Quarterback revival

Kerry Collins: Problems on and off the field threatened to ruin his career until he made a giant turnaround in New York.

January 21, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - There was little reason to believe Kerry Collins wasn't going to be successful in the NFL. He had the pedigree, having led Penn State to a perfect record as a senior. He had the size and skills to be the first pick of the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995.

There was little reason to believe his performance over the first two seasons in Charlotte wasn't foretelling the future. He was the first rookie to have a winning record as a starter since Dan Marino. He brought the Panthers to the brink of the Super Bowl in 1996, and played in the Pro Bowl.

Then it all crumbled quickly.

In a matter of months, Collins' career was threatened, first by a crushing blow from Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski that broke his jaw during a 1997 preseason game, and later by reports that he asked to be relieved of his starting job after the Panthers began the 1998 season with four straight losses.

His reputation - already stained by a racial epithet Collins allegedly used in training camp with a teammate - was further damaged by published reports of a drinking problem. It all came crashing down when Collins, having been released by the Panthers and picked up by the New Orleans Saints, was charged with drunken driving the morning after a game between the two teams in Charlotte.

At 26, Collins seemed to be running out of chances.

"Things were really bad for me, really bad," Collins, now in his second year as quarterback of the New York Giants, said last week. "I think things work where they come full circle. Through all the bad days, I kept thinking that, because it got so bad, it's going to be good some day."

While those dark days are not completely behind Collins, they have been pushed further into the past. The resurrection has reached remarkable heights recently, and will find its pinnacle a week from today when Collins leads the Giants into Super Bowl XXXV against the Ravens in Tampa, Fla.

Win or lose, Collins has seemingly chased the demons away.

His performance against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game a week ago was reminiscent of what he had done early on in Charlotte and in a couple of rare opportunities at Penn State. In a 41-0 rout of the Vikings, Collins completed 28 of 39 passes for 381 yards. His five touchdown passes were one short of the league record for the most in a postseason game.

Asked Friday if his rehabilitation will be completed by a victory over the Ravens, Collins said, "I think it's already complete. Football is a very important part of my life, it's a big part of my life. But football is not a barometer of whether or not you're a good person, whether or not you win or don't win."

What Collins has done this season - with career highs in completions, passing yards and touchdowns - doesn't surprise his teammates.

Receiver Joe Jurevicius, who played one season with Collins at Penn State and went through his own troubles there with academic woes, has watched his teammate's rebirth. Jurevicius shares a townhouse with Collins and often drives him where he needs to go. (Collins, who lost his license with the conviction for driving while impaired, is scheduled get it back next month.)

"Kerry's had a lot of doubters, but he's made them look kind of silly," said Jurevicius, who caught one of the touchdown passes against the Vikings. "That's a tribute to his work ethic. It's a fitting story for a fitting person. We knew he could do it all along."

There was a time when Collins doubted himself. After going through rehabilitation at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., Collins realized his drinking problem was brought on by a combination of his suddenly lavish lifestyle, the loneliness he felt in Charlotte and the guilt that came from blaming himself for the breakup of his parents' marriage when he was in high school. But there was also the confidence derived from what he had done at Penn State and with the Panthers.

"Obviously, I haven't been to the Super Bowl, but this kind of success isn't uncharted territory for me," Collins said. "I lost sight of what it took to get there for a little while. I've been successful at pretty much every level I've played at.

"This is one more thing I can look at with pride. I've been fortunate to be on some great teams. It all wouldn't have happened had I not gotten the opportunity here, had I not gotten the support here."

The Giants signed Collins to a four-year, $16.9 million deal before last season. General manager Ernie Accorsi had done his own background checks on Collins, visiting with Penn State coach Joe Paterno and Wilson High (West Lawn, Pa.) coach Gerry Slemmer, as well as talking extensively with former Panthers general manager Bill Polian.

Polian, who had moved on to become president of the Indianapolis Colts, reportedly told Accorsi that he had planned on signing Collins as a backup to Peyton Manning and helping him with his rehab had the Giants not made the offer. Collins was brought here with the intention of replacing Kent Graham.

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