The most veteran Mountaineer playing in the NFL almost never got the chance.
Quinton Spain’s relationship with football began in the youth leagues in Petersburg, Va. The town only had a population of 33,458; even still, a 6-foot-4, 330-pound Spain felt underutilized on the Petersburg High School Crimson Wave’s offensive line and basketball teams. He wasn’t just overlooked on the field though. Spain used football as a catalyst to get out of rocky living conditions. One in every 3.6 residents of Petersburg lives in poverty, according to welfareinfo.org. Despite his mother, Tracey, working, food on the table and a roof over she and Quinton’s heads were not constants. The two, along with Quinton’s grandmother, bounced around between family members’ homes, and he spent part of high school living with his offensive line coach.
“It was tough,” Spain told Yahoo News. “I’m happy that I had my brothers and sisters around me, my mom, and my grandma. They kept me out of trouble and it made me focus on school. My ninth grade year in high school, [head coach Michael] Scott came to me and told me, ‘Do you want to go college?’
“And I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not going to be able to pay for it,’ and he said, ‘All I need you to do is play football and it can take you where you need to go.’”
Spain worked diligently to raise his high school GPA to a 3.5, and with Scott & Co.’s assistance, he transformed himself into a four-star prospect. Suddenly, colleges were coming out of the woodwork. Ohio State and Virginia Tech showed interest, but it was head coach Bill Stewart’s staff at West Virginia that meshed with the future that an 18-year-old Spain saw for himself. Offensive line coach Dave Johnson received Spain, who had played guard for the Crimson Wave, and redshirted him in 2010. With Johnson’s assistance, Spain moved from guard to tackle because it was easier for him to grasp. He ended up playing both tackles during the 2011 season as he got better acquainted with the position; the next season, he split time between left tackle, where he started every game, and guard.
He was moved between left tackle and left guard in 2013 as well, as Stewart’s staff agreed that keeping him with the guards would dramatically increase his NFL interest. When Spain left the Mountaineers after playing for a fifth year, he was one of the best offensive linemen in the newly formed Big 12 Conference. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone watching the Mountaineer football team in that era for Spain to have been a solid first-round addition to an NFL roster when the 2015 Draft came around.
Through 256 player selections, fifteen were interior linemen, and Spain never heard his name called.
“(I was) projected to be a first rounder and then I went undrafted,” Spain said. “It stuck with me since then. I just use it for motivation, like a chip on my shoulder.
“At the end of that draft, I had to see my family and they saw me cry for the first time because it really hurt me,” he said in an episode of the Mountaineer Insider Podcast. “It was one of my goals and dreams, but after being picked up by Tennessee, I knew I just needed an opportunity.”
That opportunity came shortly after the draft process concluded. May 2, 2015, Spain signed with the Titans as a free agent, and the door to his professional success finally opened. Now, he had to prove himself. He started half a dozen games at left guard his rookie season, and maintained his starting position for the next three seasons in Nashville. He had become a staple on Keith Carter’s offensive line, but in 2019, it was time for a change. His success with Tennessee brought forth a one-year, unrestricted free agent deal with the Buffalo Bills; 2019 became a season during which the offensive line allowed nary a sack and Spain started every game. What came next should have been a three-year, $15 million extension aimed for 2023 expiration, but the tides were about to turn for the then-NFL vet.
After only two games, Spain watched his position be filled on Oct. 21 by youngster Cody Ford. At that point, he asked to be traded away from Buffalo, but his third team would maintain his presence in the AFC. Nine days later, the Cincinnati Bengals came calling.
“I asked if [the Bills] would release me,” Spain said. “At first, they didn’t want to do that, but then they released me, so I’m happy. I’m happy that they released me so I had an opportunity to go to Cincinnati and pick my game back up there, so it was a great decision I made to better myself again. I’m happy I did it.”
Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor didn’t even know Spain’s name when the team picked him up on the practice squad, but that didn’t deter Spain from waking up every day and proving his worth and starter potential.
“He’s got a lot of experience in this league,” Taylor said. “He did a nice job in Buffalo. Any time we can add quality players to our roster, we’ll go ahead and make those additions.”
That 2020 team, lead by a rookie Joe Burrow, saw a 29-year-old Spain rise through the ranks and become a constant on the offensive line starting on Nov. 14. On gameday, Spain reminisces that he actually introduced himself to some of his offensive teammates in the huddle pre-game. He went on to start ten games during that 7-6 season, seeing 720 snaps and allowing only one sack. His consistency was rewarded with a one-year contract, $1.127 million total with a $137,500 signing bonus and $990,000 base salary, for the 2021 season.
ProFootballFocus has Spain’s 2021 impact as a key cog in the offense’s wheel: he’s allowed pressure on only 1.7 percent of snaps. That’s the third-best among guards in the NFL who have logged at least 100 pass-blocking snaps.
“He’s definitely a veteran,” Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack said. “He’s one of the guys I nicknamed ‘Mr. Nasty’ because he plays physical on the field. He finishes. He plays with the right mindset. He’s a guy that’s kind of taken a lot of the young guys under (his) wing, teaching them how to be a pro. He’s the guy that will ask a question that he already knows the answer to, but he’s kind of asking it for the room. Maybe some of the young guys are a little shy to ask, he’ll ask. He’s a lot of fun to coach that way.”
Spain’s impact transcends Paul Brown Stadium. He’s not only playing in Super Bowl LVI for the Bengals. He’s not only playing for Mountaineer Nation. He’s also playing for those back in Petersburg who have backed him since he was first learning how to block and tackle. In the off-seasons, Spain returns to Virginia to host football camps, free of charge, for local kids. He recognized how much that kind of resource would have meant for him, and he just wants to leave his town better than he found it.
“Me growing up, a lot of people don’t make it out of there,” Spain said. “So me being able to be in the Super Bowl from my hometown, it’s a blessing. I know the city is behind me, so I’m just trying to go out there and make them proud.
“We all know what this game means to us and we all know what we have to do out there, so we’re ready to play,” Spain told media ahead of Super Bowl LVI.
Spain will play in his 102nd NFL game when Super Bowl LVI kicks off tonight at 6:30 p.m. on NBC. He is the first Mountaineer to play in the Super Bowl since the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2017 season, armed with Najee Goode, Rasul Douglas, Shelton Gibson, and Wendell Smallwood, captured the Lombardi Trophy. Today, Spain is vying for a ring of his own. It’s been a long time coming.
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