The not-so-bitter goodbye

Updated: April 28, 2004, 9:39 PM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

After officials hustled Eli Manning from Madison Square Garden to the Jersey Meadowlands, they marched the fresh-faced quarterback into an NFL Draft day gathering in the practice bubble. All at once, everyone cheered the No. 1 pick, an ovation to wash away the boos back on the Madison Square Garden podium, to toast the prodigy out of football's first family of quarterbacks.

Kerry Collins never had it so warm and wonderful on his way into that practice bubble five years ago. There was no draft day party. No Archie. No Peyton. No pedigree proclaiming him the Giants' passing savior. And there sure was no peach-fuzz innocence. Collins hadn't come with rainbows and ice cream, but darkness and demons.

No one on the Giants cheered him. No one celebrated his arrival. They glanced with a wary eye, with an unsure sense of the man about whom they had heard so many terrible things. He wasn't a leader, but a loser. He wasn't a winner, but a quitter. Five years ago, this was where Collins started with the Giants, all the way at the bottom, the anti-Golden Boy trying to dig himself out one teammate, one trust at a time.

And maybe most amazing on his way out of New York now, where the organization plans to release him this week, is that his teammates didn't want to see him leave. Nobody. They wanted Kerry Collins to stay quarterback. They want him to stay leader. They had gone to a Super Bowl with him, and they believed he was still the fastest way back there. They didn't want to wait on a kid, but stay with a grown up. After all this, Collins, 31, has won everyone over to his side.

Maybe more than that NFC Championship game MVP and Super Bowl appearance in 2000, more than the 300-yard passing games, maybe the greatest victory for Collins was climbing back to his feet, and doing the hardest thing in the public eye: Changing the label on your life.

Collins leaves the Giants now, but it deserves to be remembered that sometimes second chances do work out in sports. Sometimes, people can change. Sometimes, they can be earnest, retrace the steps that caused them such pain and never repeat them. He was a perfect gentleman for five years in New York, an inspiring teammate and, against all odds, a leader of men. The Giants' players are angry Collins is leaving, refusing to believe that Manning can march out of Ole' Miss and into the NFC East and make the Giants' offense hum with the passing toys of Jeremy Shockey and Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard.

Before Collins came to New York, nobody had ever been so honest, so often, about the missteps. The reporters used to come in waves to him, asking about the darkest hours of his life -- the drunken binges, the quitting on Dom Capers in Carolina, the stupid racial joke that never stopped haunting him -- and Collins kept answering them. He never hid. That's hard to do anywhere, hardest maybe in New York.

The white lights blinded Collins on the stage in a suburban San Diego resort four summers ago, with nearly 300 NFL rookies assembled for an orientation symposium. The Giants quarterback had trouble seeing the faces. Yet, they could see him. They had a unique angle on a one-way mirror into the deepest, darkest days of the speaker's life. They could study his every inflection, measure his every word. All Collins could do was stare straight into the bright lights and talk straight from the heart.

Were the rookies listening? Rolling eyes? Dozing? Until it was time for questions and answers, until they started to pepper him on his drinking, his use of a racial slur in Carolina, he had just let the stories rush out of his tortured soul with a raw, riveting emotion. For months, Collins bore his soul to an endless stream of reporters and interviewers, detailing a destructive dance with his demons. Somehow, this was different. This didn't feel like one on one, but one on the world.

Here he was, on the symposium's speaking list with Baltimore's Ray Lewis, telling these perfect strangers about chasing his lost childhood with a bottle, telling them how he almost threw it all away.

"It took a man to stand up there, reliving those things from his past," ex-Giant Dhani Jones said then. "Here he was with probably a 65 percent minority audience, taking questions and holding his own on really sensitive racial issues. It was powerful. I was proud that was my teammate up there."

Whatever flaws Collins had as quarterback, assuredly they were legitimate -- the interceptions, the slow feet. All legitimate, all fair criticism. Still, they'll never doubt his toughness again. Never his resolve. In December, Collins was getting killed against the Bills at Giants Stadium -- sacked six times, pounded every time he let go of a pass. Jim Fassel wanted to protect him. He told him to sit the fourth quarter. Collins refused. He told Fassel that he was the quarterback in the good times and the bad times. His teammates loved him for it.

"It's my job to be out there," Collins said later. "It's my team regardless of how many times I get hit or sacked. That's where I belong. That's where I want to be.

Collins isn't a great quarterback, but he's good. And when he's protected, he throws balls that few passers in the NFL dare try. Collins stopped into Accorsi's office on Monday morning, and told the GM that he wouldn't restructure his contract to stay for the final season. He listened to Accorsi tell him that Manning was one of the best three or four college quarterback he had seen in the past 20 years. An Elway. A Marino. So, Collins thanked him for the second chance Accorsi gave him, gathered his belongings and marched out of the stadium.

His teammates were still in meetings and workouts. Nobody noticed him disappearing up the ramp, and out of the stadium. It was a shame. They would've given him on his way out, what they never did on his way in here: A standing ovation. If Eli Manning can get it both ways with the Giants, he should consider himself a lucky man.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist with The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com