he white Cutlass Supreme parked in Quintaz Struble’s driveway hasn’t moved in years. Dents and a tattered red-vinyl top are the least of its problems. It’s going to need a new motor, a new transmission and lots of work to be drivable.
Quintaz says he’ll own that 1986 Cutlass til the day he dies, if only for who it belonged to — an Oklahoma high school football legend named Mandrell Dean.
An old Polaroid print that Quintaz counts among his prized possessions ties them all together: a year-old boy perched on his father’s arm, a familiar Cutlass parked behind them.
“Whenever I walk outside, and see it every day, I think about seeing my daddy in that picture,” Quintaz said.
Quintaz remembers the rare days his dad would pick him up in the Cutlass and take him to hang out. He imagines what Mandrell Dean might think about what he’ll do this week.
Three sons of former football stars will gather at Heritage Hall on Wednesday to sign national letters of intent. Two you probably know. The Pro Football Hall of Famer’s namesake who is headed to Stanford. The son of a Sooner, committed to becoming a University of Oklahoma receiver, just like his dad.
But only those who best know Heritage Hall defensive end Quintaz Struble have any idea he is the son of a Millwood High School legend who some argue is the greatest high school athlete in state history.
The athletic freak who shattered a backboard ... in an eighth-grade basketball game.
The superstar whose 85 career touchdowns had college football programs like Oklahoma, Miami, Florida State and USC in pursuit.
The tragic figure whose funeral five years ago this week was covered by the New York Times.
But this is a story of triumph, not tragedy. This is the story of the son who inherited some of his father’s gifts, and the mother who did her best to make sure he carried few of the burdens.
As a senior at Heritage Hall, he was an All-State selection just like his father was 19 years ago, when Mandrell Dean was unquestionably talented enough to sign with an NCAA Division 1 football program, but unable to qualify academically.
As Wednesday’s National Signing Day approaches, Quintaz’s hurdles are just the opposite.
His best scholarship offer disappeared when Mike Stoops was fired from Arizona in October, but the dream that eluded his father, although somewhat smaller, is still within reach.
“Quintaz didn’t really know much about his lifestyle until he passed away,” said LaTisha Struble, Quintaz’s mother. “He knew bits and pieces of it, but Quintaz did always know that there were some decisions that his dad made that contributed to him not being able to go to the next level.
“He has never judged his dad or looked down upon him. But he has used that as motivation to make sure he didn’t go down that path.”
Twenty years ago, Josh Henson was a Tuttle High School defensive lineman trying to tackle a guy in a Millwood No. 82 jersey. Tuttle’s district title hopes and a 13-point fourth-quarter lead slipped away one Friday night at Millwood, and it was largely Mandrell’s doing.
Today, Josh Henson is a Missouri assistant coach who recruited Quintaz Struble.
“He said my dad was just ridiculous,” Quintaz said.
Twenty years ago Andy Bogert was a John Marshall assistant coach who got his fill of Mandrell Dean every year in the preseason All-City Preview. Today, Bogert is Quintaz’s coach at Heritage Hall.
“I remember what a stud he was,” Bogert said.
Millwood’s first football coach, Leodies Robinson, died a few years ago, and with him a little of Dean’s legend. But it lives on with Varryl Franklin, who has trained generations of Falcons state champions as a line coach and long-time basketball coach. Millwood oldtimers debate who was better, Mandrell Dean or Joe Carter, a guy whose ninth-inning home run ended the 1993 World Series.
Says Franklin, “Some say (Mandrell’s) the best athlete to ever come through the state.”
Supporting evidence hangs on Quintaz’s bedroom wall in black and white. It’s a time-lapsed photograph of a 14-year-old dunking in a junior high game that has been framed and posterized and titled simply “MANDRELL!”
Then there are the touchdowns, including 28 on kick returns. That’s seven per season.
“There were times when they didn’t kick it to him, and he would just run and go get it and still break one on them,” Franklin said. “Watching him operate on a football field was just something to behold.”
As Dean’s accolades multiplied — he was the first four-time member of The Oklahoman’s Little All-City team and an All-State first-teamer twice — NCAA Division I coaches flocked to eastern Oklahoma City to pitch their schools to Dean.
He listed Oklahoma, Florida State, Miami and USC as his top choices.
But all the while, he struggled to become academically qualified.
“He couldn’t get his ACT score high enough,” said LaTisha Struble, who began dating Dean around that time.
“I don’t know if it was some type of learning disability, but just knowing the person that he was then, it wasn’t a lack of effort.”
Quintaz Struble was born in 1993, the year Mandrell Dean committed to OU.
He never signed with the Sooners.
