Out of the Blue

He is riding in the back of a limo because he is a star. He is a star quarterback in New York City, barely 36 hours removed from one of the greatest passing performances in NFL playoff history, even if he is currently riding across the potholed two-lane highways of Bergen County, even if he’d much rather be in a pickup truck. He is riding in a 30-foot white stretch limo because it has been dispatched by the Milk Board to whisk him to one of those signposts of modern American megajock achievement, being photographed for a milk-mustache ad. A beautiful, long-legged brunette steel magnolia of a girlfriend is sitting next to him.

This is all as it should be. He is also riding in the back of a limo because he couldn’t drive himself to the photo shoot even if he wanted to. Kerry Collins, 28, who has just driven the New York Giants into their first Super Bowl in ten years, has no driver’s license. He lost it last year, the penalty for a drunk-driving conviction.

Because Collins is smarter, much smarter, than he appears from his lunkish looks, he appreciates the irony in all this. A man who was plastered all over the news for drinking too much is about to appear all over the country drinking milk. The DWI arrest was the last curl in a rapid downward spiral that saw him hit a kind of dirtbag trifecta: Collins was tagged a drunk, a racist, and a quitter. As a football commodity, Collins was radioactive. The Giants gave him a second chance, but what did they have to lose? Kent Graham was their starting quarterback at the time. And the Giants were supposed to be lousy again this season.

Now Collins is on the verge of a world championship. He is the poster boy for the redemptive power of sports and sobriety. His enormous, unblinking eyes, as clear and blue as a glacier-fed stream, stare straight ahead. Crystal bottles in the limo’s wet bar jingle as the car crunches through another asphalt crater. “Who,” Collins asks, a smile slowly creasing his face, “woulda thunk it?”

They might be the Giants, but they landed in Tampa this week to face the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV as the product of lilliputian expectations. The Washington Redskins, spending millions of Daniel Snyder’s direct-marketing dollars, had signed all the flashy names during the off-season – Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jeff George – and Las Vegas gave them the short odds to win the Super Bowl. The Giants? They’d signed a couple of retread defensive backs and ancient offensive linemen. The experts made them 55-1 shots.

“Jason’s an incredible athlete with a flair for the stage. The bigger the game, the bigger the play.”

Internally, there was more optimism, but no bold wagers on late-January glory. The Giants have seized an opportunity built on a foundation of months of hard work and steady improvement. The NFL’s parity formula certainly helped. But luck (no major injuries) and magic are in the mix, too. “This thing – leadership, teams coming together, chemistry – it’s a mystical, intangible thing,” says Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. “I’m convinced that circumstances and how you react are much more the catalyst than ‘I’ve got this plan.’ “

Sean Payton, the boy-genius offensive coordinator, spends hundreds of hours each week watching film of opponents, charting tendencies, calculating the best chance for the Giants’ offense to score. He’s a rational guy, deep into dissecting the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense, but there’s one factor he can’t explain about his own team. “Every year, you could talk to the teams that went to the Super Bowl, and they can’t put their hand on it, but it’s kind of ‘it,’ ” Payton says. “And right now, we have a little bit of that ‘it.’ “

The Sunday-night crowd in the second-floor dining room at Smith & Wollensky is far too sophisticated, of course, to stand up, cheer, and thrust high fives as Jason Sehorn strides in. Yet an undeniable electric charge, a happy murmur, courses through the room as Sehorn, the 29-year-old “It” boy of New York sports, makes his way to his regular table. An eddy of congratulations and encouragement follows the beaming Sehorn: Attaboy … beautiful game … one more to go! Danny, Sehorn’s favorite waiter, arrives to take the order. He already knows that Sehorn wants the prime rib or the T-bone, whichever is larger tonight. Diners make their way over to shake hands with the most glamorous player on the freshly crowned conference champs. “I come here all the time, especially after games,” Sehorn says. “Well, especially after wins.”

