Porter trades in pom-poms for Rams’ special teams
ST. LOUIS – Quinn Porter(notes) plays special teams for the St. Louis Rams. He is listed on the roster as a running back, but his primary task is to return kickoffs and play the “gunner” (first man down the field) when the Rams punt. He is a gregarious man with an infectious laugh who gets so excited telling stories that sometimes his mind goes faster than his words. He then has to stop and start over.
Some of this makes him no different than those who dress around him in the Rams’ locker room. What sets Porter apart, though, is that his teammates were recruited out of high school to play college football and were scouted by the NFL throughout their college careers. In most cases, the NFL is not a surprise.
Porter, however, was recruited by no one. And when he did pay his way to tiny Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., he wasn’t academically eligible to play on the football team. So he did something that would be unthinkable to his NFL teammates:
He became a cheerleader.
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“I prefer stuntman,” he says. Because after all, “cheerleader” leaves the impression he was screaming chants into a megaphone and Porter didn’t do that. Instead he clapped and threw the female cheerleaders into the air and caught them and stood next to the field on which he someday hoped to play.
“Don’t forget you’re going places,” his mother, Kim Oliver, back in California, used to say. And so he believed her even as he wore the tight shirt, clapped and held other cheerleaders over his head.
“He’s always been very determined,” Kim says.
Football was Quinn’s dream since he was 7 years old and his stepfather, David Oliver, put him in pads and sent him out for his youth football games. But he grew only to be 5-foot-8, 165 pounds as a teenager and the coach at Quartz Hill High School outside Lancaster, Calif., didn’t like to play underclassmen, according to Oliver, so Porter played only his senior year. This didn’t dissuade him from his passion.
He bombarded USC with the few game tapes he had, sending them as high up as athletic director Mike Garrett. Oliver, realizing a more modest goal for the child, sent tapes to smaller schools around the country with little response. It wasn’t until they attended an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) convention at their church that the name Stillman came up.
It turned out there was a teacher at a local community college who knew the president of Stillman, and the subject of Porter’s possible enrollment was broached. He had never heard of Division II Stillman, but the football coaches seemed interested in having Porter walk on. Since he says the only other response to his inquiries was South Carolina State, he picked Stillman because the initials are “S.C.,” which is what USC is referred to in L.A.
He flew to Alabama before the fall semester of 2004 and wondered what exactly he had done. He was alone and couldn’t play football and seemed lost until he stumbled across a pair of girls who kept smiling at him.
“Oh you’re so cute,” he remembers them saying.
“You guys are pretty cute yourselves,” he replied.
They told him they were cheerleaders and they desperately needed some male cheerleaders. They then asked him to meet their advisor. Since they told him how important he would be, he agreed. And when the advisor, Patricia Wilson, put on the pressure he reluctantly said he would consider the offer.
He called Oliver and his birth father and asked them what they thought. At first Oliver, who had taken loans to pay Porter’s tuition, didn’t know what to say until Porter added that it came with a $1,000 scholarship.
“Go for it!” Oliver shouted into the phone.
Initially, Porter was reluctant to do any of the things Wilson asked of him, sometimes missing practices, but vanity got the better of him. “He wanted to show us how strong he was,” she says. “He was quite the ladies man. And they loved him. I think he really enjoyed being around the pretty girls.”
Soon he jumped into his new role with zeal. Cheerleading allowed him to be close to the team, even able to travel to Stillman’s road games. But he also had his limitations. In addition to refusing to call out cheers, he told them to call him a “stuntman.”
“That’s when we started referring to all of our male cheerleaders as ‘stuntmen,’ ” Wilson says with a laugh.
One time Stillman played a game in San Diego, and Kim Oliver, in town for a conference, drove over to watch her son mostly stand with his hands behind his back and occasionally throw one of the girls in the air and catch her. His role was simple.
“I only called my pops and my mom,” Porter says, “Not my girlfriend, not my brother. I kept it quiet from everyone on the West Coast.”
In some ways David and Kim think their son was embarrassed. He was popular in high school and he boasted about going off to college to play football. Instead, he was a cheerleader. It wasn’t exactly the life he had told everyone he was going to live. But, his parents say, he is not the kind to get depressed or wracked with despair. He was, after all, getting attention at school as a cheerleader. He might not have been a football player but he was somebody.
