Collins gets redemption on a record day

The trophy was in Kerry Collins' hands and nearly 80,000 witnesses were on their feet, the very men and women who damned the quarterback's hiring like they damned the drafting of Phil Simms 22 years back. Collins saw his opening. He saw all of New Jersey and New York open wider than the Minnesota defense he had reduced to such a tattered purple mess.

Collins marched on through, the trophy over his head and under the din. He made like Messier with the Cup, cutting a slow and blissful path around the arena, floating through the photographers instead of skating around them, muting the inner voices advising him to scream and shout and loose the river of tears allowed at the intersection of redemption and relief.

"You get beat up and you get beat down," Collins would say, "and people call you 'loser' and call you all that kind of stuff. It's going to make you tough."

It's going to make you a Super Bowl participant, a quarterback capable of as great a postseason performance as any quarterback's ever delivered. They said Simms threw a perfect game in January of '87, completing 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns?

Collins beat that in the first half, throwing for 338 yards and four of his five touchdowns. Sid Luckman was the last man to throw five touchdown passes in an NFC or league championship game, back in 1943. So Collins had a game out of the wildest corner of Joe Montana's imagination. Jim Fassel coached John Elway at Stanford and Denver, and he'd never seen the position handled quite like this.

At the half, Kerry Collins' Giants held a 34-0 lead over a favored opponent. They were up 41-0 with 27 minutes left when they stopped wasting their time on Denny Green's pathetic Vikes and began planning their second Super Bowl trip to Tampa 10 forever years after the first.

"I don't think we could even dream this good," Jessie Armstead said.

"It felt like we were part of the circus," Micheal Barrow said. "Greatest show on earth."

They all ended up on a grand stage at midfield, Collins and the football men who trusted him with their team. Springsteen's "Glory Days" was heavy in the air around them, making the white confetti dance as it fell to the field Wellington Mara would playfully call "painted mud."

Fassel was riding higher than ever on his guarantee, carried to midfield on the shoulders of Keith Hamilton and Michael Strahan, the defensive end who had assailed the coach's entire being last year. Old Man Mara was busy treating himself to a little Gen X trash talk, mocking his team's legion of critics, saying he can't wait to hear people call his Giants "the worst team ever to win the Super Bowl."

Amid the madness stood Ernie Accorsi, the GM who lost three title games to Elway while in Cleveland and the man who met with Collins at the Sheraton Meadowlands coffee shop two winters back, choosing to sign Collins because, in Accorsi's words, "he looked me in the eye, Pennsylvania guy to Pennsylvania guy."

Accorsi had worked at Penn State, where a coach named Paterno was still swearing his old quarterback was worthy of another shot. Collins carried Sprewell-sized baggage. There was a time when "loser" was about the nicest thing said of him.

Drunk. Quitter. Racist. Collins had those labels stitched to his jersey. He slurred teammates in Carolina and asked out of the lineup, this before driving impaired on the Saints' watch. After losing his driver's license and league-wide respect, Collins finally rehabilitated his body and soul.

"What we'd heard about him didn't turn out to be what we came to know about him," said Lomas Brown, in his first Super Bowl after 16 blood-and-sweat seasons on the line. "We found out that was A) the old Kerry Collins, or B) all a bunch of lies."

Too often in sports, victory is confused with virtue. But Collins won the faith of his teammates, black and white, by accepting responsibility for his mistakes, embracing the terms of his rehab, and giving the franchise its first championship-caliber passer since the one Giant star who didn't make it to yesterday's sidelines.

Simms was out in Oakland for CBS, watching Baltimore seal a date with his former team. Harry Carson, Ottis Anderson and Lawrence Taylor served as honorary captains without him. LT spoke of pride and opportunity in his Saturday speech, but during the game mostly stood alone in his black overcoat, arms folded and nose out of the huddle.

This moment wasn't about the Giants who already won two Super Bowls; it was about the Giants who'll likely beat the Ravens to win a third. It was about 11 Don Larsens showing up on each side of the ball. It was about a defense that chased and pounded Daunte Culpepper. It was about Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer laying waste to Cris Carter and Randy Moss, the indomitable Moss speaking the body language of defeat as early as the second quarter.

Above all, it was about Kerry Collins leading an offense that Fran Tarkenton, honorary captain on the other side, had called a disgrace on the radio.

"Maybe it was all of us in the huddle taking a step back and letting Kerry become the player he could become," said Glenn Parker, who went to four Super Bowls with the Bills and agreed that Jim Kelly never matched Collins' performance on the way.

"Maybe we've all been vying to be leaders and today we just stepped back and let Kerry do it."

He threw his first touchdown pass on the fourth play from scrimmage, his second on the fifth. The Giants had a 14-0 lead 1:13 into the game, before Culpepper or Moss ever touched the ball. This was the yield of the game plan Sean Payton faxed to Collins Tuesday night, the cover sheet marked by an album's unpaid ad: "John Cougar Mellencamp: 'The Best That I Can Do.' " The Giants were going only with their top 20 hits, plays Collins had been converting into points, Payton said, "since Albany."

Only back in training camp, nobody could've conceived of this: Collins running a one-man crusade against the new-age quarterback, taking down Donovan McNabb one week and Daunte Culpepper the next.

"Unbelievably excited," Collins said of his victory-lap emotions, "but with a sense of remembering what it took to get to this point."

As a recovering alcoholic, Collins didn't need champagne to mark the occasion. He just needed the championship cap on his head, the trophy in his hands, and the world at his feet.
Jan. 15, 01