CHICAGO — In a cramped hotel room the day before the NFL draft, speaking before a dozen of his relatives and close family friends, La’el Collins began to cry as he delivered the news: He wasn’t walking across the stage at the Auditorium Theatre and they weren’t hitting the gold carpet. He was instead flying back home to Baton Rouge, La., to answer questions in a murder investigation.
Brittany Mills, 29, a one-time romantic partner of Collins’, had been shot dead in her apartment six days earlier, and investigators wanted to know why her 10-year-old daughter had mentioned Collins’ name during an interview with police.
“This is on me,” La’el said, according to a person who was in the hotel room. “I own this. I had nothing to do with this, but it’s affecting y’all. I just feel bad that we’re not going to be able to live our dream at the draft.”
There wasn’t a dry eye as La’el packed his things, or when the prized lineman from LSU boarded a plane the night before the draft, virtually undraftable even though police had indicated that he wasn’t a suspect.
Fast forward to May 6, four days after the draft’s conclusion. His 6-4, 305-pound frame is parked on a couch in Jerry Jones’ Texas mansion, and Collins is listening to Tony Romo, members of the Cowboys’ offensive line and coaches make their pitches. Jones talks about persevering through hard times, and how fighting through them molds you as a man. One-by-one, the players assure La’el and his mother, Loyetta, that Jerry will have his back.
Dinner is shrimp and a massive cut of steak and heaps of football conversation. “For the first time,” he tells his agent, “I really felt like somebody had seen me for who I am.”
Who, exactly, is La’el Collins? For two weeks, that was the most burning question in the NFL.
Friday, April 24
Around 10:30 p.m. CT
Brittany Mills is shot and killed on the doorstep of her apartment in Baton Rouge, La. She is eight months pregnant, and her baby is delivered at a nearby hospital, alive but in unstable condition. His name is Brenton. Police scour the home, the neighborhood and social media for leads. Investigators will later say they believe Mills knew the person who shot her, and that her refusal to lend her car was met with several gunshots to her upper body.
According to La’el Collins, his name was mentioned by Mills’ 10-year-old daughter during an interview with police. (The Baton Rouge P.D. declined to confirm this detail.) Collins, 21, says he had a very brief relationship with Mills, and that she suspected the baby she was carrying might be his. Collins says he exchanged text messages with her, in March, about taking a paternity test after the baby was born.
Monday, April 27
Player agent Deryk Gilmore of the Chicago-based Priority Sports and Entertainment learns of the situation from Collins—he says he was reached by the police on Monday*—and takes the news to agency partner and general counsel Rick Smith.
“At the time, we weren’t clear on how big an issue it would be,” Gilmore says. “Unfortunately, a woman lost her life, but we believed the murder had nothing to do with La’el. Still, I wanted to make my partners aware.”
The agency hires a criminal attorney in Baton Rouge, Jim Boren.
Collins at the combine. (AJ Mast for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Tuesday, April 28
In the morning, Gilmore composes a text message to NFL team reps: Hey, there’s a story that may or may not come out. It’s an unfortunate incident, and La’el had nothing to do with it, but a young woman lost her life and he knew her.
Around the same time, speculation is growing rampant via social media and throughout the LSU community. La’el’s name has been mentioned online in connection with the investigation, and a local news organization contacts Baton Rouge Police corporal and spokesman Don Coppola, who confirms that investigators are interested in questioning Collins. (“We weren’t going to lie to them,” Coppola would later say. “He was just someone who had some type of knowledge of Brittany Mills, so we wanted to speak with him to help locate [the killer or killers.”)
The news becomes a national story, with headlines blaring some version of: Police wish to speak with first-round NFL prospect concerning murder of pregnant woman.
“When ESPN got a hold of it,” Smith says, “that’s when we were like, ‘Uh-oh.’ ”
Wednesday, April 29
For the first time, Priority Sports’ three football agents meet in the same room, in their posh loft office near the banks of the Chicago River. La’el had flown in the night before to prepare for the draft, and tomorrow he believed he would walk across the stage and shake the commissioner’s hand as a first-round pick. Neither he nor his family members believe anything would derail those plans.
But Collins is pulled early from a morning NFL Play 60 event to meet with agents Gilmore, Smith and Mike McCartney. “We made the decision that we needed to pull him out of the draft festivities,” Smith says, “and put him on a plane back to Baton Rouge to meet with our lawyer and our private investigator to accelerate a meeting with police.”
The agents sit Collins in a conference room overlooking the river and tell him, “You’ve got to go home.” The ensuing conversation lasts two hours, with La’el in tears professing his innocence, and then begging not to interrupt his family’s experience at the draft.
“He sat in that chair and poured his heart out and said, ‘I did not do this,’ ” McCartney says.
“He was extremely upset,” Smith says. “He knew the severity of the situation in Baton Rouge, but he didn’t understand how it would affect the football side. He said, ‘Am I even going to be drafted? I want to be here, this is my dream, to walk across that stage. I had nothing to do with this. Why do I have to go home?’ ”
Collins had been projected as a top 15 pick in the 2014 draft but remained at LSU for his senior season, hoping another year of refinement would make him one of the nation’s top tackles. But it didn’t matter now. In the eyes of NFL teams, his name was connected to a homicide investigation.
