With most sports observers convinced that Super Bowl XXXV would dissolve into a defensive standoff with few offensive highlights, the buzz in Tampa Bay last week was the ongoing controversy over the Super Bowl MVP, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Considered the best defensive player in football, Lewis made news of the wrong sort after last year's Super Bowl when he and his buddies left two men bleeding to death on an Atlanta street corner. Baltimore's head coach Brian Billick and star tight end Shannon Sharpe harangued the media, telling it to leave Lewis alone. Which, of course, only made the story even bigger.
Meanwhile, New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins' comeback from alcoholism, from a reputation as a quitter, and even a racist, has gone nearly unnoticed. Collins' numbers are a story in itself. Completing his best performance as a pro, Collins finished the year with 381 yards and five touchdowns in New York's 41-0 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game. Collins wasn't the star of the Super Bowl that Lewis was, but his is a bigger story--a more human story--than the improbable rise of St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner from grocery clerk to last year's MVP.
Coming out of Penn State, the very first player drafted by the Carolina Panthers, Collins seemed to be a star in the making. Instead, alcohol soon reduced him to an accident waiting to happen. Collins admits that he drank to lose control. He didn't drink every day, but when he started he never stopped at one beer. "I used alcohol as a rebellious tool," he says. "I really had problems with the public attention, living in the public eye. I adopted the adage of 'I'll show you.'"
The Giants were the only team to take a chance on Collins, weathering criticism from the New York media. Before joining the Giants, Collins checked himself into the Menninger rehab clinic in Topeka, Kansas, for alcohol abuse. He stayed eight weeks. "I knew I had maybe one more shot," he says, "and that I better make the most of it."
That kind of submission isn't routine among professional athletes. "Humility is not always a strong suit for professional athletes," Collins says. "One of the first things I had to do [at Menninger] was get humble."
In high school, Collins' father transferred him from Lebanon, Penn., to neighboring West Lawn so he could play for a better football team. He and his father lived in a one-room apartment, while his mother and older brother, Patrick, refused to move. Collins was 14 at the time and began to drink shortly afterward. He says he appreciates the sacrifices his parents made for him, but in the next breath says, "I don't think being 14 is the time to start your career."
In recent years, Deion Sanders, Gary Gaetti, and Reggie White are just a few of the professional athletes who have conquered their inner demons and been only too eager to tell us all about it. While Collins will speak openly about his battle with alcoholism, he's not clamoring to stay on the soapbox.
In coming back, in reaching the Super Bowl, Collins joined those who have quietly gotten their lives together. Down in Australia over the weekend, tennis star Jennifer Capriati, once tormented by drugs and personal problems, earned her first Grand Slam title by winning the Australian Open.
It was heartening last week to look past the Lewis controversy, to ignore the Super Bowl chalk-talk babble, and dwell, at least for a moment or two, upon another person who did what was necessary to save himself. "I'm proud of where I'm at," Collins said before the game of his life. "My story is, if you can change and do things the right way, good things will happen to you. I'm living proof of that."