Straight, No Chaser

Quitter, Racist, Drunk. Kerry Collins says it's all behind him--and he's got a legion of blue believers

Someday, Kerry Collins will be a regular guy again, a guy with a driver's license in his wallet, a guy who doesn't have to beg a teammate for a ride to the grocery store, a guy whose name isn't attached to those bad-guy labels: Drunk...Racist...Loser.

Collins is almost there: He has traded his bad old ways for a life of simplicity and sobriety and has found gainful employment as the starting quarterback for the Giants. So he has to hope and believe that the day is coming, maybe even soon, when people will view him as just a guy.

The dumbest thing Collins ever did drunk? Other than drive, you mean? One night, when he was still the boy-genius quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, Collins climbed the stairs at the sprawling structure he called a house (but which was hardly a home--it was more like a permanent floating beer-pong game), walked out onto the balcony and pulled himself up onto the railing. Teetering there, he raised his arms and launched himself into the air. He executed a perfect flip, somehow landing squarely in the swimming pool, as opposed to on the concrete patio. Let's just say it was a good thing when somebody finally arrested him.

Collins' career is only now recovering from a dive even more spectacularly self-destructive. In 1996, Collins was the man in Charlotte, a first-round draft choice and franchise quarterback for the expansion Panthers, a guy whose jersey was worn by every kid in town. At 6'5" and 250 pounds, he had the physique of a fountain sculpture, and even though he was an unschooled young thing, he could fling a football from anyplace on the field. In only his second season, he took Carolina to the NFL title game and then declared that it was the beginning of a dynasty.

The problem was, that guy was nothing but a put-up job. "He was this thing that was kind of manufactured--No. 12, the quarterback, the whole deal," says Collins. "I had nothing outside of it, other than that."

After the game was another matter entirely. Collins wasn't an NFL prodigy then; "he was a confused kid struggling with a fractured psyche, a case of deep self-doubt and loneliness. Outwardly, he was a sophomoric idiot, hurling his body, drenched in the beer-from-the-tap smell, into the night. "Just being stupid," he says. "Being stupid and idiotic and chemically altered." Really, he was just a kid from the depressed steel town of Lebanon, Pa., who didn't know what to do with all the money or that big house. "He was living this huge life," says his older brother, Pat. "He had this place that was ridiculously big for one person, and he had three cars, and he went into the NFL thinking it was one big party. And it was a huge party. But it wasn't for him."

Collins didn't drink every night. He didn't even drink every weekend. But once he started, there was no prying the glass form his hand. "It was no stopping, once I started," he says. "How many times have I been in situations when I really could have hurt somebody or hurt myself and gotten in trouble? A lot. It really, really could have been a bad deal."

Collins' teammates quickly began to look askance at his postgame habits, and in '97 they lost trust in him completely. During training camp a book was released. The Year of the Cat, an insider's look at the previous season by Charlotte Observer reporter Scott Fowler. In it some of the Panthers anonymously complained about Collins' bingeing. He publicly denied having a drinking problem and went into a funk, disillusioned by what he saw as a betrayal. On the last night of training camp he went on a spree, and in a drunk and thoroughly wrong-headed attempt to be down with his teammates, he jokingly mouthed a racial epithet. Nobody thought it was funny, and what had been simmering disapproval of Collins grew into disgusted rage. His apologies mattered little; it was perception that would be hard to erase.

"There was never any malicious intent," he says now. "But from that point on it was really tough. Once you get labeled with that, it's going to stick with you for a while. You try to say, 'I'm not a racist.' Well, what's that going to do?"

Three days, later, the single worst week of his life was completed when, in a preseason game against the Broncos, Bill Romanowski leveled him, breaking his jaw in three places. The hit was so savage--Romanowski would later be fined $20,000 by the league--that Collins thought his entire head was broken, especially when bits of teeth joined the blood he was spitting out. On the bench, a team trainer manipulated his jaw, and it moved two inches farther to the side than it should have. "It's one thing to break your hand," Collins says. "But when your head breaks, that really messes you up." After the surgery, there was no one waiting to drive him home, no Panthers, no family. He had to call Brenda Alberty a local woman he had hired to help manage his affairs, to come get him.

For the rest of the '97 season, Collins was a fragile and uneven quarterback. He lost 15 pounds, the goodwill of his teammates and his self-confidence. 'It screwed me up big time," he says. "I might as well have been in a car wreck. I had always been a big guy, could take any hit. I was like, anchors aweigh back there. But you get hit like that, you lose that sense of invincibility."

