They are NFL scouts and assistant coaches, and they have come to
the McNeese State campus in Lake Charles, La., wearing parkas
and baseball caps adorned with team insignias. In one hand they
carry clipboards fitted with evaluation forms, in the other
stopwatches worn smooth from handling. They represent teams in
Chicago, Green Bay, Kansas City, Miami, New York, Seattle and
Washington. They have come with a holy man's capacity to forgive
and a betting man's hope for glory.
This is an article from the April 5, 1999 issue
They don't say much, not even to one another. Their
assignment--to help decide the football fate of former LSU and
McNeese State running back Cecil Collins--is easy only if they
don't allow themselves to think about Collins's troubled
"All right, Cecil, step on the scale," says one of the scouts.
Collins, dressed in black spandex and a blue McNeese State
T-shirt emblazoned with the image of a cowboy on a bucking
horse, does as instructed. "Two-fifteen. Two-fifteen, right,
Collins nods his head, then horns his shoes back onto his feet.
"Two-fifteen," he repeats in a whisper.
"Does anybody need the height?"
"I'm five-ten," Collins answers quickly.
"Five-ten? Then why does my chart here say five-nine and three
Collins, though accustomed to having his word questioned,
responds with silence, then gives a loud, satisfied laugh when
he realizes that the man is only joking.
If the 22-year-old Collins seems more than a little uptight on
this day, he has every reason to be. Only seven months ago it
looked as if his football career was over, and now his future in
the game depends on persuading the NFL that he's a "changed
man," as he describes himself, that he is not the person
represented in police reports as a sexual predator who last
summer harassed two female residents of the Baton Rouge
apartment complex where he was living.
Today's workout, coming less than a month after his eye-catching
performance at the NFL scouting combine, will help determine
where Collins falls in the April 17-18 draft. Although he played
in a total of six college games, league analysts predict that
only three backs, Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams of Texas,
Edgerrin James of Miami and Kevin Faulk of LSU, will be selected
ahead of Collins.
For a month in 1997 Collins, then a sophomore at LSU, might have
been the best college football player in America. In three
games, two of them against tough Southeastern Conference
opponents, he rushed for 583 yards on 69 carries and looked even
better than Faulk, who at the time was being touted as a Heisman
candidate. But on his third carry against Vanderbilt on Oct. 4,
Collins suffered a season-ending leg injury, and fans in the
state of Louisiana were deprived of a player they had already
elevated to folk status.
"Cecil is as good a pure tailback as I've ever coached," says
LSU coach Gerry DiNardo. "There might be better all-around
backs--I think Kevin [Faulk] is better all-around, and Tony
Dorsett was better all-around--but as a pure runner Cecil is as
good as there is."
Following surgery on his broken right fibula, Collins endured
months of rehab, but instead of thrilling crowds at Tiger
Stadium last year, "the devil gave me a ride for a while," as he
puts it, "and I kind of went crazy." On June 26, Collins was
charged with unauthorized entry and sexual battery, which was
later changed to simple battery. Then on July 8 he was charged
with unauthorized entry. The first round of allegations, coming
on the heels of LSU rules infractions that included three
positive drug tests for marijuana, compelled DiNardo to kick
Collins off the team the day the charges were filed. Collins
then cast about for weeks in search of another Louisiana school
that would have him. He ended up at Division I-AA McNeese State,
only to be booted from that team on Sept. 17 after he violated a
judge's order by failing another drug test.
"You want to know the truth about Cecil Collins?" says John
Nagle, an assistant coach at McNeese. "He's a 22-year-old man
with a 15-year-old brain. When he's on the football field, he
works his butt off. But off the field he's as immature as they
"Cecil will need help making the transition to the NFL," says
LSU running backs coach Mike Haywood. "Whatever team takes him
is going to need a doctor or a counselor or a psychiatrist to
work with him, or it's going to need to surround him with strong
players. Otherwise--and you can count on this--Cecil is going to
In 1998 Marshall wideout Randy Moss offered a criminal past and
a load of talent for the NFL to evaluate. Two years earlier
Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips was the prospect
everybody loved as long as he was runn ing the football. Is
Collins pro football's next Moss, the NFL Offensive Rookie of
the Year last season, or is he doomed to follow in the footsteps
of Phillips, who after landing in more trouble while playing for
the St. Louis Rams and the Dolphins, has been reduced to playing
in NFL Europe?
"Man, I ain't nothing like that dude," Collins says of Phillips,
who was taken by the Rams with the sixth pick in the 1996 draft.
