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Yet every game that Collins wins, every play he makes, is a measure of his survival. In 1996 he took Carolina to the NFC Championship Game in his second year out of Penn State (and the Panthers' second year in existence), seemingly grabbing success by the throat. But it was a hoax. "Kerry had the swagger and confidence of a football player," says Steve Beuerlein, Carolina's veteran backup that season, "but at the same time he would look at me and say, 'Dude, I have no idea why it's going so well. I have no idea what's going on half the time out there.'"
Collins was also hitting Charlotte bars hard, and he fell as quickly as he'd risen. One night during training camp in '97 he came back to the team quarters drunk and used a racial slur to refer to a teammate. In a preseason game his jaw was broken on a hit by Denver's Bill Romanowski, yet Collins was back in the lineup by Week 3 of the regular season. "He played when we never should have let him play," says Bill Polian, then the general manager of the Panthers and now the G.M. of the Colts.
The Panthers went 7--9. Collins threw 11 touchdown passes and 21 picks. The pressure intensified. Beuerlein recalls sitting with Collins in the locker room one evening early in the '98 season and the younger QB saying, "I can't handle this. How can you do this? You've been playing forever. I need to get away. I don't think I want to be a quarterback and all the stuff that goes with it, being the face of the franchise, people watching me everywhere I go. I just want to be a rock star. I don't want the rest of it."
Collins remembers the same period. "I thought the glory and the fame were reasons to do this," he says. "I was wrong. I was really wrong. And I had to learn that by being on the downside of it."
THE DOWNSIDE was ugly. Before Carolina's fifth game of the 1998 season, coach Dom Capers told reporters that Collins had come to him and said he no longer had the heart to lead the team. ( Collins has repeatedly contested the full accuracy of that statement.) His teammates recoiled, and Warren Sapp, then playing for Tampa Bay, publicly called him a coward. A week later Collins was put on waivers and signed by the New Orleans Saints. The Carolina chapter of his life didn't come to a full close until three weeks later, when New Orleans played at Charlotte. Collins, who didn't appear in the game, was arrested for drunken driving that night after a party with former teammates. Video shot by a Charlotte television station of his release from jail—shuffling along with a cigar in his mouth—appeared widely on news reports around the country.
At the end of the season Collins spent eight weeks in rehab. "The biggest thing I needed to do was learn to live without alcohol," says Collins, "and I did that." ( Collins also added last week, "I don't want there to be any misconception. For nine years I didn't drink a drop. Occasionally I do now. I'm at such a different point in my life. But I don't want to sit here and act like I'm something when I'm not.") He also learned how to handle the scrutiny that comes with being an NFL quarterback. "You almost have to learn to shelter your mind from what's being said in the outside world. It's an acquired skill. Media, fans, good games, bad games. You have to create a disconnect between those things and your job."
The New York Giants signed Collins in February '99, giving him a chance to restart his career. "We spent the better part of a day together, just talking," says Jim Fassel, the Giants' coach at the time. "I opened the door for him to blame anybody he wanted for his problems, and he wouldn't do it. He took all the responsibility on himself." The most painful trials were behind Collins, but there would be other hurdles.
In 2000 the Giants went 12--4 and advanced to the NFC title game, where Collins threw for 381 yards and five touchdowns in a 41--0 romp over Minnesota. But in the Super Bowl he was intercepted four times by the voracious Baltimore Ravens defense, one of the best in recent NFL history. Yet that defeat proved revelatory. "In a way, that Super Bowl game was liberating for me," says Collins. "I threw four interceptions in the biggest game you can possibly play in. I played like crap. And you know what? Eventually I was all right. I got past it. The sun came up. In a football sense I can't possibly screw up worse than that, and there's a certain freedom involved in that. If I can come back from that, I can come back from anything."
The theory would be tested. Three years later he finished a 4--12 season injured and inactive, and the Giants set their sights on Eli Manning in the 2004 draft. They wanted Collins to keep the quarterback position warm for Manning, but he declined and signed with Oakland. Over the next two years the Raiders won only nine games, but on a very bad team Collins threw for more than 7,200 yards and 41 touchdowns.
"We had pretty good production on offense there," says wideout Jerry Porter, who caught 129 passes from Collins in Oakland. "But I'll tell you what Kerry did: He took all of the blame for our problems, justified or not. He never hid from any of it."