A serene Kerry Collins is perched atop a table in Albany on July 24, discussing the fresh contract extension that is ushering him into his fourth Giants' training camp.
The ink barely dry on a deal completed this very day players report, Collins talks of the commitment between franchise and quarterback, of the security for both parties, and of the benefit this will have on his ability to be the leader he believes he can be.
He's grown so much since draft day 1995, when expansion Carolina made him the fifth pick overall and gave him a huge rookie contract. He's progressed further still from February 1999 when the Giants took a chance on him after his nasty divorce from the Panthers, giving him a four-year deal.
Fast-forward to this week. Collins sits inside a Giants' meeting room after a Thursday afternoon practice. Four months removed from the first contract extension of his life, he is wiser still to what it means.
"With this extension I really got a good feeling of self-worth," Collins said. "Coming out of college, I didn't earn that first contract. Coming here, I didn't really earn that contract either. But this last one I earned. I felt like this was something that came about because I was playing well and coming along at the level they expected. This is my job. It's what I do. I put a lot of time, energy, thought, and feeling into it. When you're rewarded like that, it's the biggest feeling of self-worth you can get as a professional."
Collins is required to pay dividends on that Giant investment every day. He promised to be more of a leader, and with an injury-plagued season wobbling from three-game winning streaks and playoff drives to two-game losing streaks and a coaching staff in jeopardy, he needs to deliver. By all accounts in the locker room, he has. Never brash or outspoken in his public persona, the Collins who runs Monday morning film sessions with the offense and the Collins who barks orders in the huddle has become more demanding of his teammates and more assertive in his demands.
"There's a fine line between putting on an act and being who you are," Collins said. "Sometimes on the outside it may look like I'm not that vocal, but I've come to learn so much of leadership is showing up every week and coming back from things. I think that's really important for guys to see."
Despite working behind a young and inexperienced offensive line, and minus key receivers such as Ike Hilliard and Tim Carter for much of the season, Collins has thrown for an NFC-best 3,049 yards, and is second in completions (257) and gain per completion (7.21 yards).
Collins is there for every play. He has thrown every pass for this team the past three seasons (an NFL record) and, in the words of backup quarterback Jesse Palmer, is "unbreakable." With his toughness established, his words weigh more.
"He's fiery in a non-combative way," running back Tiki Barber said. "If things are going astray, he has it in just the way he says things to snap people back into focus. A lot of that comes from the fact that we're such a young team, people listen to him."
In the past five games, since head coach Jim Fassel took over calling plays for the offense, Collins has been included among the decision-makers. He feels "empowered" and is more willing to address mistakes by himself and those around him. At 29 years old, he understands this game better than he ever has, believes he is at his physical peak, and has crafted his own definition of what it is to lead.
"A lot of leadership is how you react to certain situations and I think I've gotten good at being able to handle the ups and downs and even in games, when things aren't going well, be able to come back and play well when the team needed me to play well," he said. "We have to keep moving forward, keep pushing forward, and remain positive. We have had so many ups and downs and if I show the first sign of getting down or panic, that's going to show. If there's one guy on this team who can't show that, it's me."
Fassel, a former quarterback, quarterbacks coach, and offensive coordinator, knows how important this evolution is to the success of his team.
"I've told him when something isn't right, tell them. You do it," Fassel said. "It's the same with me. I want things done the way I want them done because it's going to fall back on my head. That's how it is with him. If that guy isn't bringing that route off for you or isn't taking the handoff and giving you a fake, you better get on his butt because it's all going to come down on your head. Kerry has grown that way."