In the summer of 2018, Denver Broncos scout Scott DiStefano stood on the sideline at Wisconsin Whitewater’s first full-pads practice of the year. DiStefano had traveled to the Division III powerhouse to study a senior offensive lineman named Nate Trewyn. Almost every team had sent a scout to evaluate Trewyn, and Whitewater Coach Kevin Bullis had grown used to the routine. A scout would come, watch Trewyn and then ask him if there was anybody else worth keeping tabs on.

After practice, DiStefano walked up to Bullis and dispensed with the usual question. He had already identified another player he wanted to know more about.

“Hey,” DiStefano asked. “How about the guy with the gut?”

DiStefano pointed to Quinn Meinerz, a guard who had spent practice mauling defensive teammates with his jersey rolled up and tucked underneath his shoulder pads, revealing a belly that resembled a furry beach ball.

“That thing looks like stone,” DiStefano said to Bullis.

“It is a stone,” Bullis replied. “If you went and knocked on it, it would sound like a melon.”

“Damn, what year is he?” DiStefano asked.

“Sophomore,” Bullis said. “As good as Nate is, I think two years from now you’re going to be here and say, ‘Whoa, this guy may be better.’ He’s going to develop in a manner that is going to be bizarre.”

In the two years since the NFL noticed Meinerz, Bullis’s words have proved prophetic and Meinerz has proved himself more than just a guy with a gut. Meinerz has become one of the most fascinating figures of the NFL draft. A prospect from Division III, where the coronavirus pandemic canceled fall seasons, Meinerz improved his draft stock despite — or maybe, in retrospect, because of — not playing football for more than a year. He turned into a spring revelation after a dominant Senior Bowl performance, charmingly accompanied by viral photos of his stomach, boosted his draft position.

Meinerz has visited remotely with every NFL franchise at least twice, and NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah predicted Meinerz will be selected as early as the second round. But he is not just a pop-up sensation. Meinerz built himself into an NFL prospect through unconventional and consuming work, which not long ago included working out at a great-uncle’s Canadian fishing resort and lifting propane tanks and logs.

After high school, Meinerz received no big-school scholarship offers and wondered how many more years of football he had left. In the early spring, he hoped he would be drafted in the sixth or seventh round, just so he could hear his name called. By the fall, he might be your favorite team’s starting center.

“This whole entire thing has been insane,” Meinerz said. “It’s been really insane.”

‘He would block three people’

How Meinerz ended up in Division III remains something of a mystery. Coaches uniformly vouch for his character, describing him as humble and charismatic. He is not the classic late bloomer who lands at a small school and suddenly sprouts — he weighed about 280 pounds in high school. He was not a raw athlete who had yet to show football acumen.

“He literally mauled guys on every single rep,” said Aaron Rusch, a former Whitewater player and an assistant coach at Hartford Union High when Meinerz attended. “We put him in the backfield in one of our jumbo packages, and I just felt bad for some of these outside ’backers and cornerbacks. He’d take out two or three guys and let our running back walk into the end zone.”

When Bullis watched Meinerz’s high school film at Rusch’s urging, he could not believe Meinerz had yet to be offered a scholarship. He sent his offensive line coach to Hartford to watch Meinerz wrestle, and the attributes he showed resulted in a two-word report to Bullis: “He’s special.” Whitewater immediately offered Meinerz a roster spot.

Bullis thought it would prove to be moot and eventually a Division I program would find Meinerz, because prospects like him did not go undiscovered. Meinerz did not use social media in high school or upload videos to recruiting services, and he now believes his lack of self-promotion led to him being missed.

“I was always under the impression that if they’re going to find you, they’re going to find you,” Meinerz said. “I never got found, so I was just kind of, ‘I guess I wasn’t good enough.’ ”

Meinerz played sparingly on a championship contender as a freshman, but Bullis says he was good enough to start. After the season, Meinerz retreated to Canada, where he stayed at a fishing camp his great-uncle owned. He would perform exercises with water jugs rather than barbells or plates. Bullis worried that Meinerz would lose muscle, but he returned 20 pounds heavier, all lean muscle.

“When you’re thinking about an island in the middle of nowhere and only my great-uncle is there and a couple guests, literally no one can see what I’m doing or know if I am or am not working out,” Meinerz said. “I really enjoy doing it, and then on top of that, it showed how creative I could be with using propane tanks, water jugs or whatever it took to get the work done.”

The unconventional workouts also enhanced Meinerz’s functional strength. He couldn’t lift as much weight in traditional exercises, but he felt stronger on the field. He was sturdier in awkward positions, and his wrists and forearms could push defenders.

“There’s like the grown-man strength,” Meinerz said. “There’s a huge difference.”

Meinerz earned a starting job as a sophomore and immediately became one of Whitewater’s best players.

“The way he would hit people and the crazy things that would happen — I mean, spinning people like a helicopter,” Bullis said. “His speed down the field, his ability to block — and this sounds goofy. He would block three people. He would combo the D-tackle on the line, bounce him in. He would work up to the linebacker, kill the linebacker, work to the safety. It was like his mission was to block three human beings on one play. You don’t draw up plays that way. Finding that third guy? Are you kidding me?”

