Once a lost soul, Collins turns career, life around

There was a time when drinking binges had become synonymous with the name Kerry Collins.

Once, at a celebrity golf tournament in Mississippi hosted by fellow NFL quarterback Brett Favre, a hungover Collins showed up wearing sandals (he failed to bring golf shoes), a T-shirt and smoking a cigar. By the time the tournament was over, Collins was bombed again, leaving the course laying down in the back of a pickup truck and puffing on another cigar.

There was the time in Charlotte when Collins had to be dragged out of a bar by teammate Mike Fox, who feared that if he let go of Collins he might just fall on his face. It was also in Charlotte, as a member of the visiting New Orleans Saints, that Collins was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.

And there was the much-publicized outing at training camp in Spartanburg, S.C., when a tanked Collins, in an effort to fit in with some black teammates, used a racial slur. It irritated many of his teammates, and prompted offensive lineman Norberto Davidds-Garrido to punch him in the eye.

Wherever Collins went, he found alcohol.

And when he found alcohol, he inevitably found trouble.

"When I drank, I didnít stop," said Collins, who had his first drink at 13. "I never had just one beer. That wasnít the way I drank."

Collins always went out to have a good time, but it almost always ended with a hangover and memories he doesnít remember.

"I thought that if I didnít go out and party that I was wasting my youth. As it turned out, I was wasting my life," Collins said.

It took a long time for Collins to realize that.

It wasnít until after Collins had burned bridges in Charlotte and New Orleans that he began to realize the scope of his problems.

It wasnít until after Collins was picked up for DUI in Charlotte and stripped of his driverís license that he began to see that something needed to be done.

And, it was until the day Collins checked into Menningerís Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Center in Topeka, Kansas, in February of 1999, that he finally realized his life had spun completely out of control.

Collins arrived at the center two weeks ahead of schedule and stayed nearly eight weeks, using that time put his life back together.

At the door, he checked Kerry Collins the football player and began to focus on Kerry Collins the person. It was as much therapy for the soul as it was for alcohol dependency. It was there that he began to deal with the anger he had over his relationship with his parents and his troubled youth.

"For the first time in a long time, I started to take a look at myself as a person and tried to figure out what I was all about and what was wrong, and what I needed to do for myself," Collins said. "That was probably the most uncomfortable thing for me because so much of my life had been geared toward football and geared toward being a quarterback."

In Charlotte, he had problems adjusting to being in the public eye.

The first draft pick in the Carolina Panthers history, Collins was labeled the "Golden Boy" but clearly wasnít ready for the attention that ensued.

He began to feel as though he lived in a fishbowl, and everyone was watching him. And when the Panthers began their fall from grace after reaching the NFC Championship game in 1996, Collins felt the eyes upon him everywhere he went.

He began to rebel.

And alcohol was the tool he used to do it.

"I adopted the adage of, ĎIíll show you; Iíll hurt me,í" Collins said.

To most of us, that doesnít make any sense. To an alcoholic and a kid who held grudges against his divorced parents, it makes all of the sense in the world.

One of the first things Collins learned at the rehab center was humility. He may have been an NFL quarterback on the outside, but on the inside he was just like any other lawyer, businessman or housewife ó a drunk.

He learned that alcohol controlled him, and in so doing, controlled his actions. Once he realized that, he was able to begin to get better.

"Alcohol was eventually going to kill me or I would have ended up in jail," Collins said. "I knew in my head that I had a problem, so I knew in order to help myself get better, I needed to stay humble throughout the process, and I think that has been responsible for the turnaround that I made."

When Collins arrived in New York, he didnít try to be someone he wasnít.

He knew he couldnít fake it.

His reputation had preceded him and he knew the only way that he could convince teammates that he wasnít a racist and wouldnít fall victim to alcohol again was to prove it over time. And so, he set out to change his life.

Instead of a living in a big house as he did in Charlotte, Collins rented a small apartment in New Jersey.

He rarely went out and spent more time studying game film and getting to know the teamís offensive coordinator, Sean Payton. Through it all, he went to counseling and met regularly with Joel Goldberg, the teamís counseling supervisor.

