Kerry Collins has seen the videotape of himself walking from North Carolina's Mecklenburg County Jail back in November-a cigar in his mouth and a slight smirk on his face-four hours after his arrest for drunk driving.
Last week he offered a self analysis:
"What a dirt bag. I looked like a dirt bag. I mean, I did."
The arrest, the scene outside the jail, Collins' apparent soulless impertinence, it was all as repugnant as it would have been inconceivable a year earlier.
Collins, a high school and collegiate All-American and an NFL star by the time he was 24, saw his life unravel in swift and ignoble steps, a descent that transformed him from hero to cad while he was just 25.
He ignited a racial firestorm with the use of a slur, albeit in jest, in joking with black teammates on the Carolina Panthers. A reputation for latenight carousing was aggravated by the drunk-drving arrest. Next, then-Panthers coach Dom Capers announced that Collins had abandoned a reeling team by asking out of the line-up. That led to his outright release.
Collins is fond of summarizing his public tailspin by saying: "I've been called a racist, a drunk and a quitter. Other than that I'm fine."
If his resume was suddenly crowded with demerits, it did not stop the New York Giants from believing there was a better Collins if examined in the whole. While other NFL teams ignored him, the Giants signed the troubled Collins to a four-year, $16.9 million contract on Feb. 19 and set about helping him bring order to a life where there was only a developing chaos.
Three months later, and after an eight-week stay in a rehabilitation clinic, Collins believes he is poised to succed again. More important, for the first time, Collins believes he will be capable of enjoying it.
Collins' life is a complex narrative, one in which the primacy of football contributed to a strikingly unconventional fracturing of a family. It is a tale in which Collins' identity as an athlete consumed his sense of self to the exculsion of everything else, a story where the pursuit of football distinction was painfully ordained-even at the expense of Collins' relationships, most notably with his mother.
Collins' willing sacrifice and headlong chase ultimately produced success in his chosed profession. A little more than two years ago he was playing for a berth in the Super Bowl.
It was at that moment that Collins was the most depressed.
"The plan for my life had worked, I had it all-fame, money, cars, NFL stardom," Collins said in a long, emotional interview last week, hours after his first workout at the Giants' annual veterans' minicamp. "The thinking had always been that everything I went through was going to be worth it if I ever made it this far. But when I finally got there, you what I thought? I thought: 'It wasn't worth it.'
"I had everthing and I had nothing."
For Collins and his family, nothing really has been the same since a high school football practice 12 years ago.
The 1987 team at Lebanon High School that went to practice that October afternoon had lost three of its first four games despite all the potential so manifest in the 6-foot-5 body of the team's 14-year-old quarterback prodigy, Kerry Collins. So the coaches put the team through a rough workout, which resulted in Collins being flatened on a quarterback keeper.
Collins' left ankle was broken in two places. As Kerry screamed, his father, Pat, who was Lebanon's offensive coordinator, began yelling. A loud, bitter agrument ensued between the elder Collins and the head coach, Hal Donley, over the keeper call-whether it was thoughtless, reckless, even spiteful.
Pat Collins reached down and picked Kerry up from the ground. Father and son left the practice field and never returned to Lebanon High.
Two days later, over breakfast, Pat Collins told his wife, Roseanne, Kerry and Kerry's older brother Patrick, who was also a member of the Lebanon football team, that he wanted the family to move 30 miles to West Lawn, Pa., a school district with a superior football program.
Pat and Roseanne Collins declined to be interviewed for this story, but her sons said she was against the family's moving simply for football. She refused to leave Lebanon.
Within a week, Pat Collins had rented a one-bedroom apartment in West Lawn, 40 yards from a noisy railroad trestle but just a half-mile down th hill from pristine Wilson High School, where Kerry could launche his dreams.
Roseanne, whose marriage to Pat would end in divorce a couple of years later, remained in Lebanon with Kerry's brother Patrick.
"I adopted an attitude that I had to forget about very strong relationships, even a relationship with my mother," Collins said last week. "If I thought about how I'd barely had any relationship with her now, then I don't survive."
