Seasons of Change
There once was a quarterback who was unhappy where he was playing and decided, in the middle of the season, to quit his football team and go play somewhere else.
The quarterback was Kerry Collins.
The year was 1987.
Collins was a sophomore at Lebanon (Pa.) High School, vying with the coaches son for the starting quarterback job. One day at practice, Kerry’s father, Pat, an assistant coach at Lebanon, grew angry and took his son home.
Shortly after that, Pat and Kerry Collins moved from their house in Lebanon to an apartment in West Lawn -- about half an hour to the east -- and Kerry enrolled at rival Wilson High.
Now zoom forward to 1998.
On Oct. 7, Collins walked into the office of Carolina Panthers coach Dom Capers and, depending on whom you believe, walked out on his team again. According to Capers, Collins said his “heart wasn’t into it” anymore.
Collins, 25, later denied quitting on the Panthers, but he was waived last week and now is the third string quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.
Two seasons ago, when Collins led the Panthers to the NFC title game in just their second year of existence, no one could have anticipated the end of his Carolina career. But perhaps no one should have been surprised by it, either.
The day that Pat Collins moved his son was just the beginning of the controversy and chaos that have defined Kerry Collins’ career.
Although his future seemed limitless, life never has been easy for the kid from eastern Pennsylvania.
The leaves are showing their full colors and the air is crisp in West Lawn, a Reading, Pa., suburb about 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It is fall and a high school football game is the thing to do on Friday night.
The stands at Wilson High are mostly full, although the crowds aren’t as large as they used to be.
Wilson is 4-3, its 22-year string of winning seasons not yet secured.
“This is a down year, I guess,” said Rick Fehling, class of ‘70, as he surveys the people lined behind the fence that surrounds the field. “Because normally they’re five deep around the corner.”
That’s the way it was in 1989, when, as a senior, Collins led the Wilson Bulldogs to the Class AAAA state title game.
But success wasn’t necessarily sweet.
“It was very bitter,” said Matt Coldren, a longtime friend of Collins’. “I think a lot of that comes with jealousy. When he got here, we did very well. We went to the state finals in football. I think there was a lot of resentment in a lot of local schools.
“People were saying a lot of things that weren’t true, about a lot of things. First that Wilson recruited him for football, that he was living by himself, which wasn’t true. I think, even back then, it took a little bit of a toll on him.”
Beyond that pressure, there was the separation of the family. Collins’ mother, Roseanne, and his brother -- also named Pat -- were left behind in the modest brick Cape Cod home the family still owns in Lebanon. Roseanne Collins had been against the move at the time.
According to Kerry’s brother, there were problems in the marriage before the move to West Lawn. Although Collins’ parents moved in together again, after Kerry went to Penn State, the couple divorced when Collins was a sophomore. “It messed me up,” Collins said in a 1995 interview with the Reading Eagle-Times. “It game me the idea that sports took precedence over everything, over family.”
Not that Collins would ever let his feeling show. Collins could not be reached for comment for this story, but those who have known him for years will tell you he always has kept his problems to himself.
“He didn’t really talk about that kind of stuff a whole lot,” Pat Collins said. “Kerry always as been pretty tough. He seemed maybe even tougher in some ways back when he was younger.”
Collins threw for 2,043 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Wilson and was named to the Associated Press all-state team and was an honorable-mention All-America selection by USA Today.
West Virginia and Maryland were among the schools that recruited him, but when Penn State came calling, the decision was easy.
Yet life wasn’t easy at Penn State, either.
A broken finger Collins suffered while playing volleyball angered Nittany Lions coaches, and a quarterback controversy ensued.
It wasn’t until early in Collins’ junior season that he took over as the No. 1 quarterback. He was even booed at times that year.
“He had a tough road here,” Penn State quarterbacks coach Dick Anderson said. “It was not easy. He had great success in his last year. But prior to that he had a rough road. He had some injuries and things he had to overcome.”
It wasn’t until Collins’ senior season that he emerged as a top draft pick. Collins led the Nittany Lions to a 12-0 record -- including a victory over Oregon in the 1995 Rose Bowl -- earning first-team All-America honors. Collins, who threw for 2,679 yards and 21 touchdowns his senior year, was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and won the Maxwell Award as the nation’s outstanding player.
