After leaving Okla. St. in '07, Chris Collins' life spiraled out of control
In 2004, Chris Collins was charged with having sex with underaged girl after prom
Collins took a deal, but was dropped by Oklahoma State after pleading guilty
After starting for Cowboys, Collins left school, violated probation and landed in jail
The walk to coach Mike Gundy's office was long and quiet. The day before, in his hometown of Texarkana, Texas, Oklahoma State linebacker Chris Collins had pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child. Now he was back in Stillwater about to face his head coach.
Gundy wasn't looking forward to the meeting. The irony of it was awful to think about: kicking a kid off the team for disciplinary reasons when he'd been nothing but a model student-athlete for the two years Gundy had known him.
Collins recalled that as he entered Gundy's orange-and-black-splashed office that day in November 2007, "I was thinking, 'He knows my situation.' I thought he was gonna tell me, 'You just need to stay out of trouble from here on out.' I thought I'd be starting that Saturday."
It was a naive expectation, but Collins had been naive about a number of things at that point in his life. He'd believed that the girl he had sex with on prom night three years earlier was 16. He had expected the University of Texas to stand by its scholarship offer when it was learned she wasn't 16. And now, halfway into his sophomore season at Oklahoma State, where he had seized his second chance by becoming one of the Cowboys' best defensive players, Collins thought that pleading guilty and accepting the probation sentence he'd been promised would make the whole thing go away. He was wrong there, too.
"Chris was crying and I was crying," Gundy said. "I told him, 'Chris, we can't keep you. I don't think you're a bad person ... but you pled guilty. I'll help you any way I can, but Oklahoma State can't extend itself to you anymore.'"
"That feeling that day in Coach Gundy's office," said Collins. "That was a worse feeling than pleading guilty to something I didn't do."
The incident happened at a small after-prom party on May 23, 2004. There were five or six guys and one or two girls sitting around in room 204 of the Comfort Inn in Texarkana, Texas, laughing, drinking and playing video games. The night was by all accounts predictable and tame until sometime after midnight, when Collins, a 17-year-old who had just committed to play college football at Texas, got a call from a girl who asked if she and a friend could come over.
Collins knew the caller. She was a 15-year-old freshman at his school, Texas High. The next day, the authorities would give her the pseudonym "Leah." He knew her friend, too, the eventual victim. She would be given the name "Jennifer."
Collins and his friend James had met them the previous weekend at a house party just outside town. Collins has always maintained that the night they met, Jennifer told him she was a 16-year-old sophomore at nearby Fouke High. That first night, Collins told investigators, the four of them ended up at his best friend Charlie's house. James left. "Me and [Jennifer] had sex that night in Charlie's room," Collins told police.
On prom night, Chris and Charlie picked the girls up outside Jennifer's house. They had sneaked out and were waiting for the guys by the road. Chris and Charlie drove them back to the Comfort Inn, where the two girls did what everyone else was doing: voluntarily drinking screwdrivers in the main room where the Xbox was hooked up.
Chris and Jennifer went into one of the adjacent bedrooms and had sex. At around 4 a.m., groggy and still drunk, Collins lumbered into another room and fell asleep. By sunrise, according to police documents, witness accounts, and medical records, Jennifer, who was both severely inebriated and three months shy of her 13th birthday, had engaged in sex acts with another 17-year-old Texas High student, and a 28-year-old man -- the big brother of one of Collins' friends who had rented the room for the players. These acts, according to prosecutors, took place as Jennifer was fading in and out of consciousness.
Jennifer's friend Leah, who had planned their night out and was in fact 15, knew Jennifer's true age. But according to the statement Leah gave police, when she entered the bedroom and saw someone other than Chris on top of Jennifer, she turned around and "went to sleep in the big room because there was nothing she could do."
The phrase, sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl, is a visceral force that unites virtually all walks of humanity in wanting to bury the man responsible. To raise even the possibility of extenuating circumstances is to invite as much scorn as is aimed at the accused. One important circumstance in the Collins case -- extenuating or not -- is that in Texas, children under 14 cannot consent to sex under any circumstances. This seemingly just law is where Collins' difficult legal situation would become even more tangled.
Despite the evidence that his relations with Jennifer were consensual and that she lied to him about her age, Collins agreed to plead guilty three years after the incident to aggravated sexual assault of a minor. He did so, he said, because he'd been promised by his lawyer that he wouldn't have to register as a sex offender. At his sentencing, when he was told that he would have to register, Collins was shocked. The stigma of his sex offender status played an important role in Collins' rapid fall from grace, which had only just begun.
"Just mentally, everybody telling you you're a sex offender and you like little kids and you need help and you need this and that, it'll break you down," Collins said. "So many times I've gotten frustrated and wanted to give up and just started not caring."
It didn't help Collins' mindset when he learned that his co-defendant Jabari Jackson -- seven months older than Collins and facing three counts of aggravated sexual assault against Jennifer -- pleaded to a reduced charge that didn't require him to register as a sex offender. (Jackson, who has reportedly graduated from college and is working full-time, did not respond to an interview request made through his mother.)
Former Oklahoma State assistant Larry Fedora, who recruited Collins and is now the head coach at North Carolina, said, "It's easy based on the charges to say that Chris Collins is the worst kid ever. But when you find out more about the circumstances, you realize there's more to it than that."
Gundy took a lot of heat after Collins pleaded guilty. Sure, he'd kicked him off the team, but a lot of people thought Collins should never have been on it in the first place.
Gundy continued to stand by Collins by offering to honor the rest of his scholarship -- in essence, burning one of his 85 full rides ... on a convicted child molester. "Because we made a commitment to him," Gundy explained. "I had committed to him. Personally. And again, we had a better understanding than most people about who Chris was."
Gundy began to gain that understanding in 2005, when Fedora, his offensive coordinator, returned from a routine recruiting trip to east Texas. Fedora had stopped by powerful Texas High to look at the 4-A juggernaut's annual crop of recruits when he ran into his old high school basketball coach, Jim McManus.