Thus began a vagabond life; he signed with Arkansas-Pine Bluff, but instead went to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in Miami.
He was kicked off the team for missing a practice.
Dean spent the 1990s playing for arena and semi-pro teams like the Oklahoma City Strike Force and the Tulsa Twisters.
The Madison Mad Dogs and the Iowa Barnstormers.
The Florida Bobcats and the Peoria Pirates.
By 1999 he was playing for the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Dean came home in March 2000 to sign with the Oklahoma City Wranglers of the Arena Football League.
“If he couldn’t outrun you, he could bust through you,” said Bob Cortese, the Wranglers coach.
Dean showed up at the 6:30 a.m. practices. He stayed after workouts to watch film. To Cortese, Dean seemed genuinely enthusiastic about playing in front of his hometown. But after two preseason games, Cortese decided the raw Dean clearly needed time to develop.
Cortese told Dean that he’d be on the practice squad for his first year with the Wranglers, with the goal to develop him into a future star. Dean said no and left.
Quintaz was 6 and about to play his first little league football season for the Oklahoma City Rockets, when his father joined the Indoor Football League’s Green Bay Bombers for their last four regular-season games. Mandrell Dean told a reporter he was there because he needed a fresh highlight tape.
The Bombers played their home games at the Brown County Arena — right across Oneida Street from Lambeau Field. Dean’s speed and flash made him a quick Bombers fan favorite. One day, a couple Green Bay Packers scouts ventured across the street and immediately noticed No. 80, who was faster than anyone else on the field.
Three and a half years removed from winning a Super Bowl with Desmond Howard as their MVP, the Packers were looking for another explosive return man. Dean’s four-touchdown performance in the Bombers’ first playoff game earned him a Packers’ tryout.
During a pre-signing workout — 26 years old and eight years removed from his glory days at Millwood — Dean ran a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash.
The NFL team quickly signed him.
“The odds aren’t in his favor, but you have to like the way he’s taking on this challenge,” Packers special team coach Frank Novak said. “He’s not scared of the guys here.”
The Packers cut him after one week.
His final shot was dashed when the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz, another arena team, cut him in March 2004.
When his football days ended, Mandrell Dean caught on with another outfit. He became active with the Bloods, a gang founded in Los Angeles but with branches all over the country. Between 1990 and his death in 2007, it has been reported that Dean was arrested 13 times, and had contact with police 51 times.
“He was a very good person,” Franklin said. “He was charming, engaging. You loved talking to him and having fun with him.
“He just got hung up with the wrong people and made some bad choices.”
Quintaz grew up one of nine children born to a father he saw three or four times a year. His memories are all positive memories.
Sometimes he’d see Mandrell Dean at family holidays. Sometimes, they’d go for a ride in the Cutlass and grab something to eat.
“Every time I saw him, he gave me money and told me good things; he told me to stay in school, do well in sports and go to college,” Struble said.
“He didn’t want me to be a gangster or anything like that. He wanted me to go down this path. He got a lot of criticism, and he didn’t want me to get the same stuff, and have me hear people say I’m a waste of talent.”
Percy Lee Hopkins, Quintaz’s “Papa” and LaTisha’s father, is the strong male role model who helped cultivate that talent.
“Quintaz was a Papa’s boy,” LaTisha said. “In my dad’s eyes, Quintaz couldn’t do anything wrong.”
The stuff fathers do with sons — playing catch in the front yard, watching Saturday morning cartoons — Quintaz did with Papa.
Papa taught Quintaz how to work on cars — skills he says he’ll use one day to fix up the Cutlass.
In 2005, LaTisha, Quintaz and his half-brother Marquan moved into Papa’s house after he had a stroke. As a sixth grader Quintaz learned how to give Papa shots, change him, clean his room.
In November 2005, Papa died. A little over a year later, Quintaz would suffer another heartbreaking loss.
Coaches made sure Mandrell Dean knew where Quintaz’s team played, hoping that he might show up.
“I tried a lot harder when I saw him because I wanted to impress him,” Quintaz said.
LaTisha Struble said: “When Mandrell was there, he turned it up.”
On Jan. 25, 2007, two days before Quintaz’s seventh-grade team at Taft Middle School would play Douglass for the city championship, Dean called his son to say he’d be there.
He never made it. Early the morning of that game, Mandrell Dean allegedly broke into a northwest Oklahoma City apartment, demanded money and jewelry, assaulted a woman and was shot by her 17-year-old boyfriend.
Dean died almost instantly from two gun shot wounds to the chest. He was 33.
Quintaz woke that Friday and went to school. Only after the game did he and his mother learn why Mandrell Dean wasn’t in the crowd.
