The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Quincy Avery tutors some of football’s best Black quarterbacks. He wants them to have a voice.

Quincy Avery with daughter Quest in Atlanta. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

As a child, Quincy Avery grew up in the same south Minneapolis neighborhood where George Floyd would one day die. He knew what it was like to be a young Black man harassed by the police, he says, to be stopped for no reason, to have his head banged against the roof of a police car while being thrown in the back seat even though he wasn’t being arrested — which happened to him once.

When Floyd died May 25, with his neck under a policeman’s knee, Avery — who has quickly become one of football’s top private quarterback trainers — was angry, furious, fed up. So a few days later, as pro and college teams rushed out statements of outrage, Avery typed an open letter to the country’s White college football coaches, posting it to his nearly 15,000 Twitter followers with the words: “We need more than conviction.”

“I speak to many of you often about young men who look just like me,” he began. “Usually the discussions revolve around how they can help you win football games. In this case, I’m writing to ask you to help protect them.”

Avery, 34, begged those coaches to stand beside their players as they protested police brutality, to “humanize” those players for the police, to be a part of change. “Use that power now,” he urged.

It was a personal plea, but it also was something more: a message to the quarterbacks he has mentored as a private coach, such as Washington’s Dwayne Haskins, Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Pittsburgh’s Joshua Dobbs, free agent DeShone Kizer and Ohio State Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Fields. As Black men playing the most important position in America’s most popular game, Avery says, they have a power that few possess. If America is really going to have a racial awakening, they are the ones who will have to help lead it.

Ten NFL teams opened this season with Black starting quarterbacks, including the past two league MVPs: Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. They are becoming “a force in the league,” Avery says, and he believes they have voices that should shout across not just football fields but the country. They are quarterbacks, after all, and quarterbacks draw attention like few others in professional sports. He wants them to realize they must be about more than strong arms and reading defenses.

“To me, this is important,” he says. “I am helping to shape the dynamic of the Black quarterback. I want them to understand the platform and say what is right. This group getting into the NFL and the next one is going to understand it more.”

‘Like a big brother’

In the booming industry of private quarterback mentors, Avery has become one of the most famous — driven partly by his work with players such as Watson and Haskins, in addition to his involvement with the popular Elite 11 high school quarterback competition. His private training sessions and camps are mostly run from Atlanta, where he lives, and are promoted heavily on social media. On his website, he claims that 140 of the players who have trained with him have earned Division I and Division II scholarships totaling more than $13.5 million in value.

His path to this point wasn’t easy, however, and required him to place a big bet on himself.

In high school, Avery was a solid quarterback who was talented enough to get an invitation to walk on at the University of Minnesota, where his father, Wendell, had been the quarterback in the late 1970s. He instead chose Morehouse in Atlanta, figuring he could start there, only to be moved to wide receiver.

For years, NFL teams have coveted the prototypical quarterback. Now there isn’t one.

But it was the way Avery saw the game that would shape him, playing wide receiver through the eyes of a quarterback. Wendell Avery likes to say Quincy took the best of both him and Quincy’s mother, Paulette Wilson, adopting Wendell’s gregarious personality and Paulette’s relentless drive. The two never married, and Quincy spent most of his childhood living with his mother in Minneapolis while his father worked as a football coach, eventually becoming the head coach at Savannah State and later an assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Wilson, however, might have had the bigger impact on Avery. As a single Black woman with three children and no college degree, she quit a career as a flight attendant to sell office supplies for Xerox. At first, the company gave her a small territory in a neighborhood of mostly Black businesses. Within years, she was selling all over the city, to many of the biggest corporations, mainly through the force of her will and what she calls “authenticity,” never padding her sales with superfluous equipment.

When Avery left Morehouse in 2008, he knew he wanted to coach quarterbacks, and using a connection of his father’s, he landed an interview for a graduate assistant job at UCLA. He drove his 2006 Mustang to California only to find out there had been a coaching change. Though he had no connection to Rick Neuheisel, he went into the new coach’s office anyway, charming with what Neuheisel describes as “his gift of gab” and landing a position as a low-level assistant.

He spent three years at UCLA, sleeping on an air mattress in the locker room and getting what he calls “a grad degree in football.” By then he could see that Neuheisel wasn’t going to last long in his job, and he didn’t think he liked the desperate life of a college coach, where too many injuries or one bad recruiting class could get everyone fired. He had noticed more quarterbacks using personal coaches who could spend time on the fundamentals that college coaches, limited by NCAA rules, could not. He thought he might like working for himself.

He drove back to Atlanta, figuring there was room for a private quarterback coach in a city filled with talented players. He had no money, no place to live and no clients. For several months he slept in his car, parking the Mustang on quiet streets in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood, showering and eating at a local gym and then spending his afternoons at a Starbucks, sending Facebook messages to top quarterbacks in the area.

Wilson did not like the fact that her son was homeless. “You have a degree, and you’re living in your car,” she would tell him. When he asked for money, she refused, hoping it would force him to get a real job, even as she admired his persistence.

