The scent of burning flesh, he said, was overpowering.
His skin crackled, bubbled and hissed under the scalding heat of flaming metal. But Quinton Coples said there was no pain. Just the smell of bacon.
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"All you do is just smell that burned skin," the Jets rookie defensive end said. "Your burned skin smells like bacon. I never knew it."
And that's how Coples -- drafted 16th overall in hope of injecting life into the Jets' dormant pass rush -- described in unemotional, straightforward detail the moment he chose to get branded as a North Carolina sophomore.
Hours before he was set to catch a flight home to Kinston, N.C., from rookie camp, Coples -- along with his business manager, Kurtis Stewart -- spoke at length to Newsday about his acclimation to the NFL, the misconceptions concerning his work ethic and his roots in a small city known more for its love of basketball than football.
To understand Coples, first you must understand the swollen flesh on his arms. Anyone can get a tattoo, he said. But his commitment to the cardinal principles of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity -- "manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift" -- went far beyond body art. Those tenets were a way of life long before he pledged, he said.
The brands just made it official. And in his mind, the bigger, the better.
"It's a beautiful thing," he said, referring to the multiple keloid-scarred Omega symbols on his arms.
With an impressive 6-6, 290-pound frame, a throaty Southern drawl and a laid-back demeanor, Coples may seem standoffish. But in the course of an hour and a half, he flashed enough smiles and dispensed enough wisdom beyond his 21 years to prove he's far from what he seems. And what you might expect.
Differences in opinion
They lauded his size, his speed and his strength, but ultimately, draft experts weren't completely sold on Coples. Especially at pick No. 16.
Concerns about his motor and effort were raised by several analysts, including ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., who gave the Jets a "C" draft grade largely because they selected Coples ahead of South Carolina's Melvin Ingram.
"To be blunt, I just think Ingram is the superior player," Kiper wrote.
The drop in Coples' sack production (10 his junior year, 71/2 as a senior), plus his experience in a 4-3 defensive front -- and not the Jets' base 3-4 -- forced many to agree with an SI.com assessment that he was "a colossal roll of the dice at 16."
"He could be an All-Pro," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said, "but has bust potential written all over him."
The criticisms struck a nerve with fans still reeling from the first-round selection of Vernon Gholston, a physical specimen who did nothing but take up space in the Jets' locker room. But those closest to Coples paint a far different picture.
They share stories of a teenager who vowed to take care of his mother and who worked three jobs to support him and his older sister Aurriell. And they speak of a young man who grew up without his biological father around much and who later was forced to hold the Tar Heels' program together.
"I keep watching this ESPN mess and it gets me fired up," said Nick Anderson, Kinston High's football coach the past two seasons. "I keep hearing about how he takes plays off, and that's just bull, in my opinion."
An NCAA investigation revealed that several Tar Heels, including current Giant Marvin Austin, received extra benefits from agents. As a result, several players were suspended and Coples, then a junior, was forced to learn Austin's tackle position. Then, before the start of the next season, head coach Butch Davis and his staff were fired.
"Everyone was relying on me," Coples said.
But he's not one for excuses, he said. His former strength and conditioning coach, Jeff Connors, isn't, either. Twice a week, he subjected the Tar Heel linemen to "Double Trouble," a collection of exercises featuring 100-pound dumbbells, 40-kilogram kettle bells and little rest in between.
A supplement to their daily training regimen, it was designed to make them "bulletproof." And no one got through the training better than Coples, Connors said.
"He'd keep telling me, 'Hey Coach, I need heavier kettle bells because these are getting light,' " said Connors, who joined East Carolina's staff right before Coples' senior season.
No weight-room warrior
He's seen plenty of "weight room warriors" in his 24 years as a strength coach, but Connors said Coples' effort and consistency always transferred from the weight room to the field while he was there. "And I think he can do that at the next level," Connors said.
Several teams -- including Carolina and Jacksonville -- called Coples "every day, every week" and hinted that he'd be their pick on draft day, said Coples' godfather, Christopher Bradshaw. But in the end, it was Rex Ryan who lived up to his word.
"When Quinton believes in an individual that sits down with him, he's going to go through walls for that individual," Bradshaw said. "The Jets really got a gem."
Coples -- who signed a four-year contract worth close to $9 million with a fifth-year team option -- has "off-the-chart" talent, Jets defensive line coach Karl Dunbar raved.
"I don't need Ambien to sleep anymore," said Dunbar, who added the Jets see Coples as a "physical mismatch" for most guards. "My job's going to be a whole lot easier because you got the guys you need."
Coples has said his transition is going smoothly and that the hardest part is getting acclimated to the "three technique," usually played by interior tackles, in a 3-4 front.
Dunbar believes it's misguided to project the type of player Coples will become. The comparisons between Coples and six-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers, also a North Carolina native and former Tar Heel, began during Coples' college career. But he is focused on forging his own path.
Said Coples: "I'm trying to set my own footsteps."
Godfather a great influence
Basketball had always been his love, but football was Coples' calling.
The epiphany came six years ago at his godfather's kitchen table -- the site of many heart-to-hearts between them. When he looked in Coples' eyes, Bradshaw saw limitless potential; the chance to be great. But the time had come for the burly 10th-grader to choose. "If you trust me in anything I might say, I want you to trust me in knowing that football is your calling," Bradshaw said that night.
They may not be flesh and blood, but their bond goes beyond the limits of biology. When Gail Coples, a divorced single mother of two young children, asked Bradshaw to be a father figure to her son, he happily accepted his new role.
"Quinton's going to have a family of his own and I want to make sure he knows how to raise that family the right way," said Bradshaw, who graduated high school with Coples' parents. He added that Coples' father remains in contact and visits his son.
But the rookie's support system stretches far beyond his family.
"We have basically a bunch of people with Google alerts on 'Quinton Coples' and 'Jets' out there," Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy said. "He's a household name around these parts."
Despite playing his senior year at Virginia's Hargrave Military Academy, Coples has been a fixture at Kinston football games over the years. And he was on the sideline and in the locker room this past December when his godbrother, quarterback C.J. Bradshaw, and the Vikings lost to undefeated West Stokes in the state championship game.
"He wasn't sitting there [saying], 'Hey guys, look at me. I'm about to get drafted,' " Anderson said. "I just thought that was a class act by him."
Big man in town
While he and his godfather were stopped at a red light a few weeks ago, a teenage boy ran into the street toward Coples.
"He told him, 'Quinton, I just want to shake your hand,' " Bradshaw said. " 'I want to let you know that we as a community are very proud of you because you're making other kids feel like they can accomplish anything.' "
And with nearly 22,000 people rooting for him in Kinston, Coples said he has no choice but to succeed with the Jets.
"They know I'm here for them," said Coples, who added he's seen violence and drug use corrupt many in his hometown. "Yeah, we're small, but when you have a whole city that's behind you, that's big. That's motivation.
"Like, how could you mess up?"