Hurting, saddened, and confused, Collins dropped fifteen pounds and all his confidence. Four games into the 1998 season, he met with head coach Dom Capers and volunteered to be benched. Collins says he didn't intend to bail out on the team, just catch his breath. The Panthers dropped him completely six days later. The last-place Saints acquired Collins, but he was still miserable. Then came the drunk-driving arrest.
"Kerry's not the kind of guy to share much, to pick up the phone and tell you his concerns," says his friend and marketing agent Jamey Crimmins. "He'd buried things for a long time."
One morning over breakfast when Collins was fourteen years old and a burgeoning high-school football star in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, his parents launched into a nasty argument. Kerry had recently broken his ankle in practice, and his father, Patrick, wanted to transfer him to a superior football high school 30 miles away. His mother, Roseanne, refused to go. The family fractured, with Kerry and his dad moving to an apartment while his older brother and mother stayed behind. His parents divorced, but Kerry, at his new high school, became one of the nation's most sought-after recruits.
"I've realized lately," Collins says, "that the message was that me making it as a football player was worth breaking up the family. Kerry the quarterback mattered more than Kerry the person."
After his arrest, Collins checked into the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, for an eight-week stay. "The public story was that Kerry went in to get his drinking problem fixed," Crimmins says. "That's bullshit. He went in to get his insides fixed. He didn't know who he was."
Most of the NFL had written off Collins. Then Ernie Accorsi called Collins's agent, Leigh Steinberg. "I'm close to a lot of Penn State people," says the Giants' general manager. "And I trusted the Penn State people. They told me, 'This is a good kid who went off the track.' And I've always believed you could always get a good kid back."
Collins's recent rebirth on the football field has provoked new interest in his melodramatic story, but he's grown weary of the subject. "It's not as big a part of my everyday life, this whole redemption, resurrection thing," Collins says. "Everybody wants to talk about that now, but I resolved it eons ago."
Back in the limo, Collins is heading to Giants Stadium for meetings about the Baltimore Ravens. Crimmins hands him some reading for the ride. Not a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which Collins has been digesting at home, but a printout from the CNN/SI Website. Two years ago, Peter King, Sports Illustrated's powerful NFL writer, wrote that signing Collins was "a giant mistake"; on a radio show, King went further, calling Collins "the worst signing in the history of free agency." Now Collins reads the headline on King's Website column from the morning after the Giants' quarterback threw for five touchdowns to demolish the Vikings: ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS FINDS SUCCESS ON A GRAND STAGE. Collins rolls his eyes.
"There's a part of me that wants to say, 'Ha ha. You were wrong. I told you so.' On the other hand, I don't even think it's worth acknowledging. The media and the press, it's a necessity to deal with, but I have problems with the nature of their job. One of the best things I've done throughout this whole process is to accept the media for what it is, and realize if I want to play football in the NFL, that's part of the deal. So there's two things: Don't give 'em anything to write about, and don't care what they write."
On Sunday, if he plays well and the Giants win, he will have to put up with even more newly fawning praise. "Wins, losses -- it really doesn't have anything to do with who you are as a person," Collins says. "I had to learn that lesson. Whatever happens on the field doesn't have anything to do with who you are as a person." Don't get him wrong -- Collins wants to beat Baltimore, but mostly for the people, like Mara, Accorsi, and Fassel, who've given him this second chance.
And in the back of Collins's mind, there's another special day on the horizon. It seems minor compared with the other hurdles he's cleared: After several years of not speaking to his parents, he's on good terms with both of them again. But on February 1, four days after the Super Bowl, Kerry Collins is eligible to get a new driver's license. Soon, maybe, he'll be a whole person, a regular guy who can get behind the wheel and head off into the woods to do some hunting.