Meinerz could execute those plays because of an unusual attribute. He could crouch into a low stance and still run fast, giving him leverage against defenders without sacrificing speed. One day at practice during Meinerz’s sophomore year, Whitewater special teams coach John O’Grady sidled next to Bullis. O’Grady has coached at Wisconsin colleges for three decades.

“I’ve been around a lot of NFL guys,” O’Grady told Bullis. “His ability to bend is so much better than what those guys’ were. It’s bizarre, his athleticism.”

Before his junior season, Meinerz overhauled his training. He took a holistic approach to football. Rather than hope he slept eight hours per night, he made certain he slept for nine. He had bloodwork done and took supplements to eliminate deficiencies. He studied physical education so he could understand his body like a strength and conditioning coach.

“Every little 1 percent matters to me,” Meinerz said. “In college, what I get all the time is, ‘How much do you drink?’ Or, ‘Do you go out on the weekends?’ No. I’m a very boring, not-a-typical-college student. I just don’t do that, because I understand how each of those little percentages matter over a long period of time. So a lot of the people that want to be in my position aren’t willing to sacrifice those moments. Maybe they do work hard in the weight room. But they’re not eating right, they’re not sleeping, and they’re drinking on the weekends. And that’s where I can just soar right past everybody.”

Backyard football

Meinerz could not have known his junior season would be his last. In the spring of 2020, as lockdowns began and the football season became a question, he realized he had three choices: transfer to a Division I school, stay at Whitewater for another season or make the unusual jump of leaving early for the NFL from Division III.

He didn’t want to transfer, to learn a new playbook and new teammates. And he worried if one fall season could be canceled, then the 2021 season might not be a certainty, either. Knowing from a summer Zoom call with NFL scouts that teams were interested, Meinerz chose to leave for the pros.

But with no season, Meinerz faced an unusual challenge: how to become a better football player without playing football. He had a weight set in his basement, and he used it every day. To prepare for teams wanting him to play all three interior positions, he did footwork drills and snapped footballs into trees.

“I tried to learn how to play center on my own in my backyard,” Meinerz said.

When gyms opened up, Meinerz trained at NX Level with Brad Arnett, a Whitewater alum who trains many NFL players, including the Watt brothers, Wisconsin natives. They started with a “postural assessment,” Arnett said, strengthening and stretching his ankles and hips.

“You’ve got to dot your I’s and cross your T’s with him, because whatever you tell him he’s going to do,” Arnett said. “He’s very inquisitive. He asks great questions. He’s what makes this job easy. Ninety percent of what you deal with guys is effort. That was never a problem for Quinn.”

In the summer, Meinerz traveled to Texas to train with offensive line coach Duke Manyweather and work out at an Exos facility. He became convinced an invitation to the Senior Bowl would be crucial for his draft chances, and he started using his social media feeds and sending out clips — he wouldn’t miss a chance because of a lack of self-promotion again.

After a workout one day, Meinerz checked his phone. He saw two missed calls and a text message from his agent, Ron Slavin, that read, “Hey, answer that Arizona number.” He called back and heard a voice on the other end.

“You ready to put that Warhawk helmet on one last time?”

It was Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, and he had just invited Meinerz to the game. The Exos facility housed a basketball court next to the weight room, and Meinerz walked to the far corner. He didn’t want his buddies to see him crying.

‘I’ve earned myself a couple more years’

When Meinerz arrived at the Senior Bowl, he expected Day 1 to be rough. He was going to play football, which he hadn’t done in more than a year, and he learned the night before he was going to play center, which he had never done. He thought he would be fighting for his life on every snap.

He wasn’t. He looked across the line at defensive linemen wearing helmets from teams such as Washington and Texas, and Meinerz pushed them around. He realized he was as good as, if not better than, the players from bigger schools.

Others noticed, too. Photos of his stomach hanging from under his rolled-up jersey gained traction on social media. “To have the whole belly-out thing kind of freak everybody was hilarious,” Meinerz said. “That’s something I’ve been doing since high school.” If he had been a sleeper among the NFL scouting community, the Senior Bowl ended that. He went from perhaps a late-round pick to a possible second-rounder.

During the week’s final practice, Meinerz broke his hand. He had already done enough to boost his draft position, but he petitioned the Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores, his coach for the week, to let him play in the game anyway.

“He wants to show everybody that he’s special,” Bullis said. “I don’t say that as he’s arrogant. … He is humble as all get-out. But he knows that he’s talented, and he knows he was missed in high school. He’s not going to be missed with his opportunity here.”

Meinerz has been back in Wisconsin training at NX Level, and he has seen the Watt brothers in recent weeks. Out of respect, he has avoided interrupting their work with an introduction. When reminded that next season he might have to block them, he offered a clarification. “I get to,” Meinerz said.

In an interview last month, Meinerz reflected on landing at a Division III school. He remembered thinking he had four more years to play football. History suggested his odds of leaping from Division III to the NFL were bleak. He remembered what it felt like to take off his high school jersey for the last time, and he figured he would have the same feeling, with extra permanence, after his college career — he would turn in his pads and be done with the sport he loved.

“Now,” Meinerz said, “it’s looking like I’ve earned myself a couple more years.”