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THE SETTING WAS RIPE FOR SCANDAL
John Underwood
December 08, 1975
College football is vulnerable to rumor. At Kentucky an off-campus murder catalyzed the suspicions
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December 08, 1975

The Setting Was Ripe For Scandal

College football is vulnerable to rumor. At Kentucky an off-campus murder catalyzed the suspicions

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But the "new car" is a 1972 Riviera with chipped paint and a chattering tail pipe, and some of the chrome is loose; in fact, one piece is lying on the back seat. And the highball glass at The Library is really a 7 UP with a twist of orange. And though his friend the co-owner, Jimmy Lambert, "used to get well betting against Kentucky," Lambert has said he found himself so attached to Sonny and the team that he "lost along with everybody else." Sonny used to laugh when Lambert said he was going to "bet my house" on the next game. He calls Lambert "a beautiful person." Lexington detective Sam Church confirmed a report that Collins took at least one trip to Las Vegas with Lambert.

Sonny's off-campus apartment is rented just for the season by Collins' parents, who drive up from Madisonville on weekends for the games. Collins' father, a highly religious man with whom Sonny is "extremely close," works for Coca-Cola as a maintenance man and signed for the Riviera ("he got a real good deal") when Sonny chose Kentucky. He says his father can "always tell when I'm upset, even on the telephone. I try to hide it, but he can tell."

"The trouble with Collins is that he's too damned sensitive," says a former teammate. "He wants to please everybody. Be everybody's friend. No one can do that." The questioning by police shook Collins badly. Naturally high-strung—he lost all his hair in high school in the aftermath of a race riot—he said he found himself "doubting my own innocence. People were saying, 'Sonny, they looking at you. They got something on you.' The second time they questioned me they gave me some law books to look at. All about kidnapping and murder. Oh, man, that about blew me away. I got so I began to think I was the fourth man they were looking for. I finally told them to give me a lie detector test, but they didn't do it.

"It got pretty thick. I was getting calls. One guy says—oh, what was it—'Collins, you do that stuff again and we'll get you,' and he hung up. Another guy got to my roommate Terry and said, 'You better tell your friend to straighten up or he won't be able to walk.' Stuff like that."

The effect on Collins' play was more than obvious, says Curci, it was tragic. "They made a basket case out of Sonny," he says. Instead of running with his customary abandon, Collins seemed almost glad to bury himself in pileups, to avoid the risk of fumbling. "All I can think of is 'hold on to the ball,' " he said.

"Tight? Oh, Lord, yes. Wash Gay [a teammate] told me about the rumors, about the 'shaving.' I wanted to die. I thought, boy, all these people in Kentucky who have been so good to me, now they're gonna hate me."

Collins had averaged more than 135 yards a game, but in the victory over Tulane he rushed for only 46. Toward the end of that game he went to Curci and asked not to be put back in. "I don't want to mess up," he said. In the weeks that followed, his statistics were very poor: 39 yards against Vanderbilt in an upset loss; 68 against Florida. In the season's finale at Tennessee he did not start. He eventually carried 13 times for 53 yards.

Curci said he found Collins crying on the bench at Vanderbilt. "I finally had to get after him, to tell him he was only making matters worse—to just play his best and ride this thing out with the rest of us. But he's an extremely sensitive young man, and he just doesn't shake things off easily. It's criminal what this thing has done to Sonny Collins."

Curci talked of suing radio station WLAP and sportscaster Foster for "getting the whole damn thing started." Almost every day he had to field fresh rumors, each more outlandish than the one before. The day the team left for Vanderbilt, Sports Information Director Russell Rice came to the practice field with news that a Louisville paper had "heard" that Curci was about to resign. "They'll have to drag me out of here," said Curci. "But now you see what I'm going through. They're going to ruin our program with this stuff. We won't be able to recruit anybody."

According to police official Joe Catt, there had long been rumors of drug usage on the Kentucky campus, but the cocaine theft and murder brought them to the fore. Stephens has claimed he knows nothing about the missing cocaine, although he does say he was held up in Channels' apartment by Taylor and that $1,000 in cash and a $500 watch were stolen. (The loss of the cash and the watch was reported to police.) Stephens denies even the use of marijuana at Kentucky, or any knowledge thereof, but Collins said a month ago, "It's around, just like it is on any campus." Gray said Stephens was "big in weed." Collins did not deny having smoked marijuana, but claimed he had "never bought or sold it and never used it during the season," a statement he was to contradict later. Collins said he wouldn't even know what cocaine looked like.

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