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Gorman: Collins exits NFL with chin up

| Saturday, July 9, 2011

Seeing that this was a gym credit during summer session, I wasn't worried when my tennis instructor explained that I would play a singles match against the top seed from another class for my final exam.

At least, not until I met my opponent.

He stood 6-foot-5, weighed 235 pounds and bore a striking resemblance to Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins. Paying that little mind, I took my starting position at the baseline, awaiting his serve. He tossed the ball high, launching a rocket that ricocheted off my racket and then my chin.

That's when I realized it was Kerry Collins.

And I wasn't going to ace this test.

This was 1993, a year before I would cover Collins and the Nittany Lions, as they shattered school records in an undefeated season that culminated with Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships, almost two years before he was chosen fifth overall in the NFL Draft by the expansion Carolina Panthers.

Back then, if you would have predicted Collins would end his NFL career as the 11th all-time passer, sandwiched between Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas with 40,441 yards, it wouldn't have surprised me at all.

Not after watching Collins direct the 96-yard scoring drive at Illinois in November 1994 that saved Penn State's perfect season. He completed 13 of 15 passes in the fourth quarter and all seven attempts on the game-winning drive, as the Lions overcame a 21-point deficit for a 35-31 victory. He won the Davey O'Brien Award as college football's best quarterback, the Maxwell Award as its best player and should have won the Heisman Trophy.

What's more impressive is how Collins persevered to turn his life around.

Once viewed as a savior in Charlotte after leading the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game in his second season, Collins was alienated in '97 for using a racial slur while referring to receiver Muhsin Muhammad. A year later he was waived by Carolina, viewed as a quitter after telling coach Dom Capers he needed a break following an 0-4 start to the season. Then Collins was arrested for driving under the influence and forced by the NFL to attend a rehabilitation clinic to be treated for alcoholism.

Still, Collins persevered, leading the New York Giants to Super Bowl XXXV in 2000 and making the Pro Bowl after guiding the Tennessee Titans to a 10-0 start and 14-2 record in '08. He made mistakes, owned up to them and learned from them.

Through it all, he kept his life in perspective.

"I've been called a racist, a drunk and a quitter," Collins liked to say. "Other than that, I'm fine."

It was fitting that Collins retired Thursday by sending a statement through his agency, Athletes First, which declined an interview request. That he knew when it was time to leave and didn't want a dramatic departure with a tearful goodbye like another graybeard at his position was refreshing and revealing for an aspiring country music composer.

"I think I'm one of those people that's going to be better in the late 30s and 40s than in my early 20s, the experience and knowing myself better," Collins told USA Today in 2009. "And I've got a great family, great situation in my personal life. I've found something outside of that I really enjoy, too. That's put me in a really good place."

That's why Collins' retirement deserves to be more than a footnote, as he left the game better than he began it. Along the way, he learned that pro football and the fame and fortune it brought him pale in comparison to the personal satisfaction he found in discovering who he was at heart: Not a racist, a drunk or a quitter but rather an example for such people.

"I'm human, and I have human frailties and weaknesses, and we all do," Collins told the New York Times before that Super Bowl. "Hopefully, people can see me as a role model in the sense that people have problems, and alcohol dependency, or whatever it may be, is part of life and is part of everyday life for a lot of people. Hopefully, they look at me as someone who realized they had a problem, realized they had to do something about it.

"So perhaps I've become a role model in that sense."

Collins should be remembered as a role model in this sense, too: He took it on the chin, recovered to revive his career and left without making a racket.

Here's to his next service being as good as his first.

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