Older and wiser

Kerry Collins scaled the tower stand nestled in the woods, book tucked under one arm, gear in tow, and settled in for a relaxing day of hunting. The sun, still in the earliest stages of its morning ascent, threw some warming rays and Collins, barely a chapter into the bestseller "Tuesdays with Morrie," felt his eyelids drooping.

"I put my head down," he said, "and I fell asleep."

Wesley Walls, Collins' former teammate, close friend, and the man who introduced the Giants' quarterback to hunting, was along on that recent trip to Mississippi. Walls could not believe what happened next.

"He hears noises, and wakes up looking at the biggest eight-point deer ever seen in the area, and gets the biggest one in the history of our hunting club," Walls said. "That guy has a horseshoe around his head."

Collins worked hard to put it there, having finally learned how to make it a good-luck charm instead of an anchor. Maybe he deserves the break. For so long, Collins was a football player above anything else. His only definition of success came from what happened on the field, leaving him a passenger on an unpredictable emotional roller coaster.

Now, Collins is at the controls. Sober, happily married, and eyeing the future, his life balanced out when he got off the ride. No longer careening through every peak and valley, this Kerry Collins knows how to take what comes his way. As a hunter, it landed him that enormous deer kill. As a quarterback, it keeps him stable enough to play out his contract unfettered by doubts about whether he's part of the Giants' plans for the future.

"I'm not worried about the perception [that the Giants don't want to commit to him long term] because the reality to me is different," Collins said. "It's that they want me as their quarterback and there's not a lot of money. That's what I'm getting from [general manager] Ernie [Accorsi] - that they want me, and I don't think they're lying to me."

The eight-year NFL veteran is heading into his fourth year with the Giants, the final year of a contract that will pay him $5 million this season. The organization has so far declined to extend Collins' initial deal, despite its $8.75 million cap hit in 2002.

Collins won't negotiate once the season begins, but has said repeatedly he will be fine even if nothing is done before then. The only anger he felt this off-season came from what he said were false reports he and his agent were asking for upwards of $8 million a season.

"It was just wrong," he said. "People made inferences and speculated. Some people out-and-out lied for the gain of someone else's situation. There were definitely some ulterior motives with that. That was difficult because it was so baseless. It made me look bad and greedy and I'm not."

Collins has made a conscious choice to keep his view of negotiations out of the press. Teammate Michael Strahan took a well-publicized reverse approach, but Collins works hard to keep business matters from becoming personal. He stays quiet.

"I definitely had to work at it. It's an attitude and perspective you gain over time," said Collins, who turns 30 in December. You realize there are so many ups and downs, the more on the even keel you stay, the better you can handle adversity."

He has been both up and down. A demanding football father made life difficult by forcing a school transfer in high school. But a scholarship to Penn State allowed Collins to go undefeated and win a national championship in 1995 and led to his being selected as the fifth overall pick of the ensuing NFL draft. Collins was the first player ever chosen by the expansion Carolina Panthers.

But the combination of newfound freedom and heady success (the Panthers were in the NFC championship game Collins' second year) proved toxic, preceding a precipitous fall. Collins clashed with teammates and coaches, was eventually released by the Panthers, claimed off waivers for $100 by New Orleans, arrested for driving under the influence, and left in football limbo as an unrestricted - but mostly unwanted - free agent.

Only a six-week stay at a rehabilitation clinic and a vow of sobriety convinced the Giants to sign him. The Super Bowl appearance would follow, yet Collins could still be a free agent again at season's end.

Talking while he pulls off his cowboy boots at a stool in front of his locker, Collins is not unnerved. This is why Walls can see the maturity in Collins, knowing that only a few short years ago, his friend would have been distracted by the contract uncertainty.

"A younger Kerry was very impatient, and would have been a little angry if it wasn't happening at the pace he wanted," Walls said.

Recently, Collins was the one who played mentor to Walls.

"He stopped by my house earlier in the off-season and I was going through my own contract issues," said Walls, who took a pay cut in order to play this, his 14th and most likely final season with Carolina. "Kerry, going through a similar thing, was very even keeled for me. He was very calm. That was calming to me. The contract stuff was definitely getting to me, getting in my head, and he helped me feel that everything was going to work out.

"He felt like he was playing good football at a place he was happy, and not only happy about playing in New York, but happy in life."

Much of that can be attributed to Collins' recent marriage to the former Brooke Isenhour. Their hopes now include buying property in North Carolina on which to settle down someday and raise a family. Walls, who was in Collins' wedding party, saw an immediate difference in his longtime friend.

"I'll tell you, I get chills talking about it. He was so happy. I've seen him a lot of times where he thought he was happy, but this was really it," Walls said.

Houston Texans' offensive lineman Matt Campbell, another Collins friend since the Carolina days, is also an avid outdoorsman. He has seen Collins' interests expand. "He bought some cows, and his father-in-law is keeping them," Campbell said. "I called him a farmer and he told me not to be confused, that he's a rancher."

Said Collins: "Farmers work the dirt; ranchers make the money. I bought seven red Angus bred heifers. They're for breeding."

Though ranching might lie ahead for Collins, his intense focus remains on getting himself and the Giants back on track. He knows he has to cut down on the NFL single-season record 23 fumbles he had last year, and coach Jim Fassel calls that one of this season's priorities.

The roller coaster that existed on the field has to straighten out. In back-to-back wins against Arizona and Seattle, Collins engineered brilliant fourth-quarter comebacks capped by a touchdown pass in the final 25 seconds of each game. But in the previous week at Dallas he was awful, with 126 yards on 13-for-26 passing including a killer interception in the fourth quarter.

Whatever the kinks, Fassel is confident that Collins has the ability to lead New York beyond the upcoming season.

"There's no doubt in my mind," Fassel said. "I think he's an outstanding quarterback. I think he has room to get better, but he shows me the maturity level of working hard and getting better. If he was missing some of that, then I'd be concerned, but I think he does all the right things."

Collins wants to remain a Giant, but now more than ever before, he is also able to look beyond football. His pale blue eyes sparkle at the talk of life's possibilities.

"I've thought of different things, like maybe being a counselor, but I have the resources to do whatever," he said. "I couldn't see not giving back some way. I enjoy it. I know one thing though, whatever I do, it's going to be out of the public eye. Whatever I want, I want to have peace in my life, as much peace as I can possibly attain."