In his first season with the Giants, Collins split time with Kent Graham and put together a sub-par season, throwing more interceptions than touchdown passes for the fourth time in five seasons. Still, he showed enough that the Giants jettisoned Graham and passed the reigns of the offense over to Collins this past summer.

He hasnít let go ever since.

It wasnít easy, but he credits his teammates for giving him a chance.

"I really didnít take what I had heard in the media about him as gospel, because I felt like youíve got to give people a chance," Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said. "And heís been nothing but good for our team and good for our organization. Heís our leader."

Collins especially had to prove to his black teammates that he wasnít a racist.

He used the media to tell his story, and hoped that they would believe him when he said he didnít mean any harm in those words, and was simply trying to fit it. Yet, at the same time, he again took responsibility for his actions.

"In a strange sense, in my polluted, chemically-altered mind, I believed that maybe in some sort of way that I it would reinforce some sense of camaraderie," Collins said. "And I certainly did not mean for it to be taken the way it was."

There are some players in the Panthersí locker room who still donít like Collins and simply wonít forgive him.

Collins knows that.

But at the very least, heís tried to say heís sorry and put it behind him. For the most part, the Giants players have given him the benefit of the doubt.

Although few expected the Giants to win the NFC East, they did just that, going 12-4 and earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Collins was outstanding, throwing for 3,610 yards in the regular season with a career-high 22 touchdown passes and only 13 interceptions for a respectable quarterback rating of 83.1.

The Giants disposed of the Philadelphia Eagles 20-10 in the divisional playoffs behind a solid defensive performance and big plays on special teams.

Then, a week later in the NFC Championship game, Collins was told to let loose.

The Giants were going to attack Minnesotaís secondary and the game plan called for Collins to throw early and often. He responded by throwing for more than 300 yards in the first half alone and for a championship-game record five touchdowns in a 41-0 rout of the Vikings.

It was a near-perfect game.

"As the year progressed, I saw Kerry mature and he got a fire in his eyes and intensity in him week by week," Giants offensive lineman Glenn Parker said. "He got into a leadership role and it mushroomed from there."

Collinsí career appears to have come full circle.

Tonight, heíll lead the Giants against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium here in Tampa, Fla. The Giants are three-point underdogs, but Collins has already shown the strength and willpower to overcome greater adversities.

"This man has grown up," Giants head coach Jim Fassell said. "Heís accepted the responsibility and done a hell of a job. I have seen his self-esteem grow, what he thinks about himself, how he feels about himself and how he handles himself. A part of that is you canít be afraid to admit your faults in the past, and you have to feel good about the future.

"Kerry Collins took the New York Giants to the Super Bowl, but thatís not the success story. The success story is what type of person Kerry Collins is today."

There are still all sorts of Collins critics around.

And thereís a popular perception that heís a quarterback whose main strength is not to help his team win, but rather to help them not lose.

That doesnít faze Collins.

"The only opinions I worry about are those of the guys in the locker room and the coaches," Collins said. "I think they feel pretty good about the year I had, and about the way I played. I certainly feel good about it. I think if you measure a quarterback in terms of Ďwhat has he done to help win football gamesí then I think Iíve done pretty well this year. People are going to say what they want to say and thereís nothing I can do about that."

Itís been quite a journey for Collins, now 28.

Heís now learned to appreciate that playing in the NFL, and the Super Bowl, is something thatís not given to you, but something thatís earned. He didnít always feel that way.

But most of all, heís learned that life is to precious to waste on abusing alcohol.

"Alcohol caused me to act in an erratic way and there were certain personal issues, some family issues that I needed to address," he said. "As everybody saw in those years, the confusion, the anger that I was experiencing at that time, came to the fore. Alcohol fueled it.

"I was described as a lost soul at one time and I definitely think that was the case."

Through it all, Collins has learned one valuable lesson.

"I think that making mistakes is a part of life," Collins said. "But I think that the real crime is not learning from those mistakes. I think Iíve learned from them. I think Iíve exorcised some of the demons that have haunted me in the past.

"But this is a life-long thing for me ó it doesnít stop here at the Super Bowl. Certainly Iím just as proud, maybe more proud, of whatís going on in my life off the field than on the field."

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