Out of the Blue

The Giants, with their unwanted quarterback, and their unhappy defense, and their injured cornerback, in the Super Bowl? We must be dreaming.

He is riding in the back of a limo because he is a star. He is a star quarterback in New York City, barely 36 hours removed from one of the greatest passing performances in NFL playoff history, even if he is currently riding across the potholed two-lane highways of Bergen County, even if he'd much rather be in a pickup truck. He is riding in a 30-foot white stretch limo because it has been dispatched by the Milk Board to whisk him to one of those signposts of modern American megajock achievement, being photographed for a milk-mustache ad. A beautiful, long-legged brunette steel magnolia of a girlfriend is sitting next to him.

This is all as it should be. He is also riding in the back of a limo because he couldn't drive himself to the photo shoot even if he wanted to. Kerry Collins, 28, who has just driven the New York Giants into their first Super Bowl in ten years, has no driver's license. He lost it last year, the penalty for a drunk-driving conviction.

Because Collins is smarter, much smarter, than he appears from his lunkish looks, he appreciates the irony in all this. A man who was plastered all over the news for drinking too much is about to appear all over the country drinking milk. The DWI arrest was the last curl in a rapid downward spiral that saw him hit a kind of dirtbag trifecta: Collins was tagged a drunk, a racist, and a quitter. As a football commodity, Collins was radioactive. The Giants gave him a second chance, but what did they have to lose? Kent Graham was their starting quarterback at the time. And the Giants were supposed to be lousy again this season.

Now Collins is on the verge of a world championship. He is the poster boy for the redemptive power of sports and sobriety. His enormous, unblinking eyes, as clear and blue as a glacier-fed stream, stare straight ahead. Crystal bottles in the limo's wet bar jingle as the car crunches through another asphalt crater. "Who," Collins asks, a smile slowly creasing his face, "woulda thunk it?"

The stretch limo pulls to the curb of a Radisson hotel somewhere in the faceless Jersey sprawl. Kerry Collins ducks his head and eases out the door, slowly unfolding his six-foot-five-inch frame. "Last April, I went to a Tim McGraw concert in Charlotte," says Brooke Eisenhower, Collins's girlfriend. "And when the music starts, this huge guy stands up in front of me -- Oh, great, I think. But he turns around, apologizes, and introduces himself. I only gave him my first name and where I worked, but the next day he tracked me down."

Inside a conference room, Collins changes into his Giants uniform, the regal-blue jersey glistening under the photographer's lights. He's handed a glass of chalky fluid: The "milk" mustache is actually a gooey cocktail of sour cream, Philadelphia cream cheese, and Häagen-Dazs vanilla. "I'd worn number 12 or 13 before," Collins says. "When I got to the Giants, I picked number 5 for a fresh start."

He needed far more than new digits to make a lasting change in his life. The Carolina Panthers used their first-ever draft pick to choose Collins, a Heisman Trophy finalist out of Penn State in 1995. The expansion team reached the NFC championship game in the franchise's second year of existence, and Collins seemed like a golden-boy leader with a long, bright future. But he was trying to live as large off the field as on. By 1996, teammates were accusing him of having a drinking problem. "Every time I did something wrong, I was drunk," Collins says. "I didn't drink every night. But it was no stopping once I started. How many times have I been in situations when I really could have hurt somebody or hurt myself and gotten in trouble? A lot." Like the time he dangled from the second story of his townhouse in North Carolina, then let go, falling down, down, down -- into the pool, though he could just as easily have hit the concrete deck.

Many Panthers were angry at Collins, but the mood shifted to disgust during training camp in 1997. Loaded during a party, Collins, awkwardly trying to be down, addressed receiver Muhsin Muhammad as "nigga." Three days later, Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski shattered Collins's jaw with a vicious hit during a preseason game. No one from the team came to the hospital to drive Collins home.

Hurting, saddened, and confused, Collins dropped fifteen pounds and all his confidence. Four games into the 1998 season, he met with head coach Dom Capers and volunteered to be benched. Collins says he didn't intend to bail out on the team, just catch his breath. The Panthers dropped him completely six days later. The last-place Saints acquired Collins, but he was still miserable. Then came the drunk-driving arrest.

"Kerry's not the kind of guy to share much, to pick up the phone and tell you his concerns," says his friend and marketing agent Jamey Crimmins. "He'd buried things for a long time."

One morning over breakfast when Collins was fourteen years old and a burgeoning high-school football star in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, his parents launched into a nasty argument. Kerry had recently broken his ankle in practice, and his father, Patrick, wanted to transfer him to a superior football high school 30 miles away. His mother, Roseanne, refused to go. The family fractured, with Kerry and his dad moving to an apartment while his older brother and mother stayed behind. His parents divorced, but Kerry, at his new high school, became one of the nation's most sought-after recruits.

"I've realized lately," Collins says, "that the message was that me making it as a football player was worth breaking up the family. Kerry the quarterback mattered more than Kerry the person."

After his arrest, Collins checked into the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, for an eight-week stay. "The public story was that Kerry went in to get his drinking problem fixed," Crimmins says. "That's bullshit. He went in to get his insides fixed. He didn't know who he was."

Most of the NFL had written off Collins. Then Ernie Accorsi called Collins's agent, Leigh Steinberg. "I'm close to a lot of Penn State people," says the Giants' general manager. "And I trusted the Penn State people. They told me, 'This is a good kid who went off the track.' And I've always believed you could always get a good kid back."

Collins's recent rebirth on the football field has provoked new interest in his melodramatic story, but he's grown weary of the subject. "It's not as big a part of my everyday life, this whole redemption, resurrection thing," Collins says. "Everybody wants to talk about that now, but I resolved it eons ago."

Back in the limo, Collins is heading to Giants Stadium for meetings about the Baltimore Ravens. Crimmins hands him some reading for the ride. Not a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which Collins has been digesting at home, but a printout from the CNN/SI Website. Two years ago, Peter King, Sports Illustrated's powerful NFL writer, wrote that signing Collins was "a giant mistake"; on a radio show, King went further, calling Collins "the worst signing in the history of free agency." Now Collins reads the headline on King's Website column from the morning after the Giants' quarterback threw for five touchdowns to demolish the Vikings: ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS FINDS SUCCESS ON A GRAND STAGE.

Collins rolls his eyes.

"There's a part of me that wants to say, 'Ha ha. You were wrong. I told you so.' On the other hand, I don't even think it's worth acknowledging. The media and the press, it's a necessity to deal with, but I have problems with the nature of their job. One of the best things I've done throughout this whole process is to accept the media for what it is, and realize if I want to play football in the NFL, that's part of the deal. So there's two things: Don't give 'em anything to write about, and don't care what they write."

On Sunday, if he plays well and the Giants win, he will have to put up with even more newly fawning praise. "Wins, losses -- it really doesn't have anything to do with who you are as a person," Collins says. "I had to learn that lesson. Whatever happens on the field doesn't have anything to do with who you are as a person." Don't get him wrong -- Collins wants to beat Baltimore, but mostly for the people, like Mara, Accorsi, and Fassel, who've given him this second chance.

And in the back of Collins's mind, there's another special day on the horizon. It seems minor compared with the other hurdles he's cleared: After several years of not speaking to his parents, he's on good terms with both of them again. But on February 1, four days after the Super Bowl, Kerry Collins is eligible to get a new driver's license. Soon, maybe, he'll be a whole person, a regular guy who can get behind the wheel and head off into the woods to do some hunting.
Jan. 17, 2001