The walk to coach Mike Gundy's office was long and quiet. The day before, in his hometown of Texarkana, Texas, Oklahoma State linebacker Chris Collins had pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child. Now he was back in Stillwater about to face his head coach.
Gundy wasn't looking forward to the meeting. The irony of it was awful to think about: kicking a kid off the team for disciplinary reasons when he'd been nothing but a model student-athlete for the two years Gundy had known him.
Collins recalled that as he entered Gundy's orange-and-black-splashed office that day in November 2007, "I was thinking, 'He knows my situation.' I thought he was gonna tell me, 'You just need to stay out of trouble from here on out.' I thought I'd be starting that Saturday."
It was a naive expectation, but Collins had been naive about a number of things at that point in his life. He'd believed that the girl he had sex with on prom night three years earlier was 16. He had expected the University of Texas to stand by its scholarship offer when it was learned she wasn't 16. And now, halfway into his sophomore season at Oklahoma State, where he had seized his second chance by becoming one of the Cowboys' best defensive players, Collins thought that pleading guilty and accepting the probation sentence he'd been promised would make the whole thing go away. He was wrong there, too.
"Chris was crying and I was crying," Gundy said. "I told him, 'Chris, we can't keep you. I don't think you're a bad person ... but you pled guilty. I'll help you any way I can, but Oklahoma State can't extend itself to you anymore.'"
"That feeling that day in Coach Gundy's office," said Collins. "That was a worse feeling than pleading guilty to something I didn't do."
The incident happened at a small after-prom party on May 23, 2004. There were five or six guys and one or two girls sitting around in room 204 of the Comfort Inn in Texarkana, Texas, laughing, drinking and playing video games. The night was by all accounts predictable and tame until sometime after midnight, when Collins, a 17-year-old who had just committed to play college football at Texas, got a call from a girl who asked if she and a friend could come over.
Collins knew the caller. She was a 15-year-old freshman at his school, Texas High. The next day, the authorities would give her the pseudonym "Leah." He knew her friend, too, the eventual victim. She would be given the name "Jennifer."
Collins and his friend James had met them the previous weekend at a house party just outside town. Collins has always maintained that the night they met, Jennifer told him she was a 16-year-old sophomore at nearby Fouke High. That first night, Collins told investigators, the four of them ended up at his best friend Charlie's house. James left. "Me and [Jennifer] had sex that night in Charlie's room," Collins told police.
On prom night, Chris and Charlie picked the girls up outside Jennifer's house. They had sneaked out and were waiting for the guys by the road. Chris and Charlie drove them back to the Comfort Inn, where the two girls did what everyone else was doing: voluntarily drinking screwdrivers in the main room where the Xbox was hooked up.
Chris and Jennifer went into one of the adjacent bedrooms and had sex. At around 4 a.m., groggy and still drunk, Collins lumbered into another room and fell asleep. By sunrise, according to police documents, witness accounts, and medical records, Jennifer, who was both severely inebriated and three months shy of her 13th birthday, had engaged in sex acts with another 17-year-old Texas High student, and a 28-year-old man -- the big brother of one of Collins' friends who had rented the room for the players. These acts, according to prosecutors, took place as Jennifer was fading in and out of consciousness.
Jennifer's friend Leah, who had planned their night out and was in fact 15, knew Jennifer's true age. But according to the statement Leah gave police, when she entered the bedroom and saw someone other than Chris on top of Jennifer, she turned around and "went to sleep in the big room because there was nothing she could do."
The phrase, sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl, is a visceral force that unites virtually all walks of humanity in wanting to bury the man responsible. To raise even the possibility of extenuating circumstances is to invite as much scorn as is aimed at the accused. One important circumstance in the Collins case -- extenuating or not -- is that in Texas, children under 14 cannot consent to sex under any circumstances. This seemingly just law is where Collins' difficult legal situation would become even more tangled.
Despite the evidence that his relations with Jennifer were consensual and that she lied to him about her age, Collins agreed to plead guilty three years after the incident to aggravated sexual assault of a minor. He did so, he said, because he'd been promised by his lawyer that he wouldn't have to register as a sex offender. At his sentencing, when he was told that he would have to register, Collins was shocked. The stigma of his sex offender status played an important role in Collins' rapid fall from grace, which had only just begun.
