Thursday, July 7, 2011

A soft spot for Kerry

Kerry Collins -- the last quarterback the Panthers drafted in the first round prior to Cam Newton -- announced his retirement today.

Give Collins credit. He stuck around the NFL for 16 years, and his flameout in Charlotte after 3 1/4 of those seasons has long been in his rearview mirror. I'm glad he lasted so long -- I've always had a soft spot for Kerry, who I've sensed from the beginning has a good soul. Here are a few excerpts from a column I wrote about Collins in 2010, following the last time we spoke via phone before the Panthers and his Tennessee Titans were to play an exhibition game...

Kerry Collins is a cattle rancher, a father to a first-grader, a husband, an NFL quarterback (still!) and an occasional writer of country music.

Everyone in the Carolinas should now be able to agree on something Collins is not – a quitter.

In his 16th NFL season – he and the Carolina Panthers debuted in the same year -- Collins will visit his first NFL city tonight as his Tennessee Titans play the Panthers in an exhibition game.

What does Collins think about when he comes to Charlotte now?

“My memories of Charlotte are mostly pleasant ones,” Collins said. “I don’t think there’s anything that went on in Charlotte that I harbor any resentment about. I made my share of mistakes, for sure, when I was there.”

Collins still comes to North Carolina a good bit. His wife, the former Brooke Isenhour, is from Concord. The two met at a George Strait concert at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2000, married in 2002 and now have a six-year-old daughter, Riley. The family splits its time between Nashville and Troy, N.C., where Collins owns a 1,580-acre working cattle ranch.....

Collins has been gone from Charlotte a dozen years now – the Panthers controversially released him in 1998. He remains one of the most fascinating figures to ever pull on a Panther uniform.

I know he had problems in Charlotte – most of them fueled by alcohol and partying.... But he... is a fighter, not a quitter. He changed his personal ways for the better, and he has resurrected his NFL career again and again. He is smart, introspective and self-deprecating....

With Tennessee, Collins has morphed into the role of the stable veteran, much like Steve Beuerlein was to Collins in the late 1990s with Carolina.

It would have been hard to imagine a dozen years ago that Collins would still be flourishing in the NFL in 2010. After the Panthers started the 1998 season 0-4, Collins told Carolina coach Dom Capers he thought the team might be better off starting Beuerlein.

Capers said at the time that Collins told him “My heart isn’t in it anymore.” The coach presented it that way to the team and media. Collins has long said he did not use those exact words, but that he was so confused at the time he really did think the team would be better off without him. He was certainly frustrated about his fame and didn’t embrace or understand all that came with being an NFL starting quarterback. He was spiraling downward, personally and professionally.

Capers didn’t just bench Collins in 1998. Capers fired him entirely (and then got fired himself a few months later).

Collins was labeled a quitter by many after that episode. It got worse for him when he was arrested in Charlotte in November 1998 for driving under the influence of alcohol. By this time, he was with the New Orleans Saints. When released shortly after his arrest, a TV cameraman filmed Collins walking down the street with a cigar in his mouth.

But that was all a long time ago. Collins went to alcohol rehab, dried out and got the New York Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000. He later started in Oakland and in Tennessee, making the Pro Bowl in 2008 as a Titan.

Collins was a 22-year-old kid when he got to Charlotte – a rebellious one.
He’s a 37-year-old man now – a good one.

Enjoy your retirement, Kerry. You've earned it.