Helping Hand From Happy Valley

Before the Giants reached out to rescue Kerry Collins, before Collins began to try to rescue himself, it was Penn State coach Joe Paterno who was the single most influential figure in convincing Big Blue to go back to the futureand rescue a career and a life that was careening dangerously down a dead-end street.

"I told [Giants GM Ernie Accorsi] Kerry was a kid I found to be highly motivated and a very honest guy," Paterno told The Post. "I felt some of the things that went on may have been a little bit warped without knowing the circumstances. Knowing Kerry, I felt something just went awry that affected him and I felt he would be the kind of guy who would be worth some confidence in."

Collins met his veteran teammates on the field yesterday for the first time and he met them as The $16.9 Million Backup to Kent Graham. Paterno went to bat for a quarterback who had spent the past two years inflaming racial, drinking and quitting issues. "I don't know all the particulars," Paterno was saying now. "I just don't know how the thing went the way it went, but knowing Kerry, there's too much good there for him to let that thing destroy what could be a very, very fine career. I'm not so sure he was happy in the area [Carolina]. There may have been some friction between Bill Polian, who believed very strongly in him, and maybe some other people in the organization. When Bill left [for Indianapolis], it seemed some of the problems started.

"He's got a lot of talent. He's got a tremendous amount of leadership qualities in him. Whether he had a problem with drinking, I don't know. We didn't see that up here."

What Paterno saw before the demons arrived was a big-armed field general who led his Nittany Lions to a heroic comeback victory over Illinois to clinch the Big Ten title. "Kerry took us down the field," Paterno said. "It really was a great clutch performance. He did everything right under pressure away from home. I remember vividly."

We are two years into his fall from grace and now Collins has to do everything right under pressure under the New York microscope. The Giants, who had put the muzzle on him recently, let Collins face the music again yesterday. I asked Collins about Paterno vouching for him.

"It meant a lot," Collins said. "Joe's a guy that I have a lot of respect for and a guy that obviously I got along well with at Penn State. I think he probably had me when I was at my best. I think he saw the good things about me and being in that kind of program and able to thrive in that, I think he was able to really give Ernie some insight on what was going on. He definitely went to bat for me, and it's something I won't forget. He's one of my favorite people, no doubt about it."

Collins called Paterno and spoke with him for 10 minutes three months ago when the Giants sent shockwaves through the NFL and through their own locker room. "He thought it would be a great fit for me," Collins said.

Only, of course, if he can play. On Sunday afternoons rather than Saturday nights. "My theory is you judge a book by how you read it, not by how somebody else tells you it read," Jason Sehorn said. "As long as he keeps his nose clean, everything will be fine," Jessie Armstead said. "One thing about this, you gotta keep it clean, 'cause this is New York."

Collins knows full well that his reputation precedes him. He was understandably a tad nervous yesterday. "I would just ask them to give me a chance," Collins said. "I'm gonna bust my butt to do everything I can to prove it to these guys that a lot of the stuff that they heard is wrong. I think the guys are giving me a chance and I plan on doing everything I can to try and change some of the things they've heard about me. I think that takes time, too."

It seems like an eternity since he led the Panthers to the 1997 NFC Championship Game.

Someone wanted to know if he had any regrets. "So much has happened the past couple of years, but in a way I'm glad all that stuff happened," Collins said, "because it's really made me work real hard on who I am and what kind of person I want to be. So I don't regret anything.

"I think the biggest thing I have to do is just keep learning things about myself," Collins said.

This humbled 26-year-old manchild was walking off the field now. "Did you or did you not," I asked him, "have a drinking problem?" Collins didn't flinch. "I'll put it this way," he said. "Alcohol was playing too much of a part of my life. That's the bottom line."

The bottom line is Collins wouldn't have been rescued if it weren't for his old coach.