It was a cold, November night, in the parking lot of Lyndhurst High School. Just a few days before the Jim Fassel guarantee, before that wild run to the Super Bowl started, Kerry Collins sat in the darkness, discussing his devotion to the Giants. Nothing was forever in football, and the Giants' quarterback had learned it the hard way. Yet, he knew where he wanted to play, and he knew who he wanted to win a championship with.
"I feel accountable to the tradition, to the history, to all the seasons and all the players who've been involved with the Giants," Collins said. "That means a lot to me. I never really lost faith I could be that franchise kind of guy. I feel like I've learned the lessons well enough, that I can start to be that kind of quarterback.
"And what better place than to do it here?"
He did love playing here, and that never changed this weekend, never changed when the general manager once infatuated with Collins found a new apple of his eye, Eli Manning. Collins took the Giants as far as they could go with him, which, it ought to be remembered, was as far as the franchise had been in a long, long time.
It won't be long until he's traded, or released, because that is just the business now. They owe him close to $8 million this season, and rest assured, Collins won't take a staggering pay cut to baby-sit Manning until he takes over the starting job. Which probably would happen by the end of training camp, if not sooner.
When Collins talked over the weekend, he was grown up and graceful. That's all he had ever been as a Giant. That's the way he deserves to be remembered. If he has to play out the final year of his contract, "I'm not going to be bitter," he said. "I'm not going to hold it against Eli or the Giants. I'm going to do everything I can for this team to help them win. ... I owe that to them."
Collins still has supporters. He still has some fans here. There are still people doubting the decision to trade so much for a young quarterback. Those Collins' No. 5 jerseys are everywhere these days, but maybe the greatest testament to his restoration with the Giants came in the locker room. When Collins arrived in 1999, his teammates had dark images of him, the past of drinking, the quitting on the Panthers, the stupid racial joke that polarized Carolina's team.
Over and over, he told his dark story. He never ducked questions on his past, never did anything but act humble and remorseful and grateful for the chance to quarterback the Giants.
His teammates never embraced him on his way into the Giants, and he understood the reasons. He had been here for a full year by the training camp of 2000, and he said softly one day in Albany, on the walk from lunch to his afternoon meetings, that, "I still haven't felt it yet."
Eventually, he won the locker room over and maybe that was his biggest victory of all. And when word gathered momentum that management was chasing a draft-day deal for Manning last week, his teammates spoke up, insisting that they didn't need a new quarterback. The Giants had a quarterback. They wanted Kerry Collins. To a man, they wanted to stay with him, the way he had stayed with them.
Last season, when his line couldn't block for him and his running back couldn't hold onto the ball, Collins never called out his teammates. He never passed blame. He never stepped out of the firing line.
Whatever people had to say about Collins - the interceptions, the slow feet, whatever - they would never again call him a quitter. In early December, Jim Fassel wanted to sit Collins and let his backup, The Bachelor, finish the Buffalo game. Collins was getting killed - sacked six times, pounded every time he let go of a pass. Collins refused. He told his coach that he was the quarterback in the good times, and bad times here.
"It's my job to be out there," Collins said later. "It's my team regardless of how many times I get hit or sacked. That's where I belong. That's where I want to be."
Where Collins wanted to stay for the rest of his career, where they had given him a chance to restore his good name and his football career. Collins was a top prospect out of Penn State, but he was never the golden boy. Especially in the eyes of someone as rigid as Tom Coughlin, Collins probably would've had that baggage; he always seemed somehow flawed.
He had gone back to graduate school at Fairleigh Dickinson to take two graduate-level psychology courses in that summer of 2000, trying to trace the dramatic turns toward trouble in his life. As a 14-year-old, his parents split up so he could play football in a different school district of Pennsylvania. He was pushed harder and harder to be a great prospect. He had no Archie Manning in his life, no big brother Peyton. No one gave him a chance to grow up. No one let him become a man.
Before everyone's eyes, that happened with the Giants. In a lot of ways, Collins grew up here. He devoted extraordinary time and money to charities. He had some good seasons and some terrific victories, including the one burned into memories of Collins holding up that NFC Championship game MVP trophy during his Giants Stadium victory lap. What Collins wouldn't give to hear that one more time in the Meadowlands, one more time for the Giants.
And yet Saturday, the fans at the draft day party cheered wildly for Eli Manning when he walked into the practice bubble, celebrating the arrival of the golden boy savior. Five years ago, there were no ovations for Collins when he walked into the bubble for the first time. Just the Giants searching for a quarterback, just his teammates turning to him with a wary eye. No ovations for Collins on the way in, just on the way out. Eli Manning should be so fortunate someday.