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By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001
The high school football team in Lebanon, Pa., had lost three of four games to start the 1987 season. A day of demolition on the practice field was supposed to set them straight, and the defense was worked to a frenzy, out of control.
Kerry Collins placed his hands under center and barked his cadence. The 6-foot-5, 14-year-old quarterback knew he had just half the normal escort of blockers in the hitting drill, but he crouched low, heard the crack of the shoulder pads and disappeared anyway into the pile of players who tried to put their helmets in his chest and split him in half.
"It was an insane punishment drill," said Corey Thomas, a friend of Collins since kindergarten. "Him running a quarterback sneak up the middle was a tragedy waiting to happen. And it did.
"I was on defense at the time. You could hear something snap. Then it was a lot of Kerry screaming in agony."
Collins broke his left ankle in two places, but the incident wound up fracturing his family.
Collins' father, Pat, the team's offensive coordinator, angrily lashed out at coach Hal Donley for the sheer lunacy of the drill, though Thomas says the relationship had been strained all year.
He lifted his son from the football field that day and moved with him 30 miles east to Wilson High School in West Lawn, Pa., sending Kerry on an unrelenting pursuit of a famed, then infamous, football career that came at great personal cost.
Kerry's mother, Roseanne, refused to uproot the family for something as inconsequential as football and remained in Lebanon with his brother, Patrick, while Kerry lived with his dad in a one bedroom apartment. The marriage ended in divorce.
From a football standpoint, the move paid off. Collins led Wilson to the state championship game as a senior, led Penn State to an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl victory, and became the fifth overall player selected in the 1995 draft by the expansion Carolina Panthers. In his second year, he quarterbacked his team to within one game of the Super Bowl.
But with so much of his self worth engrossed in his identity as an athlete, Collins did not know where to run when there wasn't an end zone awaiting him.
"I still have some letters from him. He was devastated (over the move to a new town)," Thomas said. "When he got ripped away, it was extremely, extremely hard on him. He understood it gave him a better chance in football. But being ripped from his family and friends and what he'd known his whole life, that was hard to handle.
"He was angry at his dad at first. Even with the big goal in mind, he was angry he lost his childhood. The whole road, and the outlashes with the booze and stuff like that, was probably brewing. His whole life was "Kerry the athlete, Kerry the athlete.' He was trying to be something else."
It was the morning after Collins led the Giants to a 41-0 shellacking of the Vikings in the NFC Championship. Collins went 28-of-39 for 381 yards and five touchdowns, setting a team playoff record for passing yardage by halftime.
The performance evoked memories of the Giants' Phil Simms' 22-of-25 MVP passing performance in Super Bowl XXI.
Collins was asked if the wonderment about his accomplishment held personal significance.
"Is there a bigger meaning to the whole thing? I think there may be," he said. "Because it was real bad for me. Real bad at times. I think things ... come full circle. Through all the bad days, I kept thinking because it got so bad, it's going to be that good some day."
Until his resurgence as the Giants quarterback, Collins was defined by his checkered past.
In 1997, he used a racial slur while joking with black Carolina teammates after a night of drinking as training camp broke. In 1998, he walked into coach Dom Capers office and begged out of the lineup, saying he didn't have the heart to lead the Panthers after an 0-4 start.
One day after being booed when his new Saints team returned to Charlotte, N.C., to play the Panthers, he was photographed brazenly puffing on a cigar leaving the Mecklenburg County jail four hours after his arrest for drunk driving. And, before signing with the Giants, the NFL ordering him to an eight-week stay in an alcohol rehab center.
"I've been called a racist, a drunk and a quitter," Collins is fond of saying. "Other than that, I'm fine."
But each self-destructive episode was unsettling when it reached the people who thought they knew Collins as a humble, polite gym rat who would rather toss quarters into a batting cage than into a beer mug.
Of all the labels, the one of racism probably stained Collins the worst.
"Was that the Kerry Collins I knew? No it wasn't," said Ravens safety Kim Herring, an African-American teammate of Collins at Penn State. "When I first heard about those rumors, I didn't know what to think because that wasn't the way I knew Kerry. Maybe he got caught in a situation where he wasn't thinking. If that's the case, maybe he deserved what he got. But that's not the Kerry I know, and I forgive him if it's true. I'll still treat him the way I always have."
Collins' football coach at Wilson, Dr. Gerry Slemmer, defended his former quarterback in print.
"People make quick judgments," Slemmer said. "They didn't have all the facts. It was a difficult time. I'd find myself defending him to some. There was an article by Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated that really ripped him after the episode with Capers. He called him a quitter, a racist and said I can't believe he did this. I wrote Sports Illustrated a letter. I'm a high school principal, I have a doctorate, and I said I know this person. I coached him and you're really off base.
"But I'm humble enough to say that when I coached him, maybe I should've taken more time to talk to him about other things. Ask him, "What's your favorite car?' Something besides athletics. Because our conversations were always about sports."
After Collins bombed out in New Orleans, only the Giants showed interest. General manager Ernie Accorsi grew up in Hershey, Pa., 12 miles west of Lebanon, and his daughter had a class with Collins at Penn State.
The Giants did their homework, dispatching scouts to Collins' hometown before signing him to a four-year, $16.9-million contract.
"People say, "What a gamble,' But it wasn't if you know him," Slemmer said. "They came in and sat and talk to us. I told them, "you do what you want to do, you don't know me from Adam. But I'd sign him in a heartbeat.' "
Accorsi agreed. "What we concluded was this is a very talented quarterback and a good kid who got off track."
Like his play on the field, Collins' life is, for the moment, remarkably under control. He has stopped drinking, unless you count his addiction to Diet Coke, and has repaired his relationship with his estranged mother and headstrong father.
All that is left, it seems, is for Collins to pilot the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XXXV.
"This story has been playing out for his whole life," Thomas said. "There's no way he's going to lose. That's the way the story is supposed to end, with him winning the Super Bowl."
If he doesn't, Collins already feels like a winner. That personal victory never tasted sweeter.
"I think it's already complete," Collins said. "Football is very important to me, it's a big part of my life. But I'm just happy the way things are going off the field. Football is not a barometer of whether you're a good person or whether you win or don't win. That's something we all lose sight of very rapidly in this business."
- Staff writers John Romano and Bruce Lowitt contributed to this report.
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