He laughs and looks across at his fiancée, Angie Harmon, the star of Law & Order, the best TV show filmed in New York. This week, she’ll be shooting an episode based on the murder trial of Rae Carruth, the former Carolina Panthers receiver – whom Sehorn, as a cornerback, has battled on the field. “People write songs about New York,” Harmon says. “Living here with Jason in this moment, it’s like we’re standing next to the cherry on top instead of just kinda being down in the cake mix.”

Harmon rests her left hand on the gleaming-white tablecloth, the perfect backdrop for the gargantuan 7 and 1/2-carat-diamond engagement ring Sehorn surprised her with during a taping of the Tonight Show last March. Tonight, Broadway Jason is basking in the love not just of Harmon but of an entire metropolitan region that hasn’t had this sexy a football hero since 1977, when Joe Namath hobbled off to Los Angeles for a last, sad fling with the Rams. “I play a game for a living,” Sehorn says. “I’m paid millions to do it. I’m going to marry a great woman. Who’s got it better than me?”

Lately it seems like Sehorn unleashes a spectacular physical feat every week. Before shackling the quicksilver Randy Moss this afternoon, Sehorn had recovered two onside kicks in a single game – sprinting 38 yards with one of them for the game-winning touchdown. Then there was Sehorn’s all-time-highlight-reel moment, against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Giants’ first playoff win. First he dove to his left to break up a pass; then, his back on the ground, he tapped the ball high in the air; then, seemingly all in one motion that combined ballet and volleyball and happened in less time than it takes to read this sentence, he scrambled to his feet, caught the ball, and dashed 32 yards into the end zone. So stunning was Sehorn’s feat that the Giants Stadium press box erupted in gasps and applause – a serious violation of sportswriter etiquette.

“Jason is destined to be in the limelight,” Accorsi says. “As Wellington Mara says in such a classic way, dating himself a little bit, ‘Jason likes the café society.’ He’s a remarkable athlete, and he’s got that flair for the stage. The bigger the game, the bigger the play. Jason will do something in the Super Bowl. Just watch.”

Part of why Sehorn is in such a joyous mood tonight is that he’s still within first-down yardage of pain and disaster. His 1999 season ended with a broken leg. He missed all of the 1998 season with a blown-out knee, an injury that nearly halted his career. And oh, yeah – at about the same time he was entering a protracted rehab, Sehorn’s first marriage collapsed after nine months.

“It was a good experience for me, that injury, though I could have done without the six-inch scar,” Sehorn says. “I learned a lot about people. I learned how much simple health is taken for granted. I couldn’t walk my dog – I said, ‘Killer, go out and do your thing,’ and opened the door. I learned a lot of patience, and I’m not a patient person. And I’ve learned about the things in life you can’t control, and I love to control everything.”

After a game last season, Sehorn’s mother was waiting for her son beneath Giants Stadium. She noticed Angie Harmon hanging out with a girlfriend. Sehorn glanced at Harmon on his way to the parking lot and kept walking, preoccupied with his sore leg. His mother stopped, went over to Harmon, and insisted on introducing the pair.

Restoring Sehorn’s relationship with his teammates took some similar nudging. He went into seclusion after his 1998 knee injury, and now says it was a mistake. “I realized one thing over the past three years, as difficult as they’ve been,” Sehorn says. “And that is, what’s best for Jason Sehorn isn’t necessarily what’s best for the Giants. When I tore my ACL, I felt what was best for my knee rehab was to go to California, work out, and get myself healthy with the people I know and trust. But that wasn’t best for the team. It built no camaraderie. It built no accountability, and there was no togetherness. Coach Fassel has been trying to do something for the good of all of us, bringing us together off the field. He’s not trying to be your father. He’s not telling you this is what you have to do. He’s asking you, ‘Let’s do this as a team.’ And it’s worked out. Every move that man’s made in the past year has paid off. But the biggest is that we’re unified in a way we never were before.”

Way back on November 22, Giants head coach Jim Fassel, his job in peril after a loss at home to woeful Detroit, issued a public guarantee that the Giants would gain a playoff berth. The 51-year-old was greeted with tabloid and talk-radio hoots of derision. Seven straight wins and a Super Bowl berth later, space is being cleared between Vince Lombardi and Knute Rockne on the motivational Mount Rushmore for a bust of Fassel.