Things unraveled completely by the start of the '98 season. When the Panthers lost their first four games, Collins, who had been merely average to that point, went to head coach Dom Capers and said that if the coach wanted to go with backup Steve Beuerlein, it would be okay with him. Capers interpreted that to mean his quarterback was quitting. Collins says that he never intended to bail out; Capers, now an assistant with the Jaguars, has refused to comment. Either way, it was clear Collins was in no shape to run the offense. When the Panthers went on a road trip, Capers left injured offensive lineman Mathew Campbell, Collins' closest friend on the team, back in Charlotte to talk to him. "I'm just not happy," Collins told Campbell. "It's not fun. It's supposed to be fun." Says Campbell: "It was obvious he was very confused. It was awkward. Nobody knew what his intentions were."

The Panthers released Collins six days later. The Saints picked him up for $100, but it was only a temporary reprieve. When the Saints traveled to play Carolina, Collins stayed behind after the game and went to a party with some old teammates. Afterward, he got in his car and was stopped and arrested for DUI. You may remember the TV footage of him leaving the courthouse. His shirt was open, he had a growth on his chin and he was smirking around a large cigar, the very image of a delinquent. The court jerked his license, and the NFL ordered him to rehab. He felt full of fakery and failure. "I've been called a quitter, a racist, and a drunk," he said at the time. "Other than that, I'm doing okay."

In January 1999, Collins checked himself in to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., for a two-month stay. By then, he was so sick of the NFL, he was half glad to be going away. "I was in such a bad place," he says. "I was really angry, at whatever. When I went to rehab I separated myself from all of that. It was great because I checked Kerry Collins the football player at the door. It was like a cocoon."

What nobody, including Collins, knew, was that the binge-drinking was his attempt to fill up a yawning cavity in his soul. Football had been his whole life since seventh grade, and as far as he was concerned, it had cost him a whole life, too. The counseling sessions at Menninger helped him understand the reasons he drank and self-destructed: a classic case of delayed adolescence mixed into a nasty cocktail with deep ambivalence about why he was playing in the NFL. "I had been making decisions for my career since I was 14," he says. "I felt football represented all the bad to me, all that was the source of confusion and angst."

When a counselor suggested he get back in touch with his family, Collins resisted. He'd completely cut himself off from his parents and hadn't spoken to them in a couple of years. And he didn't want to unearth the reasons why. Collins had been a rising star at Lebanon High School in the fall of 1987 when he broke his ankle running a quarterback sneak in practice one day. After arguing bitterly with the coach over the matter, his father, Patrick, decided Kerry would be better off playing for West Lawn, 30 minutes away. Patrick sat at the kitchen table and told his wife, Roseanne, that he wanted to move Kerry to protect the boy's future. "He's tall, he has big hands, he's smart--what more can you ask for?" Patrick said. "There's no guarantee, but I can't just sit here and not give him the chance to be the best he can."

It broke the family in half. Roseanne stayed in Lebanon with Pat so he could finish school there. Meanwhile, Patrick and Kerry took a one-bedroom apartment in West Lawn. Three days a week, Roseanne drove back and forth to West Lawn to see Kerry. Patrick drove back and forth to Lebanon every day to commute to his job as a vocational school administrator. "The whole family sacrificed when they moved down there," Roseanne says. She eventually moved to West Lawn, but by then the marriage had frayed. They divorced a year and a half later.

Collins blamed football. But when he was recruited by Penn State, his father told him to go and not to look back, and Collins took him at his word. He went on to great things--All-America honors and a 12-0 record as a senior, but by the time he got to Charlotte, he was so angry he had stopped calling home altogether. "I wasn't talking to them, and I really didn't want to see them," he says. "I was going to distance myself from everything that I had come from."

Eventually, Collins was persuaded to reestablish his relationships with his family and got in touch with his mother. The two held a couple of long, intense counseling sessions over the phone. "When he went to Menninger, it was the best thing that ever happened to him," Roseanne says. "He caught up with himself. I think deep down, he thought it wasn't worth what he went through to get where he is. But he was always so special and so talented, and what if he had stayed here in Lebanon? He would have regretted not trying, and that would have been worse."

The conversations allowed Collins to find fresh perspective and forgiveness for his parents. "You realize they had problems just like I had problems," he says. "My dad did it because he wanted to give me the best opportunity." Collins understood that his father had been desperate to get him out of the hard-core drinking culture of Lebanon. "Where I come from, it's pretty much the norm," Collins says. "You worked in the steel mills or coal mines, and you went to the bar right afterward and knocked back the soot with shots."

