head coach in 2015. In 2016 Atlanta reached the Super Bowl, building a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots before eventually losing 34-28 in overtime.
In a team meeting during that Super Bowl week, Quinn asked his players to raise a hand if someone in their lives had reached out to offer advice about how to approach that week. Ninety percent of the room raised their hands. Quinn told them to ignore the noise: “Let’s do what we do.”
So today Quinn is following his own advice. He’s not reaching out to Fowler. If he did, he might tell him how proud he is, how he knew Fowler would get to this place, one way or another.
“It was really hard for him,” Quinn says. “But through all that, he had a lot of resiliency. The bumps haven’t been easy, but those are the moments that test us. He’ll be able to use this year for the rest of his career. He can say, I stood tall and found a way.”
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