Collins shows heart of lion

This is the way Kerry Collins played at Penn State once, when a national championship was still on the line for his team, when it was all up against him, the wind and the day, and he took his team more than 90 yards to beat Illinois. He was a great college quarterback that day, the way he was a great pro quarterback for the Giants in the fourth quarter yesterday.

Against Illinois his senior year, when his team still had a chance to win the title, he made all the passes he had to make, including a couple on fourth down. It seemed he couldn't miss, the way he couldn't miss for the Giants yesterday with a season on the line.

It wasn't the season the experts predicted, or even a season the most devoted of Giants fans could see coming when their team was 3-4 or even 6-6. This wasn't the team in turmoil we were told the 2002 Giants would be, on the day when they officially became the 2003 Giants, when they played themselves into the playoffs and into next year.

It was a team that finally discovered, before it was too late, how good it was supposed to be. Led by a quarterback who has been through so much since Penn State and has finally discovered how good he can be.

Talk about all of it today. Talk about the bad throws Collins made in the first half. Talk about how the Giants really played the first-place Eagles off the field at Giants Stadium, in what could have been and should have been a game with first place on the line.

Talk about the 200 yards that Tiki Barber gained and the three fumbles that he lost. Talk about Jeremy Shockey, a kind of rock star and football star the Giants have never had. Talk about how David Akers of the Eagles gave us wide right with a minute and change left the way Scott Norwood did in the Super Bowl once. Talk about Shaun Williams' interception in overtime, the one that set up one more drive and a chance for the Giants to get the kick that won the game.

But remember the quarterback. Remember the way Collins made that first-and-25 pass to Shockey over the middle, the one where it seemed as if Shockey got hit by a taxi running a red light and still caught the ball.

Remember the throw to Amani Toomer for a touchdown, the one the zebras took away on that phantom holding call. Once more for Kerry Collins in a big game, it was all against him. He kept standing in there and making his reads and making his throws. And when he needed to take the Giants take his team down the field to tie the game, he did not miss.

He was a star yesterday. He broke a Giants record for passing yards, one set 18 years ago by Phil Simms. He threw for more than 260 yards and could have beaten the Eagles going away with some luck, and if Tiki Barber could have held on to the ball. Collins didn't care.

For 10 years we have waited for the Giants to have a real quarterback to replace Simms, and whatever happens from here this season, it is clear that Collins is up to that job. Even making the Super Bowl a couple of years ago didn't answer all the questions about him as a player.

We knew about him pretty good as a man by then, the way he had repaired his career and his reputation after all his drinking years as a kid. But we still didn't know if he was a quarterback who could last with the Giants.

He has lasted.

Now when his team needed him to have a big year, he has had the biggest year of his life. Jim Fassel gets credit for the way he has called the plays, of course. Collins gets credit for the way he has thrown the ball, led his team. Shockey gets the headlines, and the attention, because he is more desperate for attention than a starlet. The Giants aren't still playing, the Giants don't run the table from 6-6, if the quarterback doesn't play the way he has.

He was a kid again yesterday. I watched it on television with a lot of Giant fans a long way from New York. But remembered that Illinois game. Remembered watching a Joe Paterno quarterback built more like a Paterno linebacker who refused to lose the game. Who could not miss when it was all on the line.