The strobe lights blinded Kerry Collins. On the stage in a suburban San Diego resort a month ago, with nearly 300 NFL rookies packing the room for a symposium, the Giants quarterback had trouble seeing the faces. Yet, they could see him. They had a unique angle on a one-way mirror into the deepest, darkest days of the speaker's life. They could study his every inflection, measure his every word. All Collins could do was stare straight into the bright lights and talk straight from the heart.
Were the rookies listening? Rolling eyes? Dozing? Until it was time for questions and answers, until they started to pepper him on his drinking, his use of a racial slur in Carolina, he had just let the stories rush out of his tortured soul with a raw, riveting emotion. For months, Collins bore his soul to an endless stream of reporters and interviewers, detailing a destructive dance with his demons. Somehow, this was different. This didn't feel like one on one, but one on the world.
Here he was, on the symposium's speaking list with Baltimore's Ray Lewis, telling these perfect strangers about chasing his lost childhood with a bottle, telling them how he almost threw it all away.
"It took a man to stand up there, reliving those things from his past," Giants rookie Dhani Jones said. "Here he was with probably a 65 percent minority audience, taking questions and holding his own on really sensitive racial issues. It was powerful. I was proud that was my teammate up there."
The lights blinded him, but Collins had never seen so clearly. This was one of the steps on his path to a personal redemption. In these moments, Collins is willing to trade today's pain for the promise of tomorrow's peace. For all the lives the NFL hoped he touched in the audience, he understood that the greatest beneficiary probably ended up being the man in the mirror.
"It was good for me, therapeutic, but for a day after it was terrible," Collins said. "I was miserable. The whole reason why I was in San Diego was because I screwed up. It was on my mind all the time. When I'm home, I can think about [my past] and it'll go away. But it was on my mind there 24 hours a day.
"Acknowledging [my past] and not denying it is the quickest way to closure. That was probably the best thing about going to San Diego, that it probably brings me a little closer to closure on the whole thing."
Collins has come to his second Giants training camp at the University at Albany with an unprecedented measure of stability in his personal and professional life. This isn't just soothing to him, but the Giants too. Collins has a stronger hold on life, and now the Giants need him to take a stronger hold of the franchise.
"There's no question that every year I've been here, nobody thought that the guy we were starting was good enough to finish out the season," Giants coach Jim Fassel said. "But that's not the case now."
Collins has a running back, a space age offense, and a general manager and coach trusting his talent to make winners out of these Giants. In the 18 months since the Giants resurrected his career, Collins, 27, has traveled a long, lonely path.
"It was unsettling last year," said Jamey Crimmins, a close friend of Collins. "He had to prove himself in rehab, and then he had to come to the Giants and prove, 'I'm not a drunk, I'm not a racist, I'm not a quitter.' There was a great sense of apprehension. Now, he's into another stage and there's really a great peace with himself.
"Just two years ago, he was the poster boy for everything wrong in the NFL, or at least Charlotte. And now, the league is inviting him to speak to the rookies. It's hard to know how far Kerry has come, if you didn't know him before."
As Collins came clean on his drinking, he pushed harder for the real reasons his life and career had turned into a reclamation project. During the off-season, Collins enrolled in two graduate-level psychology courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Why did his drinking take such a dramatic turn after college? Why did he let a reckless lifestyle push him to the brink of destruction? "He didn't go to those classes for the publicity, or to kill time," Crimmins said. "He went to look inside of himself."
Collins had his suspicions confirmed, with the trouble traced to his freshman year of high school. As a 14-year-old, his parents split up so he could play football in a different district. Mountains were moved for him, decisions made, and an innocence was lost in those years. As Collins said, "Developmentally, I stopped there."
He was turned into a commodity, and eventually there promised to be a price to pay, the classes taught him.
"Those teenage years are critical in self-inspiration and deciding what path you want to take," Collins said. "And that was pretty much decided for me. At some point, I was going to be left on my own and have to decide things for myself. It was going to happen at some point, but unfortunately it happened when I was the quarterback of an NFL team.
" . . . Once I learned that, it kind of made sense. Learning this makes me feel normal, that I don't have ridiculous, abnormal problems."
Where his personal redemption has gotten him with his teammates is still a mystery to Collins. He's the most gifted quarterback the Giants have had since Phil Simms, he's made immense progress off the field, but he still has trouble believing his teammates have bought into him. "I haven't really felt that yet," he said. "Not to say it isn't there, but I haven't felt it yet."
Can the Giants ever win without it happening?
"No, I don't think so," he said. "You've got to be the leader out there and a lot of the time the team is going to take on the personality you have. But I think those things take time to manifest themselves."
Almost a month after he was so unsure of his reception in San Diego, Collins stands on stage with these Giants, staring into the blinding, bright lights and wondering if he's reaching them. He's right. These things take time. Before they can get to the truth of the quarterback, Kerry Collins had to find it for himself.