Late in the morning, Collins and Gilmore take a car back to the hotel. Around noon, Collins speaks to his mom, siblings, grandmother, girlfriend, her father and others about the change in plans.
“It was a very difficult feeling, because they’re all there for La’el,” Gilmore says. “These people are not rich, but they bought these outfits to go on the gold carpet. There was an argument. I said, ‘Listen, we don’t understand why certain things happen, but we have to trust God. We have to trust that he has a plan.’ ”
Smith and McCartney had never met Collins before today, but they arrive at the same conclusion: La’el is telling the truth. Back at the office, they begin an effort to clear his name, dividing the league into two lists and each calling 16 general managers.
Says Smith: “When you looked in this kid’s eyes, heard the story, talked to the lawyer, talked to our private investigator, we all believed he was innocent and we felt that we needed to put our reputations on the line for him.”
On the legal front, according to his agents, Collins’ offer to meet with detectives on Thursday is turned down.
Thursday, April 30
Round 1 of the NFL draft
In Baton Rouge, Collins passes a lie detector test administered by the agency-hired private investigator. The goal isn’t to convince police, but to persuade wary NFL executives.
Collins’ camp and police then negotiate a meeting time. Friday isn’t an option, because Collins’ lawyer must attend to a case in New Orleans. The police, the Collins camp says, aren’t available over the weekend.* They settle on Monday.
Back in Chicago, it’s clear that Collins’ draft stock is plummeting; he’s losing hundreds of thousands of dollars by the hour. His representatives brainstorm their options and settle on a far-fetched plan.
They want to see if Collins can gain admission into the NFL’s supplemental draft, a summertime event typically reserved for players who aren’t eligible in the spring. The language in the 2011 CBA is clear on this matter—“no player may elect to bypass a draft for which he is eligible to apply for selection in a supplemental draft”—but Smith calls league counsel Jeff Pash in the morning and makes a formal request.
In the afternoon, Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, calls back to deliver the news: No precedent will be set today.
“We knew it was a Hail Mary,” McCartney says.
Meanwhile, the agents had set up a 4 p.m. CT conference call—three hours before the draft is set to begin—to connect representatives from NFL teams with Collins’ attorney in Baton Rouge. Twenty teams are on the line (two general managers and a bunch of security heads) and ask dozens of questions. Some approach the matter with blank slates, while others seem to bring assumptions of criminality. The secure call is tightly managed, with coded entry numbers for each participant.
Collins isn’t among the 32 players selected on the first day of the draft.
Friday, May 1
Rounds 2 and 3 of the NFL draft
Less than a week old, Brenton Mills dies in a Baton Roue hospital. His death is ruled a homicide.
It is not yet known if Collins is the boy’s father; a paternity test is scheduled for Monday.
“We were always conscious of this incredible tragedy, the fact that a woman and eventually her child lost their lives,” Smith says. “At the same time, we had a responsibility to our client.”
In the eyes of NFL teams, La’el was now connected to a double homicide. “It became clear that we had to prove La’el was 100% innocent for anybody to draft him high,” McCartney says.
One team rep tells McCartney they’re considering drafting Collins in the fifth round.
“I’m thinking, That’s the worst thing for us,” McCartney says. “I ran the numbers. If a guy is drafted, he signs a four-year deal. If he gets a three-year undrafted-free-agent contract, plays well and often, then gets the first-round tender and the player participation pool bonus money, he could be paid better than the 33rd pick in the draft.”
Rather than lobby for Collins to be drafted, his agents issue an ultimatum: Draft La’el in the second or third rounds, or don’t draft him at all. But are they bluffing?
Collins, of course, would have to stay healthy for the earnings to kick in during Year 4 as a UDFA, but he would likely have his pick of where he’d play and optimize his chances of contributing early in his career.
In Baton Rouge, Collins sweats out the second day of the draft while his agents unfurl a new plan. Rather than lobby for him to be drafted, they issue an ultimatum to teams: Draft La’el in the second or third rounds, or don’t draft him at all.
The hardest part, Gilmore says, was selling Collins on the idea: “I’m explaining it to this young man and he’s having a hard time accepting it. We’re trying not to get drafted? He had to have a lot of trust in us.”
They show him salary charts and he agrees; it’s worth the risk.
The media, including this reporter, openly question the competence of Collins’ agents. Even a rival agent reaches out to La’el in an apparent attempt to poach him from his seemingly befuddled representatives.
Some teams express contempt for Collins’ bold move. Others call his agents to gauge their position. Are they bluffing? Six teams tell the agency they’re going to draft him on Saturday, the third day of the draft. “If you draft him, he’s going into next year’s draft,” McCartney tells them.
Was it a bluff?
“We can put it on the record now: We were never going back in the draft,” Smith says of waiting for the 2016 draft. “If someone had drafted him, we would’ve had a long, long discussion about it, but at the end of the day you can’t go back in the draft. He could get injured, gain weight, or 10 great tackles could come out. Too many risks.”