Bucky Greeley, now on injured reserve with the Panthers, was Collins’ center at Penn State.
“He’s had more down years here than he’s had up,” Greeley told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1995. “But I don’t think he ever lost confidence in his ability.”
At least, not until he arrived in Charlotte.
The Carolina Panthers had made Collins their first-ever draft pick in 1995, selecting him fifth overall to become the cornerstone of the franchise.
Physically, he was gifted -- Collins was 6 feet 5 -- but he was only 22 years old.
“There were great aspirations and there were great dreams when he got drafted,” said Gerry Slemmer, Collins’ former high school coach who now is the principal at Wilson High. “When I went down there for a couple of games and saw Ericsson Stadium, everything that had been poured into that, I’m just thinking to myself, ‘My God, they’re going to build this whole program on the talents of one young person that comes in here like that.’
“Think about the pressure. I think if you take your job seriously, there is a risk of becoming overwhelmed by the pressure and the responsibility of the job.”
The Panthers made Collins the starting quarterback early in his rookie season, and the team finished an expansion-team-best 7-9.
But Collins never was in control in Charlotte. He couldn’t keep fans away. He couldn’t maintain his privacy. If he went out for a drink, it was a public event.
“I’ve been a little reluctant with the whole fame thing,” Kerry Collins told the New Orleans Times-Picayune recently. “Here [in Charlotte], I was totally trying to live my life ... and here were people ripping me left and right. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a real cynical view of society at this point, really.”
Collins was miserable in Charlotte. Coldren said he though Collins was lonely, which was one reason why former Wilson teammate Brian McCarty moved to Charlotte and lived with Collins for a few years.
Still, Collins told a Reading reporter last January he “hated it” there.
“He just didn’t like Carolina,” said Slemmer, the principal. “It was just so different from Pennsylvania. Last year ... I picked him up at the Reading airport and we were driving over to my house. We’re driving over the back road and he goes, ‘Man, I miss this.’ Just the rolling hills and the green, beautiful June day with the Pennsylvania countryside. He just couldn’t get adjusted to Carolina in general.”
It wasn’t so bad in the 1996 season, when the Panthers were winning. Collins led Carolina to a 12-4 regular-season record and the NFC Championship Game, where the Panthers lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay, 30-13.
But by then there was talk that Collins had a drinking problem. That irked Collins and those who knew him in West Lawn.
“I’ve been around him,” Slemmer said. “I don’t believe any of it. I believe he’s a social drinker. I’m a social drinker.
“Who comes to Berks County and doesn’t want a Yuengling beer? The people that know him and are close to him, we hear these things, we just sit back and shake our heads and say you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The next season, in 1997, the Panthers slumped to 7-9. Collins suffered a broken jaw in the preseason and lost the respect of his teammates with a racial slur that Collins later said was meant to be a joke.
“I don’t think the kid’s got a racial bone in his body,” Slemmer said. “It was misinterpreted. I think when you’re not winning, as they weren’t at the time, and the feelings and attitudes are sensitive, it’s easy to react to a situation that way instead of just blowing it off.”
Some of Collins’ teammates never forgave him for the slur. Asked if Collins ever regained his respect, cornerback Eric Davis said, “No. No. I’ll answer that for myself. No, he didn’t.”
Collins apologized, but it didn’t matter. His reputation was ruined.
“I know it got tough over the last year, two years, obviously, with everything that happened down there,” Pat Collins said. “You can imagine yourself living in a place where people think you’re a racist and a drunk and you’re high-profile. I don’t know how enjoyable that would be.”
Said Coldren: “He’s a big guy, but he’s like a teddy bear. Things that people say about him really affect him. I think most people, you want people to like you, and I know not everybody is going to like you, but I think he liked to think that everyone thinks he is a good guy.”
From drunk to racist to quitter. That’s the label on Collins now. What drove Collins to Capers’ office on Oct. 7? The Panthers were 0-4 coming off a 51-23 loss to Atlanta on Oct. 4, one of the worst defeats in franchise history. Collins played poorly at times, but so did his teammates. He was no more responsible that anyone else.