"I'm not going to talk about him because I don't judge no man.
I'm not saying people are wrong to compare me to him, but I'm
not in that category, not even close."
Collins believes that the more apt comparison is to Moss, who
had an All-Pro season in '98 after slipping to the 21st pick,
where he was taken by the Minnesota Vikings. "Yeah, because he
showed them [that given a chance he could produce]," says
Collins. "The man made a mistake--everybody makes a mistake. I
remember seeing him in an interview. They asked him, on [ESPN's]
Up Close, 'What do you want to do when you come in the NFL?'
[Moss] was like, 'I want to come in and rip it apart.' Well, I
want to rip it up too. I'm serious. But first thing, outside of
football, I have to prove to people that I'm a good person."
Not all who know Collins are as confident as he is about his
future, mainly because they can't reconcile his many failings
with his vows to do better. "Cecil's a con artist, there isn't
any doubt," says Nagle. "But he was my guy the short time he was
here, and I loved him. The last thing he had to do before he
left each day after practice was come see me. I'd tell him,
'You've got to be good, Cecil.' He'd sit in that chair right
there and say, 'You don't have to worry about me. Hey, Coach.
"I think the NFL is going to make a mistake [by drafting him],"
says Northwestern (La.) State coach Sam Goodwin, who turned down
Collins's request to play for his team after he left LSU. "Cecil
may turn out to be all that he's capable of being as a football
player, but if I had to lay down a five-dollar bet, I'd say they
were making a big mistake."
Although Collins's difficulty in abiding by the rules dates to
high school, he didn't have any trouble with the law until last
summer. According to a general investigative form filed by
officers with the Baton Rouge police department, Collins went to
an apartment in his complex looking for a female acquaintance.
The young woman, as it turned out, had hidden in a bedroom upon
discovering it was Collins at the door and sent her 17-year-old
roommate to get rid of him. The second woman, the report says,
"told Collins that [her roommate] wasn't in and Collins pushed
his way past the victim and took a seat on her couch even though
the victim told him to get out. The victim walked into her
bathroom, afraid to press the issue. And Collins followed her
in....Collins put himself behind the victim and rubbed his penis
against her buttocks. Collins also removed a blanket from the
victim's waist which left her wearing only a tee shirt since she
had just gotten out of the shower. The victim yelled for Collins
to leave and cursed at him while pulling away. She went into the
kitchen area...[and] Collins followed and pulled out his penis
from his pants and told the victim to look at and touch it. The
victim yelled again and the witness still in another room made a
noise which made Collins ask who else was there. When the victim
said another one of her friends, Collins walked to the door as
ordered by the victim."
Less than two weeks later another LSU coed filed a criminal
complaint against Collins, alleging that, on June 19, he entered
her apartment through a locked door. Collins, she said, broke in
at 4 a.m. and sat beside her on the sofa where she was sleeping.
According to a police report, Collins "touched her on the side
of the face and said, 'Hey baby.'" The victim woke up and
screamed, and Collins ran out.
Collins refuses to discuss the incidents, but Jessie Burton, a
McNeese running back and a former roommate, says, "Cecil always
said that nothing happened and that [the victim in the first
case] was lying about the whole thing. He never went into
detail, but he would say she was lying, that he didn't do it.
There was really not much he could say because it was her word
Notwithstanding his scrapes with authorities, Collins can be
charming. He laughs a lot, and when pressed to explain his
troubles, he displays a habit of rubbing a nervous hand over his
shaved head. Of course, charm isn't what's likely to make him a
first- or second-round draft pick. Nor is it why he has been
given special treatment ever since he was a boy in Leesville,
La. Simply put, Collins is perhaps the best running back
produced by the state of Louisiana since Billy Cannon wore the
purple and gold 40 years ago.
As a 12-year-old at Leesville Junior High, Collins played
tailback for the seventh- and eighth-grade teams, often suiting
up for two games in a day. It was not uncommon for him to carry
the ball more than 50 times in an afternoon. One day, according
to his coaches, he gained 300 yards in the first game, then 250
in the second.
"The eighth-grade coach would let me have Cecil for the first
half of the seventh-grade game, then come and get him for the
start of his game," says Teddy Berry, a volunteer coach for the
younger team. "One day we were playing our big rival, and at
halftime the eighth-grade coach came up to me and said, 'Teddy,
I need Cecil.' I said, 'Man, you can't have him.' He said, 'But,
Teddy, he's already scored five touchdowns.' I said, 'Yeah, but
we're playing DeRidder.'"
