Fire in the belly: How D-III's Quinn Meinerz turned doubts into fuel for NFL draft

WHAT WILL BE the most famous gut in the 2021 NFL draft wasn't always an object of adulation, envy and wonderment.

Quinn Meinerz never forgot the scouting report an agent shared with him, the one that described his "sloppy midsection." Meinerz, a standout offensive lineman for Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, had taken pride in his gut, baring it to the world. Not even Whitewater's 2XL jerseys could contain the belly.

"When I hear 'sloppy,' I hear 'lazy,' and that's something that's 100% not who I am," Meinerz said. "I really took offense to that and I wanted to prove him wrong. It's solid, man. It is big, but it is solid."

The truth is, Meinerz loves jabs like "sloppy midsection." Every word, phrase or sentence of doubt about what he can achieve is stored away, even now, as he has defied the odds to virtually secure a spot in this month's draft. "Free motivation," he called it.

Meinerz is hardly the first NFL prospect to seek criticism as kindling. But most prospects have more counter material: a strong recruiting ranking in high school, the backing of a big-name college program, a productive season leading into the pre-draft evaluation period.

Meinerz had none of that.

Since 1990, only 21 players from Division III have been drafted, according to NCAA.com. The man soon to become the 22nd has taken a path likely never to be replicated. Meinerz had his senior season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic; he spurned the transfer portal to spend the summer and fall training; and he got his big break when the Senior Bowl needed a late fill-in at a position he had never played.

He's projected as a likely Day 2 pick in the draft later this month. ESPN's Mel Kiper now lists Meinerz as the No. 4 center prospect.

"I bet on myself," Meinerz said. "I know what I do. I know how hard I work every single day, and how dedicated I am to my goals."

As Meinerz rose from reserve to first-team All-American and team captain at Wisconsin-Whitewater, coach Kevin Bullis would ask the lineman: What's the fire in your belly?

"The motivation is to prove myself right and to prove others wrong," Meinerz said. "Those sweet victories."