On the unlikeliest day of them all, the unlikeliest hero took the unlikeliest journey you could imagine.
It was over now, all but counting the numbers which, frankly, was going to take a while. Kerry Collins moved around Giants Stadium, and noise washed over him, and memories rushed back.
Who ever would have thought a day like this was waiting for him? Who ever would have thought that when it came, he would be able to stand up to it? Who would have believed the sight of Kerry Collins, or the trophy in his hands?
This was the man the league cast off and left for dead. It had branded him a quitter and loser, a racist and a lush. Then came Sunday, and the unlikeliest sight of them all.
Kerry Collins, champion.
He was amazing. Even considering that he was playing against the Minnesota Vikings, and that horrible excuse for a defense -- the corners are named Toast and Pop-Tart and the most feared injury of all is windburn -- Collins was incredible.
It was a surprise that the Giants beat the Vikings, and it was a shock that it was 41-0. But it was staggering that, along the way, Collins looked like a star. He made the Vikings look as if they hadn't practiced for this game (and perhaps they did not).
This was Collins' finest hour since he gave up happy hour. The Giants put this NFC Championship Game in Collins' hand, simply turned it over to him to win. And darned if he didn't. He threw for 381 yards, 338 in the first half, and five touchdowns.
It wasn't so much that you doubted Collins had this kind of day in him. You wondered if any quarterback did.
Against the Vikings, Collins was so accurate, he could have thrown needles into mosquitoes.
On this day, he was Phil Simms. He was John Elway. He was Joe Montana. You wanted to stop the game at the half and ask for identification. This was the guy they used to call "Vodka" Collins in derision, or worse.
Such were the memories that, even in victory, clung with Collins as he took a lap around the stadium. This was a league that saw everything wrong in him, and if the labels had crushed him, few would have cared.
"You get beat up and you get beat down," Collins said. "People call you stuff and call you 'loser' and call you all that kind of stuff. It's going to make you tough. That's why it made that moment sweet, but you remember things, too."
Time was, a lot of these kinds of afternoons seemed promised to Collins. He was going to be a star with Carolina, and there were going to be games during which he roamed behind the line of scrimmage and threw missiles.
The truth has been harsher for Collins. He was run out of Carolina, and New Orleans didn't like what they saw. Then he came to New York, for what most saw as his last chance. Most of the time here, he has been a caretaker, one of those recyclable quarterbacks hired not so much to do damage to the other team, but to do as little as possible to his own. It was as if the Giants didn't totally trust him to stay out of the way.
This time, however, the opponent was the Vikings, whose secondary is made up of four guys hired from a Barbershop Quartet. At least, it should be. When the Giants looked at the film, they realized they had to attack. "We were coming out throwing," coach Jim Fassel said. "(Collins) knew it, everyone knew it. Whether we established the run game or not, we were going to throw the football."
Such a daring concept seemed to confuse the Vikings, who again exited the playoffs in flames and embarrassment. Most of the afternoon, Minnesota's defensive backs seemed acres from the Giants receivers. After Collins hit 14 of his first 19 passes for 246 yards and three scores early in the second quarter, the question became just how many yards were in his arm.
"The man was on fire," tackle Lomas Brown said. "I was on the sideline telling him, 'You're going to get the all-time passing record. You're going to get it.' If they would have let him go, he would have, too. He had the fire in his eyes. He was in the zone. He was awesome."
Listen to those adjectives. They are different than the ones that used to cling to Collins. And if some of those were deserved then, well, some of these are deserved now. There is something honorable about growth, about endurance, about a man beating the back the demons inside him.
"He's come miles and miles," offensive coordinator Sean Payton said. "It's a credit to what he's done. It's a really neat story."
If he keeps running, perhaps Collins will find his way all the way back to redemption.