Collins emerged from treatment newly candid about his drinking and grimly realistic about his career. "If he didn't change his life, he was out of the league." His brother Pat says. Even though he was sober, Collins knew his reputation had deteriorated badly and he'd have to earn his way back. He got a break from the Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, a former Penn State staffer, who believed Collins was a better person and player than he had shown. Besides, Joe Paterno had vouched for him.

Accorsi brought Collins to New York for a meeting with head coach Jim Fassel. The three men sat in a New Jersey restaurant near the Giants offices while Fassel grilled Collins with a long list of questions he'd written on a pad. Fassel stared at Collins as they talked, looking for any hint of insincerity. "I wanted to see how much responsibility he accepted for himself and what his attitude was about making changes," Fassel says. "And I wanted to know that he was going to see through tough times."

Fassel was convinced, and the Giants signed Collins to a four-year contract worth nearly $17 million. Collins spent most of his first season regaining his confidence and winning the trust of his new teammates. He took a two-bedroom apartment in Hackensack, N.J., in the same complex as receiver Joe Jurevicius, another Penn Stater, who drove him to and from practice every day. While Fassel streamlined a hitch in Collins' throwing motion and cleaned up his footwork, the quarterback quietly set about proving his sobriety and work ethic. "I'm concerned that these guys know I'm a good guy, with all the stuff that's happened," he says. "Only recently have I stopped walking on eggshells."

Early on some Giants asked Jurevicius, who played one season with Collins at Penn State, what kind of guy he was. "He was a good guy then and he's a good guy now," Jurevicius insisted. The drinking wasn't the subject of a lot of conversations. "It's hard not to notice it, when you go to dinner and he drinks 11 Diet Cokes," says reserve quarterback Jason Garrett. "But otherwise it's not been an issue." Apart from that, his teammates seemed willing to make up their own minds about Collins. "He just didn't come in and we had open arms for him," Giants linebacker and team leader Jessie Armstead says. "It took some time. But we gave him an opportunity. That is one thing we did do."

And that was the one thing Collins needed. With six games remaining last season, Collins became the Giants starter. He wasn't an overnight success; he lost his first game. "You don't just turn it around overnight, that's fictional," Fassel says. "This was a remake." But as the Giants have crawled to the top of their division this season, Collins has shown that he could quite possibly become the charismatic field leader the team has been searching for since Phil Simms departed in 1993. It's something the team suspected in training camp; now they know. "He came out smoking," says defensive tackle Michael Strahan. "Guys were like, 'Man, this guy is for real,' and they've been playing for him ever since. I'm glad he's here."

Through Week 15, Collins had completed 277 of 464 pass attempts for 3,149 yards, with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. All of his numbers are career highs. "I think it's all just kind of snowballed," Collins says. "A great snowball. I've been in the other kind of snowball, and it's not good." Meanwhile, the Giants have actually come to believe that he's a more solid decisionmaker because of what he's been through. "It's not like guys sit around and talk about it, but you notice how people respond to him," Fassel says. "Sometimes if a guy plays well, you get the illusion players respect him. That's not the case here."

Collins himself believes that he is more comfortable under pressure as a result of his trials. And all it will take is a 6-10 season or a four-interception game or a simple fender bender for him to once again feel the heat, especially under New York's media microscope. "Pretty much anything can happen to me now, and unless alcohol is involved, it will never be as bad as that," Collins says. "It can't be. I was doing everything wrong, but I'm a better person for it." His colleagues believe him: They voted to make him one of the team captains this season.

In February, Collins will get his license back. He's bought a new car and home, but nothing fancy: A Silverado truck and a two-bedroom condo. For entertainment, Collins orders hunting and fishing gear online or goes out for a bite with Jurevicius and Garrett. He had a lingering interest in psychology, and he recently took two master's level courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "He's crossed over the line," Fassel says. "He's on the right side of it now."

Sometimes an old friend will ask Collins of he can ever drink again. Once he gets his license back and the old stigmas fade, he can have a couple of beers, right? Wrong. "Alcohol is an absolute poison for me," he says. "I don't ever want to go back.

"The thing I've appreciated most here is the chance. The last thing I'm going to do is to violate that. Because it's kind of sacred to me--someone gave me the chance, after all the stuff that they've heard. And I want to do everything I can to give it back."

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