Collins relishes coming of age

Kerry Collins does not dread getting older. He welcomes it.

Turning 30 in 10 days? Bring it on. The end of the decade of his 20s? Can't come soon enough.

"It's a heck of a lot better than (turning) 22 or 23," said Collins, whose birthday is Dec. 30. "I look at some of these rookies now in the NFL and what they're going through, and there's not enough money in the world for me to go back and be a rookie right now. Just (because of) experience and wisdom and maturity, I'm more comfortable with myself. These days are a lot better than the days I had before."

Collins, the Giants' 6-5 quarterback, is relaxed. He looks happy. He is leaner than he has been in two years, weighing in at a fit 238 pounds. In his eighth NFL season, Collins feels years wiser. Been there, done that? Collins has.

After practice and still wearing his uniform pants, sneakers and a Penn State football T-shirt, Collins smiles as he leans back in a leather chair in one of the Giants' meeting rooms.

"The game has definitely gotten easier for me," he said. "I feel more comfortable with myself and my skills as a quarterback and the way I'm playing. Turning 30 to me is no problem. I kind of like it."

Having overcome alcohol abuse and the label of quitter, Collins is no longer a personal work in progress. In three years he has gone from a damaged-goods free agent to the Giants' unquestioned leader on offense.

As his 8-6 team fights for its playoff life Sunday in Indianapolis, Collins is aiming for the second playoff berth in his three seasons as the Giants' full-time starter. During that span, his regular-season record is 27-19. This season, Collins leads the NFC with 3,451 passing yards, though his 14 touchdowns are clouded by 13 interceptions. He is completing 59.7 percent of his passes, which would be a career high.

Numbers, aside from the win column, don't much interest Collins.

"I don't know what other teams think of me or what they say, but I've worked hard to get back some respect in this league," said Collins, who signed with the Giants in 1999. "I think for the most part I've gotten some of it back. That and just playing well for my teammates are the most important things for me."

Rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey calls Collins "the best person I've played with and probably ever will play with."

"Media and fans don't realize how good he is because they haven't played with him and seen him under the microscope," said Shockey, who this season leads all tight ends with 57 receptions and was named to the Pro Bowl yesterday. "Everything I've done is (because of) him, it's all him. Since day one, he made it easy for me."

Seven-year veteran wide receiver Amani Toomer says Collins is "definitely underrated." Other teammates praise his ability to command the huddle, even with a timely joke.

"Kerry is our undisputed leader; there is no question about that," running back Tiki Barber said. "If something goes wrong or something needs to be done, he's the one that we look to. I don't know when that shift happened or how it happened, but it definitely did."

Coach Jim Fassel has reinforced that recently, giving Collins more freedom since taking over the play-calling.

"I think the world of the guy," Fassel said. "I think he can play and I think he can win. I still see him having an upside. I think his best football is still ahead of him."

You can just hear the talk radio heads laughing now. Collins' best football? It better be ahead of him, they'd say.

Collins, who has reached two NFC championship games and a Super Bowl, pays no attention. If he is unheralded or underrated, he insists he doesn't know it. He doesn't listen to talk radio or read newspapers. To those who have anointed Chad Pennington of the Jets as New York's golden-boy quarterback, Collins shrugs. He'd just as soon someone else wear that title, anyway.

"I don't care. I really don't," Collins said. "I don't derive my confidence or my self-worth from what people say because it's so fickle. People love you one day and they don't love you the next day. So why even try to please people? Why even care about it? Because it changes with the wind."

Collins agrees his best days are yet to come, considering it wasn't until he signed with the Saints midway through the 1998 season that he ran a shotgun offense. (His first team, Carolina, kept it simple, as did Penn State.) Three wide-receiver sets were new to him. Four? Forget about it.

Where Colts quarterback Peyton Manning grew up able to diagram spread offenses, Collins was playing catch-up until the last couple of seasons.

"I think I'll play well for a number of years to come and probably get better," Collins said. "I've learned so much about what it takes to play well at this level. For me, it's been a process of just having been around and getting to the point in my career where I can see that I can be a good quarterback. That's half the battle, I think."

Ironically, it is Shockey who points out that Collins "doesn't show his excitement like a lot of people."

"He's not very flashy," Shockey said. "He comes in, gets the job done and goes home."

Collins, who was married in March, likes it that way. He turns down endorsement opportunities. He doesn't publicize his many charitable acts, to which he donates hundreds of thousands of dollars. He visits hospitals, preferring to drop by unannounced, with presents.

"I think it's just a responsibility that we all have," Collins said. "You have the opportunity to make a difference."

On Saturday night, after the Heisman Trophy was awarded to Southern California quarterback Carson Palmer, Collins called Penn State senior running back Larry Johnson on his cell phone. Collins placed fourth in the 1994 Heisman race. Johnson had just finished third.

"You have a lot to look forward to," Collins told Johnson. "Call me if you ever need anything."

Collins meant it. He knows what it can be like to mature under bright lights, in front of an audience. He remembers what it's like to be 23.