“It freed us to just play football,” Sehorn says. “It was brilliant because it put the spotlight on Coach Fassel for two weeks and took it off us. But what people have missed is that at the same time, there was a whole edict from Coach Fassel to the players about talking to the media that was, ‘Be concerned with yourself. When they talk to you, talk about yourself. Don’t talk about your teammate and what he should be doing, or what he could be doing.’ “

Fassel admits he banned newspapers from the locker room as a symbolic way to focus the team on itself and not outside opinion, but he claims his press-conference words were largely spontaneous. “I didn’t do the guarantee for any specific reason,” he says. “That was in my gut. I was angry. I didn’t want my team walking around feeling like we’re second-class citizens. It was, ‘Take a tough stance, and don’t be afraid to let the world know what you’re thinking.’ I was proud of my guys. I felt like we were going to the playoffs, so the hell with it, here we go.”

The emotional makeover of the Giants actually began in a far more somber, private moment. In November 1999, Fassel’s mother died after a prolonged, painful battle with cancer. Fassel took two days off in midseason to attend her funeral, an absence that in the control-freak, tunnel-vision world of NFL head coaches is about as rare as an expertise in classical violin. While Fassel was grieving in California, Micheal Strahan, the Giants’ ferocious 29-year-old all-star defensive tackle and one of the team’s primary veteran leaders, popped off in the papers about his anger at the team’s lack of direction. Fassel learned of this challenge to his manhood just before he boarded a flight back to New York with his distraught family. He spent five hours in the air alternating between memories of his mom and strategies to reclaim his authority in the locker room.

First, Fassel summoned Strahan to a private meeting at 7 a.m., listened to his complaints, and then told him there would be only one boss for this team: Fassel. “There’s a learning curve to being a head coach that surprised me,” Fassel says, standing in the hallway outside the Giants’ locker room. “I knew all the X’s and O’s. But I underestimated the importance of bonding on a team. It’s the most difficult thing to achieve.”

That same week, Fassel made an important practical change. He had risen in the coaching ranks on his skills as an offensive guru. Fassel is fundamentally a sunny and decent man, and those traits are reflected in his team’s lack of paranoia, unusual in pro football. But calling the Giants’ plays as offensive coordinator while also playing public-relations spokesman as head coach left Fassel exhausted and cranky. So before last season’s game against the Jets, he handed the offensive-coordinator title and headset to Sean Payton.

Fassel’s devotion to the quarterbacks and receivers had also worsened the Giants’ longstanding locker-room feud between the stellar defense and disappointing offense. The team seemed to be going in reverse, from 8-8 in 1998 to 7-9 in 1999, and Jessie Armstead, the Giants’ best linebacker, exuberant 30-year-old spiritual leader, and a man even more vocal than Strahan, was deeply angry. After seven years in the NFL, he saw his prospects for playing in a Super Bowl fading. Armstead felt Fassel was trying to muzzle him, and he was nearing a decision to demand a trade. “I was very upset,” Armstead says. “I was just trying to get to my house and stay in the house for a goodly while. I wasn’t coming back down here for the off-season. There’s no way I was coming back.” Eventually, Armstead reluctantly agreed to a meeting. Coach and player now describe the four-hour session as an amiable clearing of the air, but the outcome was far from certain. “He made a point that in the locker room, I could say what I wanted down there,” Armstead says. “We established that between each other, so everything worked out fine.”

During the summer, Fassel coaxed all the players to return to New Jersey to work out. At night, he took players and their wives and girlfriends to Broadway shows and on a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan. At summer training camp in Albany, Fassel led 150 Giants players and staff members to a multiplex for a screening of – naturally – Gladiator.

“At the time, you thought, This is corny,” says Tiki Barber, the Giants’ leading rusher. “But we ended up caring about each other as people, and it makes it easier to play together. The past few years, guys would come to work, do their job, and leave. Now they stay afterward for two hours playing dominoes or video games; they’re hanging out with each other.”