"Just mentally, everybody telling you you're a sex offender and you like little kids and you need help and you need this and that, it'll break you down," Collins said. "So many times I've gotten frustrated and wanted to give up and just started not caring."
It didn't help Collins' mindset when he learned that his co-defendant Jabari Jackson -- seven months older than Collins and facing three counts of aggravated sexual assault against Jennifer -- pleaded to a reduced charge that didn't require him to register as a sex offender. (Jackson, who has reportedly graduated from college and is working full-time, did not respond to an interview request made through his mother.)
Former Oklahoma State assistant Larry Fedora, who recruited Collins and is now the head coach at North Carolina, said, "It's easy based on the charges to say that Chris Collins is the worst kid ever. But when you find out more about the circumstances, you realize there's more to it than that."
Gundy took a lot of heat after Collins pleaded guilty. Sure, he'd kicked him off the team, but a lot of people thought Collins should never have been on it in the first place.
Gundy continued to stand by Collins by offering to honor the rest of his scholarship -- in essence, burning one of his 85 full rides ... on a convicted child molester. "Because we made a commitment to him," Gundy explained. "I had committed to him. Personally. And again, we had a better understanding than most people about who Chris was."
Gundy began to gain that understanding in 2005, when Fedora, his offensive coordinator, returned from a routine recruiting trip to east Texas. Fedora had stopped by powerful Texas High to look at the 4-A juggernaut's annual crop of recruits when he ran into his old high school basketball coach, Jim McManus.
"I told him we had a kid who was the best high school football player I'd ever seen," McManus said. He wasn't talking about junior quarterback Ryan Mallett. "I said Chris had been in some trouble and he hadn't played in a couple years, but the kid was the perfect player, the ideal teammate. He'd screwed up one time in his life and it cost him dearly, but everybody in Texarkana knew the kid and knew what kind of kid he was."
"I'd never heard of Chris Collins before that," Fedora recalled. "So I started investigating."
Like most programs, Oklahoma State does not employ outside help to look into the details of recruits' criminal pasts. So Fedora began canvassing Texarkana on his own -- a private eye in a bright orange polo shirt -- to learn more about the soft-spoken kid whose speed and tackling instincts leapt off the screen at him.
It helped that Texarkana (pop. 34,000) was a small town. The kind of town where a respected defense lawyer might work out of a dilapidated house with its address paint brushed next to the front porch. A place where a reporter might write about the Collins case for the Texarkana
"Everybody in that town knew Chris Collins," said Fedora, who added that being the father of three girls moved him to look into Collins' past with extra care. "I'd stop for gas and ask strangers at the gas station, 'Hey, do you know this kid?'"
After several weeks of checking, Fedora and Gundy "ended up deciding that Chris had made a terrible mistake, but he wasn't the monster a lot of people thought he was," Fedora said.
The athletic department and university administration trusted Gundy on the Collins matter once he shared with them the details of Collins' criminal case. For Collins, the acceptance he felt in Stillwater represented new life, the stoking of an ember he feared had gone forever cold.
"When I went up there [to OSU] I wanted to prove people wrong, because everyone was saying 'He's a rapist,'" said Collins. "I know what kind of person I am and my family knows what kind of person I am."
Collins started as a true freshman in 2006. "He never says anything," Gundy told the local media. "It's hard to get him to talk."
A 6-foot-2, 235-pound, speedy linebacker with a talent for getting into the backfield, Collins was the Cowboys' leading tackler through six games before a knee injury ended his season. His sophomore year, turf toe kept him out of the four games before the Texas game, in which Collins played 32 snaps and made five tackles in a 38-35 loss to the Colt McCoy-led Longhorns -- the team Collins would have played for had his prom night gone differently.
After watching film the next morning, Collins departed for Texarkana without telling Gundy, who had no idea that Collins was scheduled to stand trial that Tuesday.
The case had lingered for more than three years. Everyone involved -- the Collins family, the victim's family, lawyers on both sides -- was eager to put it to rest. When Collins arrived in Texarkana, he learned (much to the prosecutors' dismay) that "Jennifer" was not going to testify. In a private moment in the courtroom, Collins, still sore from the Texas game, approached Jennifer's grandmother and told her he was sorry for the hurt he had caused her family. The grandmother, a successful realtor who had shuttered her Texarkana office and moved her granddaughter to another state, wept softly as Collins bent down to hug her.
