When Willie Quinn was 12-years-old, his house exploded.
It was 2007 and Quinn and three siblings were inside their Miami home when workers accidentally clipped a gas line and a spark blew the house to pieces. Everybody survived – Quinn’s sister jumped from a second story window – but Willie suffered significant burns to his face and arms and doctors told him he’d never play football again.
“I had to go to therapy every day, get a shot every morning, every night because my skin was burnt,” Quinn said this week. “It was hard times but I got through it.”
On Friday, Willie Quinn will play in his first CFL game for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The accident was just one of many obstacles Quinn, now 27, has overcome in his journey to professional football. After the house was destroyed, his single-parent family lived hand-to-mouth for months, often sleeping in the car and relying on support from friends and neighbours.
One more thing: at 5-foot-5, 152 pounds, Quinn will instantly become one of the smallest players in the CFL, someone that even the diminutive Brandon Banks can look down upon. His entire life, Quinn has been hearing he wasn’t big enough to play at the next level.
But like Banks, Quinn has impressive, almost improbable speed. During three seasons at Southern University and A&M College he returned 10 kicks for touchdowns while adding 231 catches and 26 majors as a receiver.
“To say that Willie Quinn is unique would be an understatement but, wow, what a football player,” said general manager Eric Tillman. “As a return guy, he has rare, rare ability. First guy never touches him.”
With an injury to Demarr Aultman, who has been added to the six-game injured list, Quinn will get an opportunity to do just that. He admits to being a little nervous but that’s nothing new.
“I’m trying to take my time, let it come to me,” Quinn said. “Everybody is already bigger than me so it’s hard for me to sleep the night before. But I’ll be ready.”
Friday’s game is yet another in a series of must-win affairs for Hamilton, who are desperately trying to keep their playoff hopes alive after a disastrous 0-8 start. They can still catch the Ottawa Redblacks but last week’s devastating overtime loss to the Toronto Argonauts has heightened the degree of difficulty while also leaving a lasting psychological impact.
“Losing like that takes a toll on you mentally because it’s one of those things that you think you should have had,” quarterback Jeremiah Masoli said. “But we didn’t finish and at the end of the day, we need to learn from that.”
The team traded away veteran running back C.J. Gable this week so Alex Green, impressive in the win over B.C. two weeks ago, will get the start. The Ticats have also shuffled their secondary, replacing the injured Demond Washington and benching veteran Emanuel Davis.
“We’re trying to develop the players and you want to see what they can do. We’re still putting a lot of the pieces together,” said defensive coordinator Phillip Lolley. “Davis is a veteran guy, he’s fine – he understands the way the game is. He’s in the same boat that a lot of the guys we have are in.”
The Bombers, meanwhile, are rolling. They are 10-3 have won five straight at home and three in a row against the Ticats. Head coach Mike O’Shea said this year’s performance is a carryover from 2016 when they won 10 of their last 13 after starting 1-4.
“Their idea in that room of how they win football games and how they go about their business on a daily basis has carried forward,” O’Shea said. “They’re getting closer and closer to figuring it all out.”
The Ticats are double-digit underdogs coming into Friday’s contest and their playoff chances are considered to be slim, at best. But Quinn knows a little bit about how to deal with adversity and the power of belief.
“I think about the explosion a lot because that could have been the day that I lost my life, my brothers and sisters could have lost theirs,” Quinn said. “But everybody is doing well. Now we have to take advantage of the chances we have.”