Collins opens up during candid press conference

Not since 1985, when Chicago Bears star Jim McMahon exposed his derriere to a television news helicopter as it hovered over the practice field, has a quarterback attempted to go naked through the entire week of Super Bowl buildup.

But on Monday night, in a riveting press conference that defined the term cathartic and demonstrated how far he has come in the rehabilitation of his personal life and professional career, New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins did McMahon one better.

He bared his soul.

Regarded at various junctures during his six-year NFL tenure as a drunk, a racist, a quitter and a loser, Collins addressed all of those charges head-on. In a candid, 40-minute session, Collins said that he hoped this open act of contrition might diminish during this week of preparation the public inquisition, but acknowledged that such honesty will not satisfy all the critics who will scrutinize his past under the usual Super Bowl microscope.

The news conference was in stark contrast to the session an hour earlier at the Baltimore Ravens hotel, in which coach Brian Billick went from insufferable to idiotic by excoriating the media for its coverage of the Ray Lewis trial last spring. While the pompous Billick displayed once again just how much he enjoys the sound of his own voice, Collins' humility impressed even some harsh critics.

And if Collins' vocabulary wasn't as expansive as Billick's, his simple confession nonetheless was eloquent at times.

"I was described as a lost soul at one time," Collins noted, pausing to gather his thoughts, "and I definitely think that was the case."

The initial first-round draft choice of the Carolina Panthers in 1995, Collins led the team to the NFC Championship Game in the second year of the franchise's existence. By October of 1998, he had been released following a training camp incident that summer in which he described black teammates with the ugliest term imaginable and later apprised coach Dom Capers that he had lost his desire to play the game.

Claimed on waivers by New Orleans, he was arrested in Charlotte, N.C., on DUI charges when Saints coach Mike Ditka permitted him to stay behind after a game there. The newspaper picture of him exiting the Mecklenburg (N.C.) County jail -- with his hair disheveled, his shirt untucked and a big stogie sticking out of the dumb smile on his face -- was an image he has attempted to run away from since the drunk-driving charges.

What he will not try to dodge, Collins conceded, is the reality that he is an alcoholic.

It is a problem that began when Collins took his first drink at age 13. A year later he transferred schools to enhance his athletic career, moving with his father into a district with superior facilities and talent pool. The booze, the anxiety to consistently produce in the athletic arena, along with a poor relationship with his family conspired to dramatically reduce Collins' sense of self-esteem.

More often than not, Collins won on the playing field, but was losing touch with a dysfunctional family that pressured him -- one that will be reunited at Sunday's game. His anti-social behavior, doctors diagnosed, was a by-product of a dearth of self-worth. A player who had been able to get along with black teammates during his stellar career at Penn State, the '98 incident with Carolina teammates was an ill-advised attempt at jocularity and camaraderie which backfired on him.

"Looking back at that night in camp," said former Panthers linebacker Lamar Lathon, "I don't think Kerry had a big problem. But it wasn't as innocuous, either, as he made it out to be. There were just a lot of bad things going on in his life. He had some problems to take care of, man."

And the biggest problem was alcohol.

"I didn't drink every day but, when I drank, I didn't stop," recalled Collins, who was ordered by NFL officials into a treatment facility after the '98 season. "I never had (just) one beer. A lot of it was party-related. I thought I had to be a good guy. I thought if I didn't go drinking, I was just wasting my youth. As it turned out, I was wasting my life."

The turnaround came when, Collins said, when he entered the treatment facility. For a guy who had been touted as the All-American boy and the quintessential success story, it was a cruel dose of reality.

"When I went to rehab, I checked Kerry Collins the football player at the door," he said. "And for the first time in a long time, I started to look at myself as a person. . . . Humility is not always a strong suit for professional athletes. One of the first things I had to do in rehab was to get humble. That humility comes from realizing I have a problem. I can't control alcohol."

Ironically, though, Collins was in total control in front of his inquisitors on Monday night. Part of his good fortune in landing with the Giants was the presence of a strong support group, including Dr. Joel Goldberg, the club's director of counseling services. The two men have worked closely in Collins' two years in New York, and the quarterback has finally learned to confront all of the demons from his past and to look confidently toward the future.

When he arrived at his first Giants mini-camp, a team that had already heard all the negatives was skeptical of him. Black players, cognizant of the incident in Carolina, originally shunned Collins. And until Michael Strahan endorsed Collins, his $5 million-a-year contract with the team didn't afford him a true status.

Said Strahan: "You had to look deep into him but, when you did, there was something there that seemed like it was worthwhile."

Not until Collins undertook that same exercise, though, did he begin to emerge again as a person and a player. He made it clear on Monday that excavating the first of those was more important. Had he come out of the treatment facility having salvaged his life but not his profession, you get the impression that Collins would have been all right with that split-decision. But by completing the entire equation, he now has the opportunity to fulfill his destiny.

"I'm human and I have human weaknesses and frailties," he said. "We all do. Hopefully, people who have problems and know that everything doesn't always go right, will see me as a kind of role model, because I am trying to get it right."