Tony Collins sat in the principal’s office of the Edward Everett Elementary School on Pleasant Street last Thursday. His hands folded, a Pro Bowl ring prominent on his right pinky, the former Patriots running back listened quietly as the principal explained why she invited him to speak to her students.
“Our goal is to build good leaders,” said Karen Cahill. “We’re teaching good study habits and follow through. We want our students to know that decisions have consequences, and this is a way of rewarding good choices.”
A group of fourth and fifth graders -- picked as a reward for good behavior -- got an audience with Collins, who spoke to them about his travels and travails in the big leagues.
It’s a cautionary tale.
Collins, 56, reached the pinnacle of NFL stardom in the early 1980s before he spun into a spiral of drug use and bad decisions. He recently documented the experience in his memoir, “Broken Road: Turning My Mess into a Message.”
“When I came into the league, I was a workaholic,” Collins told the Reporter. “My work ethic was really high, and I figured that I was going to play probably ten to twelve years. That was my goal.”
Drafted in the second round out of East Carolina University, Collins worked fiendishly, running up and down the stadium stairs after practice. His teammates were indignant, he wrote. They said, “You’re crazy! What are you doing?”
Avoiding serious injuries, Collins’ efforts on the field got him noticed. Early in his second season, 1982, Collins twisted his ankle but played through the pain with the help of some heavy narcotics.
“Everybody was taking pain killers,” he said. “If your leg wasn’t broken, man you should be playing. A lot of guys are really beat up now from playing back in the 80s.”
Collins played hard, setting the team record for the most rushing yards in a single game: 212 yards in 22 attempts. He played with the Patriots for seven years (1981-87) becoming increasingly dependent on pain killers and marijuana to push through his injuries.
In 1987 he was popped on two drug tests. The Patriots quietly dropped him from their roster at the end of the ‘87 season and the Indianapolis Colts picked him up under the condition that he go to rehab. But when he tested positive again during training camp, he was suspended from the NFL for a year. That year off effectively ended his career, as he started using cocaine heavily and stopped seriously working out.
Looking back on his career now, Collins says he has no regrets, but it could have been longer if he made better choices.
Struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, Collins played arena football for three years after the NFL, staying clean at times, and getting high at others. Cocaine became his drug of choice. After he wore out his body, and spent all his NFL money, he worked at Taco Bell and then sold appliances for a while.
“It was humbling,” he said. “I was trying to get back on track. I did whatever I could do to show my son that I played football, made some mistakes, but I’m not afraid to work.”
Collins stayed away from his home town in upstate New York for 18 years, and then in 2005, after getting clean, he started reconnecting with people from his past. He finally graduated from East Carolina University with a Communications degree in 2011. Now he travels around with his book, encouraging people to focus on their studies, and to find their passions.
“I knew that the situation that I was in was because of the choices that I had made, and that’s one of the messages. You choose your destiny,” Collins said. “These kids need to be encouraged to be positive about something. Have a goal... If you got enough talent, and you’ve got good work ethic, you can do and become whatever you want to become.”
About 80 students filed into the school’s theater to meet the former pro athlete. Their faces lit up as they gathered around him.
“There are a few things that I want you guys to start thinking about the most,” Collins said. “One is your goals and your dreams. Start thinking about your goals and your dreams every single day. The other one I want you to start thinking about, making sure that you have a possibility to go to college.”
Collins answered every question the students had, then was all but tackled for autographs.
To find out more about Collins and his book, email Susan Shannon at firstname.lastname@example.org.