"Yes, I did reach up and squeeze his shoulders," Jennifer's grandmother recalled recently. "But I don't want it to seem like this is a beautiful story of forgiveness. I'm a Christian. I don't wish anything bad on Chris. I hope he has a happy and productive life. But what happened in that hotel room that night was a horrible, ugly thing, and he was there and he was a part of it." (Jennifer's grandmother said that Jennifer is currently attending college.)
From the beginning, Collins had admitted to having sex with Jennifer, so he was technically guilty of the charge against him. Backroom explanations had not convinced D.A. Bobby Lockhart to reduce the charge, so Collins pleaded guilty on the advice of his attorney, a local courtroom veteran named Paul Hoover who also advised Collins to let a jury recommend his sentence.
And so the page was turned to the "punishment phase," in which the jurors received the prosecution's entire case -- every bit of evidence, every exhibit. After hearing testimony from Collins and four character witnesses, and following final arguments from both sides, the jury deliberated for less than an hour, emerging with the lightest penalty possible -- five years in prison. They recommended that Collins' sentence be suspended and that he serve his time on probation instead of behind bars.
According to the Collins family, Hoover had assured them that there were ways to circumvent the requirement that Chris register as a sex offender. If Hoover, who died of a heart attack in 2009, did in fact make this promise, it was an empty one, for no such opportunities existed. "He just flat-out lied to us," said Collins' father, Chris Sr.
The testimony of "Leah" might have helped overturn Collins' sex offender requirement (Leah and another girl testified later, during Jackson's trial, that Jennifer told everyone at the party she was 16), but Leah died in an auto accident shortly after Collins' sentencing.
One of the few redeeming chapters in the Collins case is that race was not a factor. Jennifer and Leah were white and Chris and everyone else at the prom party was black. Collins sat before a predominantly white jury whose members were unilaterally sympathetic to him.
SI.com interviewed seven of the 12 jurors who heard the case. Each of these seven recalled that handing Collins the minimum sentence had been a quick and unanimous decision. Six of these seven jurors said they felt Collins should not have been required to register as a sex offender. (The juror who supported this sex offender requirement -- a black man, incidentally -- explained: "Because it's the law.")
"All 12 of us felt like it was kids being kids," said one juror, a white, middle-aged mother of a teenage girl. "There was no rape. He thought he was a 17-year-old with a 16-year-old. We learned that she had done this sneaking out thing before. This time she just got caught ..."
Another white mom on the jury said, "The whole group felt it wasn't just him. She blatantly lied about her age. And she wasn't [dragged] into the situation. She seemed to be the aggressor."
Said another juror: "If he hadn't pled guilty we'd have let him off scot-free."
"Chris Collins is as black as midnight," said a white juror. "I'm a big ol' redneck white guy. I came in there thinking, 'He's guilty, we should hang him.' I left there thinking he got a raw deal."
"People don't realize how much money it costs to be a registered sex offender," Collins said. There's the $60-per-month probation fee and the $40 installments toward the estimated $11,000 he owes in court costs and other fees. "And there's a class you gotta go to every two weeks. You gotta pay $25 each time. There's lie detector tests they can just assign to you. You gotta pay $200 for that." It's not a ton of money, unless you're out of work.
Collins isn't considered high-risk, but he's not allowed near schools, public swimming pools, or children who aren't in his family. These days, though, he doesn't have to worry about these restrictions because he's in a Texas state prison.
His road to incarceration began at Texas Southern University, the only program that would take him after he left Oklahoma State. Based in Houston, Texas Southern is where Collins fell in with a bad crowd and began letting the terms of his probation slide. He blew off his weekly sex offender class, and when he did show up he "exhibited a narcissistic attitude and failed to take the program seriously," according to a probation report.
"The way the probation's set up, it makes it look like I like kids," Collins said. "All those pictures of me in the newspaper, next to those words -- it brought so much shame on me and my family. I got frustrated and dealt with it the wrong way. I started smoking weed, like, 'F--- it, I don't care if I go to jail.'"
In April 2009 Collins failed a drug test for marijuana, violating his probation. He was sentenced to 30 days in county jail. After his release, his probation officer discovered nude photos of Collins and his 20-year-old girlfriend on his cellphone -- a violation of the order that he avoid all material portraying "nudity of a child or adult." Collins' P.O. "recommend[ed] that his probation be revoked and that he be sentenced to a term of incarceration."
