MANHATTAN — When Aubrey Quarles caught his first touchdown of the season last week, he thought about his daughter, Ava.
The senior wide receiver would go on to celebrate the score — his first in more than two years with Kansas State — hug his teammates, and count his blessings for being able to overcome a mysterious leg injury that kept him off the football field for an entire season. But not until he paid homage to his family.
Even though he was overcome with emotion, he remembered what has always come first in his life.
"My family, they've always been there for me," Quarles said, "trying to push me and always do what's best for me. Not being able to play and everything, most importantly I let myself down. But I also let my family members down.... Now that I'm back on the field, my family is my motivation."
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Quarles says they are his biggest critics and fans. Always have been.
Growing up in California, Quarles' parents worked long hours. That meant Quarles spent most of his days with his two brothers at his uncle's home, where 10 cousins live. They played football all the time, and the practice paid off. His brother, Clyde Surrell, played safety at Colorado. Quarles ended up in Manhattan.
Most importantly, though, he learned family values. In that setting, nothing was more important.
"As a young kid I had a big family — a family of 13 kids," Quarles said. "I grew up around that, and family has just been something that has been ingrained in me ever since."
Since transferring to K-State from Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College in 2008, he and his girlfriend have a 17-month-old girl.
"After a hard day of school and football, you just get to go home and relax," Quarles said, "and just spend time with your family and play around with the daughter."
Following a so-so junior season in which he caught 34 passes for 407 yards and a touchdown, the thought of devoting more time to his family entered his mind.
He had just come up lame after an offseason run, and was puzzled for weeks as doctors tried to evaluate his injury. To this day, he can't explain exactly what went wrong inside his left leg, but it required surgery and exhaustive rehab.
He redshirted to keep his final year of eligibility, but was unable to practice with his good friends and fellow wide receivers Brandon Banks and Attrail Snipes. It was tough for him to watch them play and give his family updates on what he did in the training room instead of on the field.
The prospect of being a full-time student and dad didn't sound too bad at the time. But his brothers and cousins, who call to analyze his performance after games, pushed him to stick with it. If their extended family could care for 13 children every day, he could make a full recovery.
"I never had any questions about not coming back (after that) because football is what I love to do," Quarles said. "I'd do this for the rest of my life if I could; if my body allowed me to. I definitely just wanted to come back and prove to people what I could do on the football field."
After a year of work, he got the go-ahead to participate in no-contact drills with teammates in January. He still wasn't feeling like his old self, but that didn't stop him from turning a few heads.
Quarles went so hard his first time back that cornerback David Garrett pleaded with him to take it easy.
"Before he was even 100 percent he was out there working out, running around with us," cornerback David Garrett said. "We always had to tell him, 'Don't hurt yourself.' But he was just so hungry to get back. Now he's back and you see what he's out there doing. He's making plays for the team."
It's hard to expect anything less from a lockerroom leader like Quarles, who is said to always be the first to stand up and stress the importance of family and staying together during team meetings.
"He is a very conscientious young man, and he works very diligently at everything," coach Bill Snyder said.
Quarles has already emerged as one of the Wildcats' top wide receivers. He has caught eight passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. Along with Brodrick Smith, he offers K-State an aerial scoring threat it didn't have last season.
It's a role he spent more than a year chasing, and cherishes more than ever.
"Family is all we got, especially in football," Quarles said. "You go to work with these guys every day. You bleed, you sweat with these guys and they're pretty much your home away from home. This family thing is really big to me."