Kerry says goodbye to the kids

Former Giant QB leaves behind powerful legacy

The climb up the stairs was agonizing for Kerry Collins. He bit his lip, held his breath, looked away and braced for the worst. There were only seven stairs, but the trip up and down lasted more than 10 minutes.

And Collins looked as if he felt the pain every step of the way.

Of course, it was nothing like the pain Fernell Clotter was feeling. The 15-year-old Clotter, a patient in the pediatric unit of the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, is just two months removed from surgery that left six pins in his left knee. He's been in a wheelchair ever since and had yet to attempt the stairs. Even his physical therapist warned: "We never get anyone up there the first time."

But Fernell was determined, because his favorite quarterback was here.

Scenes like this one have played out too many times to count in the five years Collins, now the former quarterback of the Giants, has been associated with Rusk.

He's not just a guardian angel who raised $100,000 for a computer center and pledged $500,000 more for renovations. He's the kids'friend, the guy who buys them pizza or brings them toys on Christmas Eve. He's the buddy who beats them at PlayStation or just stops by to ask about their day.

"He's just an incredible, incredible spirit, he really is," says senior physical therapist Lisa Del Guidice. "And the kids get so excited. Those kids who get to show him what they're working on, that means a lot to them. They're here for months on end, and for somebody to see what they're going through and to take an interest, it's important to them."

That's why Wednesday was such "a very sad day," in the words of Collins' agent and friend, Jamey Crimmins. Rusk has been close to Collins' heart since 1999 when Mets pitcher Al Leiter suggested he make a visit to the children's hospital. And in the five years since, he's come back often and established relationships with many kids.

But a week before this last visit, Collins was released by the Giants, ending his time in New York sooner than he ever imagined. That made Wednesday a goodbye party of sorts, although Collins vowed never to say goodbye to Rusk for good.

"This relationship is bigger than any position I have or anything that's going on with the Giants," Collins says. "I got involved with it because I was here, because I played for the Giants, but it's more than that now. I've got a lot of emotion invested in this place. Every time I've come here I've left a better person. I'm probably a more compassionate person and a more inspired person.

"And I want to see it through, regardless of whether I'm here or not. I made a promise, I'm going to keep it. That's just the bottom line."

Back in 1999, Collins was the last person most people expected to be so generous with his time and money. He came to New York fresh out of rehab, his reputation in tatters. He had a drunk driving arrest on his resume, had offended his Carolina Panthers teammates with a racial slur, and there were even reports he had walked into his coach's office and quit on his former team.

Few believed the Giants were smart to sign a man considered to be a racist, a drunk and a quitter. Even fewer believed he could have such a big heart.

"That was the frustrating thing," Crimmins says. "People were saying, 'Kerry Collins is a drunk, Kerry Collins is a racist, Kerry Collins is a quitter.' He wasn't. The truth was I knew that he was fine, but nobody else did. Slowly but surely he won over the city."

For the most part, Collins began to win it over in a very private way. There was the time, for example, when he was watching the evening news and heard that the Harlem Boys Choir lost a grant to fund a trip to Israel. Collins called Crimmins. "He said, 'I'll pay for their trip,'" Crimmins says. "Just like that. And he said, 'Don't tell anybody. I don't want anybody to know.'"

There are countless other examples, Crimmins says - enough that the NFL long ago probably should have honored Collins as its Man of the Year. In the wake of Sept. 11, for example, Collins made an unannounced visit to Ladder 5, a group of firefighters who had lost their truck and too many comrades when the World Trade Center collapsed. The visit turned into a friendship, and led to the creation of Collins' "Heroes Fund" to benefit the families of firefighters who were killed.

It was the children of Rusk, though, that seemed to touch his heart the most during his time with the Giants. He was nervous during his first visit five years ago. "He did well at not showing it, but he did say later it was just a little bit more than he expected," Del Guidice says.

Collins says it never got any easier to see kids who are suffering, although their positive outlooks always left him amazed.

"I still get those compassionate feelings and the joy that you get to see when the kids are around," Collins says. "No matter how bad I'm feeling about anything, I come here and I always feel better. It breaks your heart to see some of the kids going through what they're going through, but you also see a lot of their strengths. I think the spirit in here is probably the thing that strikes me the most."

And so, as often as possible for the last five years, the 31-year-old Collins - sometimes with his wife, Brooke - encouraged that spirit. He started by raising the money for the Kerry Collins Computer Center and Classroom, complete with four computer stations and his No. 5 jersey on the wall in a frame. He continued with the pledge to renovate the pediatric unit that may someday also bear his name.

And more than that, there have been countless visits and pizza parties, almost all of them out of view of the press. He makes an annual Christmas Eve trip with presents for all the children. An in January, 2001, he sent over a big-screen TV and plenty of food so they could watch the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

There were personal relationships too, like one with a teenager named Terrell, whom Collins calls "a special kid." Late in 2002 Collins sent a stretch limo to Rusk to pick up Terrell and take him to Giants Stadium for a game against Dallas. After the game, Collins introduced his young friend to Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.

"For a kid that's got so many other things going on, that's something that'll carry with Terrell for the rest of his life," Del Guidice says. "He'll say, 'My buddy Kerry Collins.' It's not like, 'Kerry Collins the football player.' He's 'My friend Kerry Collins.'"

On Wednesday, there were 17 friends of Kerry Collins around the table in the Leiter's Landing Foundation Playroom, ranging in age from toddlers to teens, all of them stuck in wheelchairs. They had a pizza party while waiting for their friend to arrive, and when he got there, they all took pictures with him and had them signed. But the real fun began when the kids started showing off for Kerry, taking him to the physical therapy gym or the computer room to show him what they could do.

Fernell took Collins to that stairwell, where he first made sure to say how mad he was at the Giants for releasing the man he called his idol. "Honestly, from this point on I think I really hate the Giants," Fernell says. "Whether they make it to the Super Bowl or not."

And with that, Fernell, a would-be fullback and linebacker at Boys & Girls High School who looks big enough to protect Collins' blind side, inched up out of his wheelchair and struggled over to the foot of the stairs. He grumbled through his pain, before telling his therapist, "Let's do this."

His friend, Kerry, stood there, watching every step of the way.

"It took a few minutes," Collins says. "But I wasn't going to leave until he was done. He was in a little bit of pain and it was tough for him, but he did it. If I had anything to do with that it kind of made my day."

That, of course, seems only fair, since Collins has been making days better for the children of Rusk for the last five years.

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