But Collins apparently put the blame on himself.
“Always did,” Coldren said. “I think sometimes he’s very unfair on himself. I think he expects himself to be perfect all of the time. And you can’t. You’re going to make mistakes especially on the level of playing he’s doing right now.”
Collins stewed for two days after that game, then went to Capers.
“I just think he probably got to the point where in his heart he needed to express how he felt and say, ‘Look, I’m very, very unhappy here,’ which is obvious he wasn’t happy with football or with the way things were going football-wise there and personally living in Charlotte,” Pat Collins said. “I think it just got to the point where he needed to say that to somebody.”
Yet in the days after that game, Collins didn’t call his agent, Leigh Steinberg. Nor did he call his brother, Pat, nor speak with teammates about what he was thinking.
“He sees himself as a strong person mentally and emotionally,” Slemmer said. “He’s going to try to work through things. He’s not going to involve a lot of people in him. And that’s part of the confidence he has in himself, almost to a fault. Maybe there’s times where he should have found somebody to talk with.
“I think maybe he harbored some things. Maybe if he had a wife or somebody to talk with about things, that would have helped.”
It is unknown whether he spoke with his parents, both of whom still reside in Lebanon.
“I think at that point, he probably had a feeling if he talked to anybody they would try and discourage him and talk him out of doing it and I think he felt in his heart he really needed to do it,” Pat Collins said. “And he just said, ‘I’m going to do it.’
“I’m sure his agent would have tried to talk him out of it, and to be honest, I might have tried to take him out of it, too.”
No one other than Collins and Capers knows for certain what was said when the two met on Oct. 7. Collins said he didn’t quit on the team, but Capers said Collins acknowledged his “heart wasn’t into it” a comment Panthers players Steve Beuerlein and Shane Matthews confirmed that Collins made at a quarterbacks meeting that day.
Whatever was said, Collins continues to deny he quit on the Panthers.
“I know in my heart and in my head that I’m not [a quitter].” Collins told the Times-Picayune. “ I know that I can look myself in the mirror and be OK with it.”
Perhaps Collins didn’t realize he was ending his Panthers career at the time. But maybe that’s what he wanted all along.
New Orleans is a larger fishbowl than Charlotte. Maybe Collins will rediscover anonymity there, but probably not.
Collins, who didn’t play in New Orleans loss to Atlanta on Sunday, could be the Saints’ starting quarterback in a matter of weeks. And, in a plot-thickening storyline, the Panthers and Saints meet in Charlotte on Nov. 1.
Still, it’s a clean slate for Collins, something he apparently needed.
“He never really came out and said that, but I do kind of think down deep inside he was kind of hoping something like that might happen,” Pat Collins said. “Not the way it happened. But eventually that he would, if it didn’t work out in Charlotte ... that he could move on and get a chance in another city with another team.”
And another coach. Mike Ditka is far more confrontational than Capers. Friends don’t believe that will be a problem for Collins, though.
“I think that Mike Ditka is more of a coach that he’s used to,” Slemmer said. “There are no gray areas. You know exactly where you stand. I’m not so sure that’s exactly how it was [in Carolina].”
Besides, Slemmer said of Ditka: “He’s a Pennsylvania guy.”
People who know Collins can’t understand what happened to him in Carolina.
“If he has doubts about himself now, he didn’t have any doubts when he was here,” said Bernard Stoppi, Wilson High’s offensive line coach. “He was a great leader.”
They say the same thing at Penn State, too.
“I just remember him as being like, just a great leader,” said defensive end Brad Scioli, who was a freshman during Collins’ senior year. “He was like King of the Campus. He was the star quarterback. He was a winner. He was a leader. That’s what I can remember of him being here.”
They remember him in West Lawn, too. Collins has contributed thousands to a school scholarship fund there. A Kerry Collins Day was held for him in 1995.
“If we find out that Kerry did nasty stuff, [well], this is still his home,” said Fehling, the Wilson alumnus who now is the school’s lawyer. “It’s one of those things, the prodigal son -- you’re always welcome back at home.”