Avery’s big break came when Dobbs, a rising star at nearby Alpharetta High, responded to one of his messages. Avery found an empty field and borrowed two cameras and a GoPro from friends. Only one of the cameras worked, a fact he neglected to tell Dobbs, who was dazzled by the professional-looking setup and the way Avery dissected his form and tailored the workout to replicate game situations.

Dobbs had never met anyone like Avery. As a top baseball prospect as well as a quarterback, Dobbs had several personal coaches in both sports, but those relationships were transactional. Avery was like family, coming to Dobbs’s baseball games, staying after sessions to talk about life.

“Like a big brother to me,” Dobbs says.

‘That’s our guy!’

When Dobbs was invited to a regional workout for the Elite 11, run by former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, he brought Avery with him.

By 2012, Dilfer could see the game was changing. The top quarterbacks coming up through high school and college “were no longer blond-haired kids,” he says. Most of his Elite 11 coaches were White, like the majority of the camp’s quarterbacks. Dilfer was looking for someone who could help him find and coach more Black quarterbacks, to better reflect the way the sport was evolving.

Then Dilfer saw Avery at the Atlanta regional, jumping in to run drills on a field filled with 200 players, barking directions, calling the kids by their names and correcting their mistakes. “The only voice you could hear was Quincy’s,” Dilfer recalls. “And in the back of my head I’m going, ‘Ding, ding, ding, that’s our guy!’ ”

Dilfer invited Avery to an Elite 11 super regional at Ohio State. Avery drove all night with only $18 in his pocket, sleeping in his car because he couldn’t afford a hotel room. When Dilfer invited him to dinner with the other coaches, he said no, afraid to tell anyone he couldn’t afford his meal. It wasn’t until after the weekend that he told Dilfer and Joey Roberts, the Elite 11’s director of scouting, about his time at UCLA and how he had been sleeping in his car in Atlanta, certain he could make his business work.

“I was thinking, ‘Why did you fight so hard to be here?’ ” Dilfer recalls.

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They asked Avery to come to Oregon for the Elite 11 finals. This time they got him a plane ticket and a place to stay and made him a part of the Elite 11 production, where top young quarterbacks saw him on television. Soon he had enough clients that he could get a house and never have to sleep in his car again.

He started his camps, filled with morning tutorials on understanding offenses and practice sessions whose sophistication surprised Wendell Avery, who had been out of coaching and came to assist. The father couldn’t help but notice his son was teaching players to make the type of throws across their body that he himself would never have dared make as a player or coached his quarterbacks to make. But he also knew the game had changed and believed his son was seeing a future that many in football were slow to accept.

“He coaches everybody to their strengths,” Dobbs says.

‘I have to be willing to speak’

Wilson says she hated the way the teachers at Avery’s Minneapolis elementary school judged her son, trying to keep him from the accelerated classes in which she knew he belonged. It was an early lesson in racism for Avery. Certain he was being graded lower in high school because he was Black, he remembers turning in the exact same paper as a White friend just to see what would happen. The friend got a B, Avery says, while he got a D.

Being young and Black in Minneapolis was hard. But Wendell Avery being an NFL coach gave Quincy a certain status with the other kids. Then, in November 2000, Wendell Avery didn’t show up for a Buccaneers game in Atlanta. For several days, no one could find him; the team even filed a missing person’s report. When he finally showed up at the Bucs’ practice facility the following week, Tampa Bay Coach Tony Dungy fired him.

Quincy was devastated. He had no idea his father had problems. He felt betrayed and for a time didn’t want to speak to his father. When he tried again a year later, there were other disappearances, and the relationship broke again, for three more years.

Wendell Avery will not talk about those incidents other than to say the “adversity” his son has faced is a driving force.

“It changed me,” Quincy says. “It hardened me. It made me realize I couldn’t rely on anyone for anything.”

Years later, these became the things he talked about with the quarterbacks he mentored.

“He’s been very open and vulnerable about his dad and other things in his life,” Elite 11’s Roberts says. “The vulnerability factor is why guys like him.”

Several times in recent years, Avery says, he has been approached by college coaches wondering whether he would be willing to work for them. He thinks he can probably get a job with an NFL team, too, maybe as a quarterbacks coach. Even though it would seem to be the perfect opportunity, Avery says he isn’t interested.

“When I got into private coaching, I did it because I felt I could have a larger impact on people’s lives at the most influential position in all of sports,” he says. “If they want to do big things, they can. I feel I have to be willing to risk a lot in terms of speaking about things that are important to me. If I want them to have impact, I have to be willing to speak.”

Some older Black coaches, like his father, have told him they admire the way he speaks freely about racial issues in a way they never could, for fear of ruining their careers. By choosing to work for himself, Avery doesn’t have to worry about angering a head coach or athletic director or team owner. The money he gets from private training is better than what he would make as a coach anyway, he says. After betting on himself and winning, his goals are his own.

“I want to be courageous,” he says.

At a time when Black quarterbacks have finally become the face of the NFL, he hopes they will be, too.