“It didn’t seem real to me,” Quintaz said. “It kinda felt like he moved out of state and basically told everybody he isn’t coming back.
“For some reason, I always thought he moved to Green Bay or Arizona.”
About 1,000 mourners came to Fairview Baptist Church for Mandrell Dean’s funeral. Quintaz sat in the third row, watching a slide show of his father’s football and family life, listening to speakers like Buddy Davis, Dean’s high school quarterback who went on to play at Oklahoma.
A New York Times photographer captured Quintaz clutching a football while leaning over to hug Mandrell’s mother. Dean’s Millwood letterman’s jacket hung to the right of his casket.
Quintaz Struble was 13 the day his father was laid to rest in a red suit.
“I know that red is a Blood color, but I don’t think him being in all red meant anything,” Quintaz insisted. “I remember being little and him telling me that his favorite color was red.”
LaTisha Struble was 16 years old when she gave birth to Quintaz, dropped out of high school, moved into her own apartment and started working to support her son.
She remembers working a Target checkout stand with Quintaz right alongside.
“I don’t have a high school diploma,” she said. “I don’t have a college degree. But I still managed to make a decent life.”
The tough neighborhoods they lived in somehow never rubbed off. Quintaz was an eighth-grader, and a big one, when Taft awarded him the Gwendolyn Wallace Peacemaker Award for protecting others from bullying.
But after Mandrell Dean’s death, LaTisha decided her oldest son needed different influences. She chose Heritage Hall, annual tuition $15,000. Mother and son took on extra jobs, scrimped, saved and borrowed to make it work.
And it almost didn’t. By the time he was a sophomore, Quintaz wasn’t making his grades. LaTisha threatened to pull him out and send him to the free school around the corner, Northwest Classen.
He went through the summer not knowing where he’d be in the fall.
“My goal for him to be at Heritage Hall was to get the education, so that whether football happened or not, he could still have the education and advance in life with it,” said LaTisha, who works as a legal assistant at MidFirst Bank. “But without him putting forth the effort to make his grades, it felt like a waste of time.”
After lots of thought, LaTisha gave Quintaz one more chance.
On the field, Quintaz exploded. He finished his junior season with 104 tackles and 15 sacks, and the Chargers won the Class 3A state championship.
He started getting serious interest from college football programs. That’s when his father’s story became real. When two clear paths formed before him — one leading to big-time college football, and the other to uncertainty.
Uncertainty led his father to the point of no return, and LaTisha Struble used his example to motivate Quintaz.
Her message: The same things that held back Mandrell Dean were going stop his son if he didn’t take school seriously.
Quintaz heeded his mother’s advice. He talked to school counselors, who told him it wasn’t too late to get things turned around.
Since that time, he’s made A’s and B’s, and raised his ACT score to a 21.
And late last month, Quintaz achieved what his father couldn’t. The NCAA Clearinghouse pronounced him academically qualified to play NCAA Division I football.
Firings at Arizona and Colorado State cost Quintaz his scholarship offers. Wyoming wants him to “grayshirt,” meaning he could join the program next January and be part of its 2013 recruiting class.
This weekend Quintaz and LaTisha are visiting Arkansas State, where he could play for new coach and former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. He has offers from a few smaller schools, including Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.
Yes, his college football journey could begin where his father’s ended. No matter where the road leads, he promises to finish a couple restoration projects.
Quintaz has wanted to fix the 1986 Cutlass Supreme ever since he asked his grandmother for it after his father’s funeral. He even bought a totaled Cutlass — same year, same model, same everything — for $300 at an auction for its parts, but more pressing matters required his time and money.
“When I get back from college, I’m planning to save up about $2,000,” Quintaz said. “I want to have everything original.”
This week, he takes the first step toward an even bigger project.
“A lot of my family hasn’t been to college ... I want to start something new, and be able to afford to have a couple kids and let them go to college. Then their kids will be able to go to college, and our family can experience new things rather than just being out in the streets.”
The football player who wants to be a coach someday hopes to raise doctors and lawyers. He wants to look back at the events that changed his life and “improved my family’s history.”
None is more significant than Wednesday morning, when the sons of three football stars gather at Heritage Hall to sign a college football pledge. Barry J. Sanders to Stanford. Sterling Shepard, son of former Sooner receiver Derrick Shepard, to OU. Quintaz Struble to ...
The destination matters, but less than the qualification.
His father’s old coach considers the whole story, and thinks Quintaz becoming qualified to pursue the college dream is the greatest thing to come out of all this.
Said Varryl Franklin, “I know Mandrell would be looking at it in that way too.”