Avoiding the Rush

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

"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?"

"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."

How Collins's history of alcoholism has been covered is a different story, however. It's not unusual for sportswriters to question whether the struggles of an athlete with a history of substance abuse might have something to do with a relapse. Just ask Brett Favre. But in New York, where players are only as good as their last game, the matter has received strikingly little attention as it pertains to Collins.

"New York is probably the toughest environment in terms of dealing with the fans and the media," says Dr. Len Zaichkowsky, a sports psychologist at Boston University and a consultant with the Pro Sports Psychology Group. "Whether we're fans or the press, we're looking for exceptional performance from our athletes all the time. We're always looking to blame something or somebody if things aren't going well on the field. Whenever there's substance abuse with an athlete, it always becomes very public. Once it's out there, it's hard to get away from. If the Giants or Collins perform at a below-mediocre level, they'll keep reminding Collins about his [past]."

Adding fuel to the potential for fire is that Collins, by most accounts, is hardly your stereotypical swaggering athlete. Coaches who have worked with him throughout his career describe him as a quiet and sensitive person. Former New Orleans coach Mike Ditka, who coached Collins during the QB's brief stay with the Saints, went as far as to say, "I think he's an outstanding individual, but when he was with me he was overly sensitive to criticism." When asked if this trait might hurt him in dealing with the New York media, Ditka, now a commentator with CBS, responded, "Not if he wins. If he wins, they'll forget about all that stuff."

More games like Sunday's 31-7 demolition of Arizona (Collins line: 20 for 30, 232 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) and the QB's past could completely fade from the scene. Indeed, fits of mediocrity aside, at 8-4 and on the heels of first-place Philadelphia (9-4) in the NFC East, the Giants have the whiff of a winner. Yet Collins hasn't exactly run from his problems either, opting instead to accept responsibility and seek forgiveness (he's also pursuing a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling at Farleigh Dickinson University, and spoke to rookies about his drinking problems during an NFL-sponsored symposium this past summer). Zaichkowsky often advises his clients with very public personal problems to be honest and open about them with the media. And Collins, though not in Zaichkowsky's care, has done just that. In addition to acknowledging his drinking problem, he has even gone as far as identifying his counselor, Charlie Stuckey (whom he sees on a weekly basis), in print. He's also been extremely open about the problems he says led to his alcohol addiction: his parents' separation while he was in high school.

"When the Giants started talking about possibly wanting to sign me here, I said to myself, 'You gotta be crazy,' " Collins told the Voice. "I thought, 'You just came out of a media hailstorm, and now you want to go to a bigger market, where there's more attention on sports and a nasty, over-sensationalized media.' But I've tried to be honest and forthright with the media here, and I think they respect that. I don't know if you ever totally get used to dealing with them, but I've gotten more comfortable, probably more comfortable than I've ever been in my career. You have to grow to understand what the media is all about and understand how to deal with them. If you don't, you can't be a starting quarterback in New York, or anywhere in the NFL."

Those who know him applaud his turnaround. "I'm delighted with the positive approach Kerry's taken in getting on with the rest of his life," says Paterno. "But I'm not surprised. He's not your usual guy. He's a very tough guy, not just physically, but mentally, spiritually. He's showing he can handle playing in New York."

On the field, Collins is playing as well as he's played in his entire career. By completing 58 percent of his passes for 2650 yards, 17 touchdown passes, and only 10 INTs, he is well on his way to putting up the best numbers of any Giants quarterback since the aforementioned Simms. It would be almost impossible to blame him for his team's recent struggles (a spate of special-teams miscues, for example, cost them a recent home game against Detroit), but that hasn't stopped the press from criticizing other athletes in the past. In the case of the Giants, most of the press corps, it seems, has forgotten that almost no one thought this team would be this good this far into the season. Is Collins worried about what might happen if Big Blue doesn't shake out of its recent doldrums and make the playoffs?  

"I can't really think about what might happen if things go badly," he says. "If there's anything that I've learned over the past three or fours years it's that football is a great part of my life—I love it and it's important to me—but it's not that important to me. The most important thing I'm doing right now is not drinking. After that, I feel I can handle anything."

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