Collins was sentenced to six months in state prison for his litany of violations. He did time at the Gurney facility in Palestine -- hometown of another member of the 2004 All-State team, Adrian Peterson -- and at the Moore Prison in Bonham, just north of Dallas, where former Oklahoma State teammate Dez Bryant was preparing for his rookie year with the Cowboys.
After his release, Collins found part-time work as a cook in February 2011. His manager said Collins was a good worker, but shifts were hard to come by because he was inexperienced. When Collins heard that there was full-time work to be had at the Pilgrims Pride chicken processing plant in Arkansas, he made the two-hour bus trip for an interview -- he didn't have a car -- and got a job on the "de-bone line," rendering breasts and thighs boneless.
Five days a week Collins took the bus to De Queen, Ark., for work. Some days during the commute he thought back to the lie detector test he'd taken six years earlier, before he was charged. In September 2004 Collins' father scraped $300 together to have a polygraph examination conducted by an examiner who did the same work for local law enforcement. According to the report of that exam, "relevant questions were asked along with other irrelevant and control type questions." The examiner concluded that Collins's responses "did not contain patterns indicitive (sic) of deception."
Those long bus rides to Arkansas added to his frustration. "I felt cheated out of my life," Collins said "I know I'm not perfect, but I was young. I made a mistake."
Six weeks into his employment at Pilgrims Pride, Collins skipped three straight days of work without calling in and was terminated. He didn't tell his P.O. about it, which was another probation violation. He also failed, for the umpteenth time, to show up and pay for a state-administered lie detector test. Collins tried to explain during a recent phone interview. "I got two kids," he said. "I don't have $200 to give someone to give me a polygraph test. I don't have that money to waste."
Other violations landed on his P.O.'s desk. In April 2011, Collins admitted to drinking a beer on two occasions. (Collins is barred from drinking alcohol.) The final straw came when he was charged with disorderly conduct in Little River County, Ark., on April 16.
That day, police responded to a domestic dispute call from Collins' girlfriend, who they found alone and bearing no evidence of injury or an altercation. When they contacted Collins and asked him to return to the scene, he complied but he was surly about it. When his girlfriend said that she wanted her phone back, Collins threw it over her fence.
The police were already going to take Collins in for an outstanding traffic citation, but tossing the phone earned him a disorderly conduct charge -- and a court date before the same judge who presided over his original case. Collins' girlfriend, Kenya King, said that the incident was blown out of proportion. She and Collins are planning to marry when he gets out of jail.
"They only gave me five years," Collins said earlier this month from jail. "I'll have to do about half of that, plus I got eight months previous time so all in all I'll have to do about a year and 10 months."
"Losing his football career was a big blow," said Collins' probation officer, David Rodgers. "He had always been on this path toward the NFL, following this dream, but now he's got to find another goal. That's been difficult for him. It's difficult for a lot of offenders we work with."
"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do as a coach," Gundy said of the day he let Collins go. "This was a kid who did everything we asked him to do. We took a good young man who had made a mistake, and we gave him an opportunity. He didn't do anything while he was here that made us regret that."
Before his current prison term, Collins had to renew his registration as a sex offender each year on his birthday. He brought a visitor with him last January, the day after he turned 24. His breath visible in the 30-degree air, Collins also brought his bulky ankle monitor and charger in for their monthly maintenance. He entered the Bi-State law enforcement building and its aroma of old sweat and industrial cleaner -- a smell that means you're in trouble -- took the graffiti-etched elevator up two floors and entered a small office where he updated his address and answered questions about his behavior, which at that time was fine.
He emerged holding a blue ID card the size of a driver's license. "It ain't that big a deal really," he said, pronouncing the last word in his thick, east Texas accent: rilly. But he isn't a good liar.
"That's one of the reasons we believed him," said one of the jurors. "He told police about what happened as soon as they asked. He told 'em he had sex with that girl the week before, too ... He never tried to hide behind any lies."
Now, with another empty football season upon him, and with prison bars between him and the world, the stigma forever linked with his name feels heavier than usual.
"I just gotta do my time and move on," Collins muttered during a recent phone call after the automated voice told him his 15 minutes were almost up. "I'm not no criminal, I know that."