Kerry led Wilson in three sports, pursuing an athletics-only course so completely that he was taunted for never hanging out late, never indulging when one of the guys had some beer. A Saturday night for Collins was an extra two quarters in the batting maching at the local range.
Kerry's final football game at Wilson was a loss in the state championship game. A scholarship to Penn State was waiting for him.
His time in Happy Valley was sometimes frustrating. He did not start until late his junior year. But as a senior, he led Penn State to an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl victory. With the fifth pick in the 1995 NFL draft, Carolina, an expansion team, made him the first player in its history.
Almost everyone interviewed for this article, Collins included, says his problems of the last two years stemmed from a hazardous mixture: immaturity, wealth, and a burgeoning confusion over football's positive or negative role in his life.
"Things at school had always been structured," Collins said. "Then I was on my own with all this money and attention."
"I wanted to explore the other side of me, the guy who has nothing to do with football. It wasn't Kerry Collins the quarterback 24 hours a day.....Then I took it too far."
The last straw for Collins with the Panthers came at 8 in the morning on Oct. 7, 1998, when Collins walked into Dom Capers office. When Capers emerged from the meeting, he stunned players with the announcement that Collins had said he no longer had the heart to the lead the team. (Nothing Capers said was ever proven, and therefore he could have been lying about everything Kerry said. Believe who you want about it but Capers played favorites' in the past and looked for someone to blame. I guess Kerry was an easy target with the way things were going.)
Collins' teammates were repulsed. Carolina released him six days later.
Collins was taken off the waiver wire for $100 by the New Orleans Saints, who in an unkind twist returned to play Carolina less than a month later. Booed and jeered throughout the Nov. 1 game, Collins stayed Charlotte afterward, went to a party with some former teammates and was stopped by the police for drunk driving on the way home.
Collins got the order to report to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., late last year. The NFL wanted him there by Jan. 24, the beginning of Super Bowl week.
"I didn't want to go," Collins said. "But I got to a point where I said myself: 'If you don't start letting people help you, you're going to implode.' I went to rehab two weeks early."
He went to group meetings, met with his counselors, read voraciously, wrote in journal throughout the day.
"I checked Kerry Collins the football player at the door," he said. "And he's a guy I had lived with since I was 14. I took eight weeks out of my life to concentrate solely on me and the problems I was carrying around."
Collins came to grips with his inglorious stumble, saw that its roots went far beyond the last two tormented years.
"It's hard to make sense of your life when you don't have any sense of who you are," he said. "People make football a game. I had it the other way around. Football made me."
Collins stopped drinking alcohol, he says, though he believes his drinking only played a part in what he terms erratic behavior.
He is the backup quarterback to Kent Graham on the Giants, which has helped him regain his professional footing largely out of the spotlight. He works out weekdays at Giants Stadium and has begun spending his weekends in Lebanon, where both of his parents still live. Home has never seemed closer.
"I love hopping in that car and being home in two hours," he said. "It's the most exciting thing in my life right now. I'm getting back to being a son to my mother, and that's a bond you can't replace with all the money and fame in the world.
"My mom gave me time. It took me a while, but I realize she knew I'd have to reach a certain point before rebuilding the relationship in stages."
Estranged from his father for much of his time in Carolina, Collins is rebuilding their relationship, too.
"We wouldn't speak for a year at at time," he said. "It was my doing. But we're OK now. I don't blame my father for anything."
"He knew my only chance at college was probably a football scholarship and he was trying to give me the best opportunity. My mom and dad were loving parents, doing the best they could."
Seated in a New Jersey restaurant, more than two hours into examining his life, Collins was asked what he thinks of it all now, and was it worth it, the move, transferring schools, losing touch with his family?
"No," he finally answered. "But you have to get past all that and say that's the way it was. Where am I now?"
"Football is fun again," he said. "I'm 26. My relationships with my family are better. I've got as good an opporunity as you can get in life."