After three rounds, Collins remains undrafted.
Saturday, May 2
Rounds 4-7 of the NFL draft
The backend of the draft slowly melts away like a stick of butter at room temperature. Collins, his family members and his agents hold their breath, hoping no team takes a flyer.
The seventh and final round sees a run on offensive tackles: Jake Rodgers from Eastern Washington, Bobby Hart of Florida State and Austin Shepherd from Alabama are selected in a span of four picks.
“When we got to the last 10 picks I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious in a draft,” McCartney says. “We were praying he didn’t get picked.”
Before making its seventh-round selection, one team sends Smith one last text message.
“There was a team that had drafted four offensive linemen,” Smith says, “and they said, ‘We’re taking him.’ And I texted back, ‘You’re going to embarrass yourself. You’re going to waste this pick.’
“And they passed. And now he’s a UDFA.”
Sunday, May 3
Deep breath. Relax.
Monday, May 4
It’s interview day for Collins and detectives from the Baton Rouge police department. He arrives with Boren, his lawyer, and voluntarily provides his cell phone (to prove his whereabouts). The meeting lasts for more than an hour. Collins also takes a paternity test and is told the expedited results will be available later in the week.
Hoping to get in on the ground floor of the free-agent negotiations, 29 teams contact Collins or his agents. Bills coach Rex Ryan even flies in to have dinner with La’el in Baton Rouge.
The sports agency examines its options, trying to find the right scenario for Collins to enter the NFL.
The meeting with detectives lasts for more than an hour. Collins also takes a paternity test and is told the expedited results will be available later in the week.
“We felt it would be important for a place that had stability at QB, coach, offensive line coach,” McCartney says. “Not for one year, but the next few years. We wanted a QB that spits the ball out quickly, because we all see QBs who hold onto the ball, take sacks, and then you go blame the young blocker.”
Collins and his camp had envisioned police detectives holding a press conference to clear his name, but they realize there will be no public pardon for someone who was never a suspect. That resolution, they concede, may only happen if another person is arrested.
An evening headline on the Shreveport Times website reports: “La'el Collins not a suspect, but not cleared.”
Tuesday, May 5
Collins’ agents eliminate 16 teams from contention and give briefings to the remaining suitors. The contract would be non-negotiable. Collins would get a guaranteed contract with no offsets, second- and third-year maximum salaries for a UDFA, and the remainder of Team X’s signing bonus cash pool. If he were ever charged or indicted in the murder investigation, the guarantees would disappear and the contract would be torn up.
The agents narrow the list to a handful of teams, and then Collins cuts it down even more. He wants to be close to home, and he doesn’t want to be anywhere cold.
He books a trip to Dallas.
Wednesday, May 6
Collins is not the father.
The news sets off a different kind of frenzy. In the eyes of NFL teams, it is now more probable than not that Collins had nothing to do with the murder of Brittany Mills and her son. (At the time of publication, police in Baton Rouge had not made an arrest or identified a suspect.)
Gilmore's and Collins' smartphones won't stop buzzing. There are typically no recruitment visits for UDFAs; you go to a team with the intention of signing. Still, Collins has a contingency plan. He’ll to go Miami if Dallas doesn’t feel right.
Accompanied by his mother, Loyetta Collins, and his agent, Deryk Gilmore, La’el arrives at Jerry Jones’ mansion and is greeted by a welcoming party of Cowboys bigwigs, coaches and players.
“The house was as gorgeous as you can imagine,” Gilmore says. “Mr. Jones just sat there and talked. He talked about his background and where he came from, how he’d been through hard times, and how he became the man he was. It was chilling. He said, ‘You go through hard times, and that’s what makes you what you are.’
“He talked about how the media and the world can call for your head, like when he fired Tom Landry, but he made the changes necessary and believed in his people.”
Jones and Collins talk into the night, and Collins understands that he’ll have the chance to start immediately if he can beat out ho-hum left guard Ronald Leary.
Collins decides to sleep on it before making a final decision.
Thursday, May 7
Along with his son, Stephen, the Cowboys’ chief operating officer, and his daughter, Charlotte Anderson, a Cowboys’ executive vice president, Jerry Jones arrives at Collins’ hotel to make one final pitch. Later in the morning, Collins tells his mother and agent, “There’s no other place I need to be. I believe that in my heart.”
He signs a three-year, fully guaranteed deal worth $1.7 million, not counting the possibilities of a high tender or performance bonuses. Still, Collins has lost nearly $15 million because of a murder case in which he hasn’t been deemed a suspect or a person of interest.
At his introductory press conference, he wears a blue Cowboys polo and a blue Cowboys fitted hat, and he takes more than a few deeps sighs of relief.
“I can’t even find the words to describe it,” he says. “I believe that God has a plan for everything, and I believe that his plan for me was different. Never before has this ever happened.
“And I’m here. I’m a part of something great.”
* Story has been updated to reflect sourcing. The Baton Rouge Police Department has disputed certain assertions about when police were available to talk to Collins. At the time of publication the department did not respond to a request for clarification on these points.
From l. to r., Loyetta Collins, La’el Collins, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett (James D. Smith /AP)
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