In Kerry Collins’ locker at Baptist Sports Park sat a book.
The book, Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back is the new autobiography of Texas Rangers baseball slugger Josh Hamilton, who descended into a life of alcohol and drug abuse before finally reclaiming his life and his baseball career.
Collins, 36, can probably identify with Hamilton somewhat, because his own life was headed down the wrong path early in his career. And while Collins didn’t venture as far down that path as Hamilton did, alcohol, accusations of a racial slur, and other issues threatened to derail his career early on as well.
Now, as Collins has guided the Tennessee Titans, his fifth NFL team, just two steps away from a Super Bowl trip, he reflected a moment to see just how far his career and his life had come from 13 years before.
“I think it would make a great book. I really do,” Collins said. “It’s life. I made mistakes and tried to correct them and tried to improve, tried to mature and all those kinds of things.
“I’m a very normal guy when it comes right now to it. Things happened to me that happen to normal people. That’s just part of it. There’s been a lot of twists and a lot of turns and ups and downs.”
The very way that Collins ascended back into a starting quarterback role is bizarre in itself. He was relegated to a backup role behind Vince Young until fate intervened, with Young suffering a knee injury and a subsequent issue with police looking for him the following day.
Into the fray stepped Collins, and with a single screen pass to Bo Scaife that went for 44 yards and set up a field goal, his and the Titans’ fortunes turned for the better.
“When Vince went down, the very next play, Kerry made a critical completion on third down to get us all the way down in field goal range against Jacksonville that first game,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “That says a lot. After that, the rest is history. We just kept rolling.”
With Young’s own maturity, decision-making and stability at the position coming into question, Collins provided the steadying influence the Titans needed at the most important position on the field. Needless to say, his teammates have responded to his relaxed but decisive brand of leadership.
“He’s poised. … I think he understands where his role is most important, and that’s in that huddle and in games,” Alge Crumpler said. “From a football standpoint, the thing I like most about Kerry is there a lot of instances where he has a lot of control over what he wants called on the field. And in the National Football League, you’ve got to be that way.”
For much of the season, Collins had the Titans rolling to a top seed in the AFC playoffs with the Baltimore Ravens standing in the way of a date in the AFC Championship Game on Saturday.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that these kinds of opportunities don’t come around all the time,” Collins said. “You do the best you can do, and I’m trying to take advantage of it the best I can, just like everybody else in this locker room is. And when you do that, you give yourself a chance.”
Giving himself a chance might have been difficult for a younger Kerry Collins, but the older, wiser Collins has been all about surviving and bouncing back. After bottoming out in Carolina and New Orleans, he led the New York Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000, only to throw four interceptions in that game as the Ravens, who had steamrolled the Titans just two weeks before, won the Lombardi Trophy.
A stint at Oakland resulted in plenty of passing yards, but few victories, and with Tennessee, he appeared destined for backup duty until fate stepped in on last September, once again elevating him to a starting role and handing him the keys to a playoff contender.
Now, it is the Ravens again who stand in the way of Collins’ and the Titans’ eventual goal. Over the years, Collins has never had much luck against Baltimore with just three touchdown passes and eight interceptions in four appearances.
But after a rough start in an earlier meeting with the Ravens in October, a calm and steady Collins enjoyed one of his crowning moments this season at Baltimore, as he rallied the Titans with a game-winning drive and an 11-yard TD pass to Crumpler with just 1:56 to play. Afterwards, Collins would say that he had exorcised some of his Super Bowl demons that day.
Crumpler credits Collins as a big reason why the Titans are in the position of being a No. 1 seed.
“If you look at the final drive against Baltimore the last time we played them, a game where there were two interceptions thrown, and we were on the road against a good defense, and we were able to pull that out and win that game,” Crumpler said. “Or you look at the Chicago game where we couldn’t run the ball a lick, and he had to throw the ball. Those games put us in a situation where we’re sitting here at home [in the playoffs] right now.”
Despite that win in October, Collins — like the Titans organization — still has a bit of a score to settle with the Ravens, though for someone who has overcome as much as he has doesn’t necessarily see it that way. It was just part of the journey and the growing process that brought him to his point.
“That was a long time ago. Eight years in the NFL is a long time,” Collins said. “This is about what I’m trying to do for the Tennessee Titans. It’s got nothing to do with anything that’s out there in the past. It’s here and now, and I’m trying to do the best I can.”
And as far as that book, Collins knows how the first chapters went in his professional life, and knows the life lessons learned from those ups and downs.
“I think just my personal maturity has helped. As I’ve gotten older, I understand the game better, I’m being smarter and making better decisions, and you live and learn,” Collins said. “I’ve had eight years to live and learn, so hopefully I’m better off than I was.”
But for Collins and the Titans, there is another chapter they’d like to write this season. And a part of Collins’ own legacy he’d like to rewrite by cashing in on what could be a final opportunity at the big prize.
Bulluck believes having a quarterback at the helm that knows the road all the way to the Super Bowl can work to the Titans’ advantage in the postseason.
“It’s great to have a quarterback that knows the way there, and it’s great to have a quarterback that knows the way there and feels that he has unfinished business, because of the time he got there, his team didn’t come out the victor,” Bulluck said. “Hopefully, that fuels his fire.”
Who knows if it will work out that way, but as far as Collins is concerned, it would make for a great storybook ending.