NEW ORLEANS -- It’s never ancient history, Landon Collins says, issuing a polite correction when asked if he remembers much about the worst thing he has ever seen. Ancient history wouldn’t have such sharp contours of sadness: He had escaped to his grandfather’s house in northern Mississippi with maybe 20 family members by the time the winds came. If the hurricane was this strong up there, he could only imagine what was happening at home six hours away. Then Collins turned on the television and saw the floods. He no longer had to imagine anything. Even a 12-year-old knows when a city is breaking apart.
Then Collins heard about the levees. Did they fail on the West Bank, where he stayed with his mother? Did they fail on the East Bank? Was his cousin’s house destroyed? No, his cousin’s house mercifully was up on bricks, and the water didn’t rise above the stacks. That much he found out swiftly. The rest was unknowable for a time. He was a frightened grade-school kid in a strange place left to wonder what the storm would leave behind.
“All I could think about,” Collins says, “was, Will I have a home to go to?”
It took another two or three months after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, but he did. And while Collins left New Orleans again relatively soon after that, this time for years, he would return when he could. Sometimes football calls him back, too, his way out of the city demanding that he visit once more.
This week brings one such visit and the most consequential moment in a career that began at Hunter’s Field under the Interstate 10 bridge. Alabama is set for a College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, with Collins now the intuitive and bloodless All-America safety attempting to drive the Crimson Tide to their fourth national title in six years.
The 6-foot, 222-pound junior may have become a coveted prospect at a high school south of Baton Rouge, and he may have crafted an NFL future in Tuscaloosa, but New Orleans is home. And his relationship with the city is remarkably emblematic of why Collins is the Crimson Tide’s defensive leader not only in attempted ticket moochings, but also in tackles (91) and interceptions (3).
It was what Collins calls his mother’s “gut” feeling that prompted their evacuation to Mississippi before Katrina hit, after the family rode out multiple hurricanes before it. While corollaries between football and fleeing the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history are strained at best, there is something to be said about Collins usually winding up precisely where he should be, via information and instinct. “Sometimes, it might not be in the call, but his instincts will take over, and it leads him right to the play,” fellow Alabama safety Nick Perry says. “It hasn’t led him wrong yet.”
Or as one opposing coach put it: “He’s in the right spot every single time.”
That will be the imperative against an Ohio State offense run by inexperienced but howitzer-armed quarterback Cardale Jones. Much of the Sunday chatter revolved around how much Alabama even knew about Jones, and how many new looks the Tide defense could throw at him. “He hasn’t seen a lot, by the way,” Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman cracked. Still, the sophomore led his offense to 59 points in his starting debut at the Big Ten championship game. Jones poses a field-stretching threat against an Alabama secondary that has surrendered its share of big plays, or at least far more than a top-ranked run defense that has allowed three rushing scores all season.
If the first order of business is executing complex defensive calls while ensuring that everyone is in place at the snap, minimizing the threat of busts, it is on Collins to choreograph it and take care of that business. “I know against us, [Jones] is going to have to do a lot of processing, a lot of thinking,” Collins says, “because we’re definitely going to confuse him as best as possible.”
The next bit for the Tide is finishing a play when in position to do so. On that count, arguably no Alabama player is more trusted than Collins. “He’s very confident and the players are confident in him,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart says. “They know if they have Landon behind them, he’s going to make a big play, he’s going to make a big hit.” Indeed, the defense considers a 14-13 win at Arkansas on Oct. 11 to be its defining effort of the season, and Collins’ game-sealing interception was the defining moment of the game. It came after a snap on which he followed his assignment on the opposite side of the play and was in perfect position for the pick. “Everybody knew he was going to be there,” Perry says. “And everybody knew he was going to make the play.”
Then there are the subtle ad-libs with not-so-subtle results; in one instance, Perry recalls Collins flashing into a gap on a run play against LSU on Nov. 8 and stoning tailback Leonard Fournette. Because Perry couldn’t quite believe what he saw, he asked Collins where in the world he came from. Collins replied that he knew the Tigers were going to run that play, so he just decided to run through that gap. Or maybe there’s a zone defense call and Collins suddenly appears in the flat, sniffing out a play in that direction. His knack for being correct can depend as much on bending the rules as following them.
“As a football player, you don’t have time to think on the field,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen says. “It’s all about reaction. We feel like that’s a positive.”
The reactions are impeccable, and mostly always have been. Katrina spared his mother’s house, but half of his father’s home in Plaquemines Parish landed up the road. The other half landed on a football field. Had his mother not moved to Algiers, theirs might have been one of the ravaged homes in the storm-wracked Seventh Ward. And Collins certainly could have done without the few months of school in Mississippi. “I ain’t going to lie to you,” he says. “It was just miserable to me.” It was all so horrible and fortunate and it could have tore down a 12-year-old with ease. That did not occur with this 12-year-old.
“I don’t look back on it like a nightmare,” Collins says. “I look back on it as something I had to overcome.”
He shut down the NFL talk on Sunday, flatly saying he hadn’t thought about declaring for the 2015 draft. A few minutes later, Allen noted that Collins’ value to the unit “will be hard to replace.” In any case, should it all line up just right on Thursday, it could be one last booming statement for Collins in the city that nurtured him as a noisemaker. At Hunter’s Field, that Seventh Ward park where Collins first played before he moved to a different part of the city, they called the drill The Tunnel. It was simple enough for Pee Wee players to comprehend: Two kids on their backs, one carrying a ball. At the sound of a whistle, both popped up. The one without the ball had to stop the one with the ball. Collision was inevitable.
For at least one of the participants, it was also preferable.
“Man, I’ve been laying people out since I was five years old,” Collins says. “That was very common. I always did it, and it stayed with me.”
All the way to this week and to New Year’s Day in 2015. He is back in his city once again, hoping to leave it happier than he ever has before.