SUNRISE, Fla. — On a Sunday night in April, Alex Collins, a top running back prospect in this year’s NFL draft, is practicing his high-step in a most unorthodox training session at a South Florida strip mall. After a long set of warm-up drills, the former Arkansas tailback looks as if he’s already played the first quarter of a game. His training partners? They’re all teenage girls, and none has even broken into a sweat.
You likely already know Collins for his on-field accomplishments. He was the first true freshman to start his career with three 100-yard performances since Adrian Peterson did it at Oklahoma in 2004. Last fall, Collins became the third player in SEC history to record three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He declared for the draft after his junior season, in which he posted a career-high 1,577 yards and a school-record 20 rushing touchdowns. Off the field, he’s found a unique edge to hone his fancy footwork: Irish dancing.
After declaring for the draft, Collins returned home to Florida to train at Bommarito Performance Systems, a popular spot for draft prep. He maintains a close relationship with his high school football coach Doug Gatewood, whose 15-year-old daughter, Bryanne, introduced Collins to the world of poodle socks, butterflies and ghillies in 2011. When Collins was in high school, she brought him along to some of her performances. The two debated for years whether Irish dancing is a sport. Collins argued no, real sports had to be televised; Bryanne insisted real sports involve any kind of competition.
In January, hoping to settle the debate once and for all, Bryanne challenged Collins to go to dance practice and try it. She also had another selling point: With Collins headed to the NFL, he was going to need a touchdown dance to call his own. After just one lesson at the Drake School of Irish Dance, Collins was hooked. “If you know Alex, this isn’t shocking,” says Bethany Gatewood<, Bryanne’s mom. “If you came in today and said I’m number one in archery in the state of Florida, he would say, ‘OK, let’s go do it.’ He is always trying to be the best at things.”
Collins trains weekly at the Drake School of Irish Dance, and often drives his red Hyundai Sonata to carpool Bryanne and two of her friends to practice. An internet meme in the making? Collins has even assumed an alter ego when he dances, calling himself Mitchell Findley (Mitch Finn, for short). The name was inspired by Michael Flatley, the well-known performer from Lord of the Dance fame. As the lone male dancer in his class, Collins thought he needed a flashy name that would give him the confidence to flaunt his quick steps. On this particular night, he finishes the first step to his reel (a type of Irish dance) without making any mistakes. He flashes a big smile and throws his arms skyward in the shape of a V.
“That’s how Mitch Finn does it, everybody!”
His classmates, ages 10 to 17, giggle and roll their eyes. They’ve been dancing much longer than Collins has. And while he knows his steps, his technique leaves a lot to be desired: holding his arms straight down by his sides, pointing his toes, landing his jumps high on his toes, turning his feet out. (Little did Collins know when contacted about this story, but The MMQB has a reporter who has been Irish dancing since 2003.)
“The hardest thing is trying to jump without using my arms, because in football we jump and use our arms to help us,” Collins says. “I'm like a chicken running around trying to keep one arm down and my other arm is flapping around.”
The fast, detailed footwork is helping Collins quicken his feet. “It is all about rhythm and timing in Irish dance, and so it is for the running back as well,” he says. The leaping and jumping is cardio conditioning, and dancing high on his toes is strength training. “Here I am always on my toes, and I really love it because it builds my lower body muscles and my calf muscles,” he says. “I am more explosive on the field. As a running back you want to have that lower body strength and that footwork—and this is perfect place to get it.”
In the final days before the draft, Mitch Finn—ahem, Collins—is busy choreographing a touchdown celebration that will reflect his off-field interest. “Something quick and fancy,” he says, “so that when the fans see, they know it is Irish dancing … but at the same time, I want to add a little jazz to it.”
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