After leaving Okla. St. in '07 Chris Collins' life spiraled out of control (cont.)
"I told him we had a kid who was the best high school football player I'd ever seen," McManus said. He wasn't talking about junior quarterback Ryan Mallett. "I said Chris had been in some trouble and he hadn't played in a couple years, but the kid was the perfect player, the ideal teammate. He'd screwed up one time in his life and it cost him dearly, but everybody in Texarkana knew the kid and knew what kind of kid he was."
"I'd never heard of Chris Collins before that," Fedora recalled. "So I started investigating."
Like most programs, Oklahoma State does not employ outside help to look into the details of recruits' criminal pasts. So Fedora began canvassing Texarkana on his own -- a private eye in a bright orange polo shirt -- to learn more about the soft-spoken kid whose speed and tackling instincts leapt off the screen at him.
It helped that Texarkana (pop. 34,000) was a small town. The kind of town where a respected defense lawyer might work out of a dilapidated house with its address paint brushed next to the front porch. A place where a reporter might write about the Collins case for the Texarkana Gazette, then comment on it a few months later after being hired as the district attorney's spokesperson. Special provisions would have to be made in court because 15-year-old "Leah" --the victim's friend -- was also friends with a defense lawyer's daughter, and the lead police detective's daughter, too.
"Everybody in that town knew Chris Collins," said Fedora, who added that being the father of three girls moved him to look into Collins' past with extra care. "I'd stop for gas and ask strangers at the gas station, 'Hey, do you know this kid?'"
After several weeks of checking, Fedora and Gundy "ended up deciding that Chris had made a terrible mistake, but he wasn't the monster a lot of people thought he was," Fedora said.
The athletic department and university administration trusted Gundy on the Collins matter once he shared with them the details of Collins' criminal case. For Collins, the acceptance he felt in Stillwater represented new life, the stoking of an ember he feared had gone forever cold.
"When I went up there [to OSU] I wanted to prove people wrong, because everyone was saying 'He's a rapist,'" said Collins. "I know what kind of person I am and my family knows what kind of person I am."
Collins started as a true freshman in 2006. "He never says anything," Gundy told the local media. "It's hard to get him to talk."
A 6-foot-2, 235-pound, speedy linebacker with a talent for getting into the backfield, Collins was the Cowboys' leading tackler through six games before a knee injury ended his season. His sophomore year, turf toe kept him out of the four games before the Texas game, in which Collins played 32 snaps and made five tackles in a 38-35 loss to the Colt McCoy-led Longhorns -- the team Collins would have played for had his prom night gone differently.
After watching film the next morning, Collins departed for Texarkana without telling Gundy, who had no idea that Collins was scheduled to stand trial that Tuesday.
The case had lingered for more than three years. Everyone involved -- the Collins family, the victim's family, lawyers on both sides -- was eager to put it to rest. When Collins arrived in Texarkana, he learned (much to the prosecutors' dismay) that "Jennifer" was not going to testify. In a private moment in the courtroom, Collins, still sore from the Texas game, approached Jennifer's grandmother and told her he was sorry for the hurt he had caused her family. The grandmother, a successful realtor who had shuttered her Texarkana office and moved her granddaughter to another state, wept softly as Collins bent down to hug her.
"Yes, I did reach up and squeeze his shoulders," Jennifer's grandmother recalled recently. "But I don't want it to seem like this is a beautiful story of forgiveness. I'm a Christian. I don't wish anything bad on Chris. I hope he has a happy and productive life. But what happened in that hotel room that night was a horrible, ugly thing, and he was there and he was a part of it." (Jennifer's grandmother said that Jennifer is currently attending college.)
From the beginning, Collins had admitted to having sex with Jennifer, so he was technically guilty of the charge against him. Backroom explanations had not convinced D.A. Bobby Lockhart to reduce the charge, so Collins pleaded guilty on the advice of his attorney, a local courtroom veteran named Paul Hoover who also advised Collins to let a jury recommend his sentence.
And so the page was turned to the "punishment phase," in which the jurors received the prosecution's entire case -- every bit of evidence, every exhibit. After hearing testimony from Collins and four character witnesses, and following final arguments from both sides, the jury deliberated for less than an hour, emerging with the lightest penalty possible -- five years in prison. They recommended that Collins' sentence be suspended and that he serve his time on probation instead of behind bars.