Avoiding the Rush

Can the Giants’ Kerry Collins Continue to Sidestep the Big Apple Media Blitz?

"Kerry Collins is at his locker! Kerry Collins is at his locker!" shouts tight end Howard Cross into a buzzing Giants locker room on a recent Thursday afternoon.

It was more a commentary than a pronouncement, for anyone could see the gaggle of anxious television, radio, and newspaper reporters hovering around the starting quarterback's locker, awaiting his arrival. Each Thursday, collins plays 20 Questions with the New York media as part of his scheduled weekly meeting with the press. Surrounded by a couple dozen pad-toting, camera-carrying, and microphone-shoving journalists, he answers every question, from the moronic to the maddening.

"Does it bother you when people say your team isn't as good as its record?"

A man with a past: Kerry Collins moves forward.
photo: Pete Kuhns
A man with a past: Kerry Collins moves forward.

"Does it motivate you?"

"Are you guys prepared this week?"

"Will you be able to throw the ball in the winter winds [at Giants Stadium]?"

Win or lose, all NFL quarterbacks face questions such as these on a weekly basis—it's part of the job, the price of fame, and the downside of multi-million-dollar contracts. But given the Giants' struggles of late—since their 3-0 start they have played just above .500 while going victoryless against teams with winning records—one has to wonder: When will New York's scandal-hungry reporters get personal with the Giants' signal caller?

You see, with Collins, there is plenty of fodder. Before he arrived in the Big Apple last year with a four-year, $16.9 million contract, the 27-year-old quarterback went from number one draft pick in 1995 to the NFC championship game in 1996 to poster boy for problem athletes by 1998—all during his three-plus years with the expansion Carolina Panthers.

Allegations that he quit on his team by former Panthers head coach Dom Capers eventually led to his release by Carolina in 1998 (he played the final seven games that season for New Orleans). While the coach's accusations can perhaps be dismissed as the sour grapes of a man under the gun (Capers was fired after the 1998 season) or the machinations of a team looking to unload a troubled player, it's the incidents precipitating them that are more troubling.

At a team party in 1997, while still a member of the Panthers, Collins referred to teammate Muhsin Muhammad, who is black, using a racial slur. He apologized the next day, denied he was a racist, and claimed he used the term in jest. But, fairly or not, the damage was done: The incident led to a public debate and divided the young team along racial lines.

A couple of years' worth of perspective later, Collins's former teammates show no signs of holding a grudge. "The media made way too much of that stuff," says Arizona Cardinal Norberto Davidds-Gorrido, who, in a lower-profile incident, got into a scuffle with Collins after the quarterback reportedly directed an ethnic slur at the Latino offensive lineman while both were with Carolina. "As far as I'm concerned, he was a good teammate. I have nothing bad to say about him."

Those who know him say Collins's story was a case of too much pressure placed on a young athlete too soon. Legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who guided Collins in college, believes Collins "was in a new environment where he didn't know who to trust. He lost his way a bit."

Collins's high school coach is more emotional. "That stuff about him being a racist was total BS," says Gerry Slemmer, Collins's coach at Wilson High in West Lawn, Pennsylvania. "I know Kerry. He's a good kid. He got along with everyone here. To watch someone you know and like go through what the media did to him then was upsetting."

Bad press or no, Collins has since admitted to being a problem drinker during his days as a Panther, saying that he was drunk, for instance, during the Muhammad incident. In fact, Collins was arrested for DUI late in the 1998 season, when New Orleans visited Charlotte for a highly charged matchup against the quarterback's former team. Collins finally entered rehab in January 1999 and says he hasn't had a drink since.

That Collins came to New York with all this baggage is remarkable when you consider the feistiness of the local media. How the racism issue has been handled has as much to do with Collins's new teammates, however, as it does with the quarterback himself. The local papers have been relatively silent on the issue because the players in the Giants locker room, most of whom (roughly 60 percent) are black, have not even hinted at it. In truth, though, the Giants' acceptance of Collins may have more to do with his on-the-field qualifications than his off-the-field character. Remember: After years of flawed athletes (Dave Brown, Danny Kanell, Kent Graham) manning their most important position, the Giants, in Collins, may now have their most talented signal caller since Phil Simms. The Giants, in short, are desperate for a true leader.

"Ever since he came here, we've looked at him as a leader, but he's been asserting himself more lately, now that he's the starter," receiver Amani Toomer, a beneficiary of Collins's rocket arm, said earlier this season. "No one in this room knows what really happened before. We just know he's a Giant now."

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