Party Over, Collins Rebuilds Career

There were the all too frequent Friday night binges with teammates that two days later left Kerry Collins ill-prepared to take snaps from behind center. Looking to become a Comeback Kid at the still-tender age of 26, Collins admitted yesterday in the past few years he often played quarterback in a beer-induced haze which rotted away his body, his mind, his performance and very nearly his career.

The most intriguing Giants newcomer, gearing up for the start of training camp one week from today, is tingling with anticipation at embarking on what he is confident will be a new and improved chapter in his life. Before he leaps into the new frontier, though, Collins understands he must continue to confront the many demons that led to his demise and allowed the Giants to scoop him up from what essentially was a scrap heap.

The demon that nearly ruined everything was alcohol, and looking back, Collins recalls a disturbing segment of his turbulent four years in the NFL, when he took the field still feeling the numbing after-effects of another evening wasted away in a drunken search for contentment.

"There were times on Friday nights before games myself and other guys on the team would go out and have a few beers," Collins told The Post during an expansive interview over lunch not far from Giants Stadium. "You may not sleep as much as you'd like to, or you don't sleep as well, Saturday you're feeling hung over, it carries over into Sunday. It wasn't like I was drunk playing, but you party one night and for a couple of days you feel it, no doubt."

This is the quarterback the Giants on Feb. 19 deemed worthy of a four-year, $16.9 million contract, handing over a $5 million signing bonus to a player who had struggled mightily both on and off the field. The move sprouted risks like weeds in a garden, as there were no certainties that Collins could be trusted to direct his own life, much less the Giants offense.

"Unless you know you got a proven guy there who's a championship quarterback, then we're all taking risks in one way or another," said general manager Ernie Accorsi, who had a huge hand in bringing Collins in. "There are risks to all these guys."

Collins reports to Albany next Thursday as the backup to Kent Graham, who went 5-1 to close out last season starting in place of Danny Kanell. It is highly likely the only question for Jim Fassel is when Collins gets his shot, as teams rarely go through entire seasons with one quarterback, whether the move is based on injury, performance or the need for a spark.

When that chance comes, the new and sober Collins, who says he has "clarity of mind," promises he'll be ready to scour the grime off his tarnished reputation and come back better than ever.

"It's a new start for me, a new beginning, kind of a new era in my life. I'm excited to show people what kind of person I am," he said. "You have to say Kent deserves to be the starter. My attitude towards the whole thing is I believe my job is to be as ready as I can be to help the team win, flat out, whatever my role may be."

Asked if he still sees glory in his future, Collins added "Absolutely I do."

Collins was the fifth player taken in the 1995 NFL Draft, emerged as a rising star while leading the second-year Panthers into the 1996 NFC Championship Game and has ever since seen his life in and out of football come to near-ruin. He made what he described as "a bad joke" while drunk one night and was labeled a racist by some of his Panthers teammates. He was called a quitter when he supposedly asked out of the lineup. He was released, signed by the Saints, struggled in New Orleans and was arrested for drunk driving while back in Carolina for a road game.

Out of that mess comes what Collins describes as "a better, different person." The Giants signed him and helped him get into a rehabilitation program. Collins studied himself and hated who he saw: Immature, out-of control, unable to handle success, a wild and willing drunk at a loss to accept strained relationships with his divorced parents.

"Fame hit pretty hard and pretty fast, it made me want to withdraw and an easy way to withdraw is to use alcohol," he said. "I was trying to escape into my own little world. It all happened very quickly, very fast at a time when I was still trying to figure out some things about myself, trying to figure out who I am."

Nowadays he likes who he's become, saying, "It all starts with sobriety." He was a diligent participant in the Giants' off-season workout program and is down to a taut 240 pounds after playing the past few seasons at a bloated 252. He is sure he's never been more prepared for success, ready to room with Jason Sehorn in Albany, get to know his new teammates better - none has confronted him about his past indiscretions - and is openly excited about an unexpected romance in his life. Two weeks ago out in Montauk, L.I., he ran into Kristen DelVecchio, whom he had known casually while at Penn State. The two had not spoken in three years, but Collins says they now are a serious item.

"It's one of the wonderful things that's happened to me that wouldn't have happened had I not done all the things I've done in my private life," Collins said. "It's definitely something I'm very excited about. I feel I've met the woman I was meant to be with."

As for rekindling the magic on the field, Collins believes it is only a matter of time and opportunity.

"I feel as good about stepping onto that field now as I ever have at any time in my career," he said. "I think you're going to see a guy with a lot more confidence than what you've seen the past couple of years. You're going to see a more athletic guy. And I think you'll see a guy really excited about being where he is.

"I feel like I've got that edge back."