“Quinn is a kid who is just comfortable in his own skin,” Kim says.
The next season he went out for football.
And the teasing started.
“The players all said, ‘Isn’t that the cat who was the cheerleader?’ ” Quinn says.
They gave him a nickname: Pom-Pom.
He also didn’t get to play. Even though he had always been a running back, Stillman coach Greg Thompson made him a wide receiver. He was the sixth-string receiver early in his redshirt freshman year when several tailbacks went down with injury. Porter went to Thompson and told him he had been a running back and a tryout was quickly arranged by the goal line. Porter was told he had three tries to get in the end zone. He scored on all three as the defensive coordinator shouted at his players: “Why are you letting Pom-Pom do this to you?”
After that he was a running back. He also returned kicks and punts, and for a time he punted. He played for three years until Thompson left and, figuring a new coach wouldn’t want him, he dropped out of school and was even drafted by the Georgia Stallions of the United National Gridiron League, a developmental league that ran out of money before even starting. By then Stillman’s new coach, L.C. Cole, had called assuring him that he was wanted and demanding that he return to school for his senior season.
And when he had 1,247 rushing yards his senior year, he kept telling his mother he was going to the NFL. For awhile she amused him by responding “OK.” But she also remembered his obsession with USC and how the Trojans never returned his calls and how he had to go to Stillman and become a cheerleader. Yet he seemed so certain, so determined, that after awhile Kim Oliver believed, too.
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“If he believes, I’ll doggone believe it, too,” she says.
Even if it was too hard to imagine.
Still, Porter found his way to an HBCU all-star game in the winter of 2010, which is where he first caught the attention of several NFL scouts. His agent, Travis Martz, sent him to Atlanta to work with a trainer, David Irons(notes), who had worked with several top backs from the South, including Brandon Jacobs(notes), Anthony Allen(notes) and DuJuan Harris(notes). All of them, Irons says, worked hard, but none came in as determined as Porter. He smelled a life in professional football, and he was going to find a way to make it real.
One week Porter was struggling with a short-shuttle drill, one he wanted to run in under 4.0 seconds, but it wasn’t working. He couldn’t get the right technique. Irons remembers him pushing over and over and over, trying to find a way to shave fractions of a second off his time until finally one time the stopwatch read “3.98.” He leaped in the air and ran around the gym shouting, “I did it! I did it!”
Green Bay signed him as an undrafted free agent immediately after the 2010 draft, and he seemed to have found a place with the Packers. He got several carries in training camp, and two newspapers had heard of his cheerleading past and wrote stories about him. The players all called him “Pom-Pom.” Then he tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. The Packers wanted to put him on injured reserve. Porter, certain that he could play at some point during the season, asked for his release and began a voyage that took him to the Redskins, the Browns and eventually five weeks ago, the Rams, who put him on their roster and told him they needed him on their special teams.
So far he has returned seven kickoffs, averaging 20.4 yards, and has made one special teams tackle. These are not overwhelming statistics. But given where he has been, the fact he was unwanted by every college just six years earlier and had to become a cheerleader just to get close to a small-school football team, the numbers might as well shine in blazing red lights from the top of the Gateway Arch.
“This is an example of his character,” Irons says. “If you look at it, the kid came to Stillman College to play football, and instead of playing football he did something where he could stay around the team, so he chose cheerleading. How many others would have done that? A lot of guys would have just quit. His story is an inspiration to many kids across the country who think, ‘I have to go to Michigan or Penn State.’ No, if you do what you are supposed to do in college, the NFL will find you.”
Sitting on a stool in the Rams locker room, Porter laughs.
“I’ve got to thank the Lord for me being here,” he says. Otherwise, there was no way anyone could have expected he would be.
A Rams official arrives saying it is time for a meeting. Porter rises. He hopes he has found a home here, and undoubtedly the players will hear about Stillman and “pom-poms” and there will be jokes. His agent, Martz, for awhile owned the domain name: “Ipreferstuntman.com” because he figured sooner or later his client was going to make it big.
Given the path he’s already taken, that might be very soon.
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