“We ended up caring about each other as people,” says Barber. “That makes it easier to play together.”

But the grumbling would resurface if the offense didn’t put up some points. “We had to do something about the offensive line,” Accorsi says. “It wasn’t horrible or poor, but it just wasn’t good enough. That position is the one on the field you can’t scheme your way through. Offensive line is the pure, honest position, and the least glamorous. You either block ‘em or you don’t. And if you don’t block them, you can’t pass or run.”

Accorsi’s free-agent signings – of grizzled sixteen-year-veteran Lomas Brown, whose speaking voice sounds uncannily like Jackie Wilson’s singing voice, and of the deceptively flabby, 312-pound four-time Super Bowl loser Glenn Parker – drew shrugs around the league. “We didn’t think either one would last the whole season,” Accorsi says. “But the two old guys ended up being the stimulant we needed. The first thing Brown did, he went to guard Ron Stone and said, ‘Why aren’t you in the Pro Bowl?’ Stone said, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Lomas said, ‘Well, I know – you’re twenty pounds overweight! Meet me at 7 o’clock tomorrow morning at the treadmill.’ Once we got Lomas Brown and Parker, I knew one thing: The defense wasn’t going to push our offense around anymore. It wasn’t a matter of ‘I’m stronger than you.’ It’s stature. Respect. That started to meld the team.”

Two wins to start the season, over Arizona and Philadelphia, spread the happy vibe. But by mid-November, Fassel was hearing rumblings that he’d be fired if the playoffs eluded the Giants again. He went public with his galvanizing guarantee, and the Giants won their division on the road, squeaking past Washington when kicker Eddie Murray, one of the few low-paid Redskins, missed a 49-yard field goal.

Fassel had made the playoffs, largely on the strength of the Giants’ suffocating defense, orchestrated by nimble-minded assistant John Fox. On offense, Fassel had a multipurpose threat in Barber and speedy, reliable wideouts in Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer. But he knew the Giants weren’t going far without a few big plays from their quarterback.

The stretch limo pulls to the curb of a Radisson hotel somewhere in the faceless Jersey sprawl. Kerry Collins ducks his head and eases out the door, slowly unfolding his six-foot-five-inch frame. “Last April, I went to a Tim McGraw concert in Charlotte,” says Brooke Eisenhower, Collins’s girlfriend. “And when the music starts, this huge guy stands up in front of me – Oh, great, I think. But he turns around, apologizes, and introduces himself. I only gave him my first name and where I worked, but the next day he tracked me down.”

Inside a conference room, Collins changes into his Giants uniform, the regal-blue jersey glistening under the photographer’s lights. He’s handed a glass of chalky fluid: The “milk” mustache is actually a gooey cocktail of sour cream, Philadelphia cream cheese, and Häagen-Dazs vanilla. “I’d worn number 12 or 13 before,” Collins says. “When I got to the Giants, I picked number 5 for a fresh start.”

He needed far more than new digits to make a lasting change in his life. The Carolina Panthers used their first-ever draft pick to choose Collins, a Heisman Trophy finalist out of Penn State in 1995. The expansion team reached the NFC championship game in the franchise’s second year of existence, and Collins seemed like a golden-boy leader with a long, bright future. But he was trying to live as large off the field as on. By 1996, teammates were accusing him of having a drinking problem. “Every time I did something wrong, I was drunk,” Collins says. “I didn’t drink every night. But it was no stopping once I started. How many times have I been in situations when I really could have hurt somebody or hurt myself and gotten in trouble? A lot.” Like the time he dangled from the second story of his townhouse in North Carolina, then let go, falling down, down, down – into the pool, though he could just as easily have hit the concrete deck.

Many Panthers were angry at Collins, but the mood shifted to disgust during training camp in 1997. Loaded during a party, Collins, awkwardly trying to be down, addressed receiver Muhsin Muhammad as “nigga.” Three days later, Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski shattered Collins’s jaw with a vicious hit during a preseason game. No one from the team came to the hospital to drive Collins home.

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.

Out of the Blue