Kerry Collins has a fresh outlook on football as he settles in as a Saint
Last Saturday, as the Saints showered and dressed after a light morning workout, backup quarterback Danny Wuerffel snuck over to starter Billy Joe Tolliver's locker and mischievously removed something from Tolliver's jeans pocket. Tolliver saw the tail end of the prank. "Fat boy!" he screamed at Wuerffel, who might carry a stray pound or two. "You better not have done anything to my stuff. If you did, I'll s—- in your locker."
"This place," new Saints quarterback Kerry Collins said with a chuckle, "is great."
"This place," said coach Mike Ditka last week, summing it up, "is the home for lost souls."
Certainly for lost quarter-backing souls, who have been marching into the Saints' picture for the past two seasons. First, in an April 1997 trade, came Redskins reject Heath Shuler, whose career is in limbo because of nerve damage in his left foot. Later that month, in the fourth round of the draft, came Wuerffel, the 1996 Heisman Trophy winner out of Florida, whom no one wanted. In November came the player canned by Buffalo for not doing his homework and embarrassing himself in a game, Billy Joe Hobert, now on injured reserve with a torn left Achilles. This year came the unemployed golfaholic, Tolliver, whose most strenuous job until the Saints called two months ago was taking out the trash. Finally two weeks ago came Collins, the disgraced cornerstone of the Carolina franchise who was waived on Oct. 13, six days after reportedly telling Panthers coach Dom Capers that his heart wasn't in the game anymore.
Now, in a new locker room, after his sixth practice, dressing next to starter-for-the-week Tolliver, Collins looked ecstatic. "I'm as excited about football as I've ever been," Collins said. "I feel liberated."
You know why Collins feels so good? Because here he can be Joe Schmo. Here he can blend in. Here he is not the First Pick in Franchise History. Here, far from his 6,500-square-foot palace on a North Carolina lake, he tucks himself into an $89-a-night hotel room. Although New Orleans is probably only a way station for Collins—he was claimed on waivers on Oct. 14 and will be a free agent after this season-it's an ideal place for him, a city where expectations are never too high. This lost soul is precisely where he needs to be if he is going to start salvaging his career.
Around the NFL, Collins's image is dirt. He may as well wear a scarlet Q on his Saints jersey—for quitter. Collins disputes Capers's assertion that the quarterback said his heart wasn't in football, though he declines to elaborate on his meeting with the coach. But Collins, who played last year with a jaw that was shattered in a preseason game and had to be wired together with four titanium plates and 21 metal screws, never got over the club's decision last winter not to make a $6 million payment on his contract, thus voiding its final three years. A restricted free agent, Collins subsequently signed a one-year, $1.15 million deal with the Panthers.
"I don't know if I can erase what people are thinking of me," Collins says, "but I can't worry about that. At least now when I wake up, I feel like I can breathe. I'm alive. I've had a 10,000-pound weight lifted off my shoulders. I just know that I feel better about my career than I ever did in Carolina."
This comes from the man who quarterbacked the Panthers to the 1996 NFC Championship Game, in the process knocking the 49ers off their NFC West throne with a 327-yard, three-touchdown whipping in San Francisco. "But I never felt like I could relax and just play there," Collins says. "I heard [Chargers rookie quarterback] Ryan Leaf say something this fall about how he wasn't sure he was cut out to do this, and I identified with him so well. I was the first pick in Carolina. I was supposed to be the key guy. At 22, 23, I was asked to carry a team like I was 35 and had been in the NFL 10 or 12 years. The pressure never leaves, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I'm not making excuses, but it weighed on me all the time. So people have a perception about Kerry Collins and think they know me? They have no idea who I am."