The year before Collins arrived at Leesville High, the school's
football team didn't win a game. But by the time Collins had
finished his career there, the Wampus Cats, pride of the
piney-woods town of some 7,500, were a state power. In four
years Collins carried 1,000 times for 7,833 yards, the
second-highest rushing total in Louisiana high school history,
and scored 99 touchdowns, 40 of them during his senior year.
Mention the name Cecil at the time and recruiters for the
nation's top college programs knew you were talking about the Bo
Jackson clone down in redneck Louisiana. Collins chose LSU over
Baylor, Illinois, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, and over
every other university where football counts perhaps more than
it should. "In Leesville the kid was so popular, he could do
anything he wanted," says Haywood, the LSU assistant who
recruited Collins. "Because he was such a great player and so
many people liked him, anything he did was socially acceptable."
Collins's parents divorced in 1987; his father, James,
eventually moved to Houston, and his mother, Beverly, worked the
late shift at a fast-food restaurant. When Collins started
skipping class during his junior year, his coach, Danny Smith,
routinely gave him a 6 a.m. wake-up call. An hour later Smith
would pick him up and drive him to school, but as the coach
recalls, "some mornings he wouldn't come to the phone, and I'd
have to let myself in the house and get him up."
As a senior at Leesville, Collins was suspended three times
before his first game. In retrospect the grievances against him
seem minor, but to some at the school they suggested a
disrespect for authority, a refusal to obey the rules and an
attitude of privilege and superiority. First Collins reported to
class wearing a beeper, then he showed up without a belt, and
finally a teacher heard him using profanity. Asked if he wore
the beeper to look cool, Collins says, "No, I needed it. For my
mom and my girl. At the time my girl was pregnant and
everything." (He has since fathered a second child, with his
After the football season Haywood inherited the chore of rousing
the unmotivated student. "I'd have to call him every morning
from my car phone," Haywood says. "Six-thirty, seven, whenever
he had to be in school. He would go to class because he thought
I might surprise him and pop in, which I did periodically."
Adds Lance Guidry, a former Leesville assistant coach, "It was
always, 'We've got to keep Cecil out of trouble.' The school
didn't want to give him a fourth suspension because that meant
expulsion. It wanted him to graduate because everybody knew he
was going on to bigger and better things. Unlike other kids,
Cecil never suffered the consequences of his actions."
If the coaches and authorities in Leesville chose to overlook
Cecil's transgressions, Collins gave his coaches at LSU a danger
signal they couldn't ignore shortly after he reported for
practice in August 1996. Collins, like every other player, took
a drug test. His came back positive for marijuana. Asked why he
would use drugs when he knew he was going to be tested, Collins
has a hard time coming up with an answer. "I was hanging out
with the wrong people," he says finally, "doing wild things, you
As a freshman Collins was a Prop 48 casualty and was ineligible
to play. The following season he was suspended for the opener
against Texas-El Paso. News reports said Collins had violated a
team rule; in fact, he was disciplined for failing another drug
test. "I knew if I failed it, I'd get suspended," Collins says.
"Well, I failed it, got suspended, and that was it." The coaches
"drilled me a little bit," he says, "but they figured I was
young--not that being young is any excuse."
Against Mississippi State a week later, in his first appearance
in an LSU uniform, Collins gained 172 yards on 22 carries while
splitting time with sophomore Rondell Mealey. The next week he
rushed for 232 yards on 27 carries in a nationally televised
loss to Auburn. Talk of an eventual national championship ran
rampant through Baton Rouge. For the moment, at least, memories
of Cannon's moss-draped heroics were being eclipsed by a player
everybody had taken to calling Cecil the Diesel.
"One time Collins hit the hole and put a juke on one of our
corners and left him in the dirt," recalls Auburn defensive
lineman Jimmy Brumbaugh. "Then he hits a guy and rolls him and
just keeps going. Collins is so strong he can plow over
defensive backs like they're not even there. I think he likes
doing that. Then he can outrun everybody else."
The following week Collins turned in another big performance,
running for 179 yards against Akron. But in the next game his
season came to an end when he broke his leg on the unforgiving
artificial turf of Vanderbilt Stadium. "It all came so fast,"
Collins says of his celebrity. "I didn't feel like I was doing
anything so different. I was just going out there and doing what
I do, which is run the ball. I can't say it was a lot of
pressure, because I never feel the pressure when I'm playing."
Friendships came easily to Collins, but not all of them met with
the approval of the LSU coaching staff. That spring word reached
DiNardo that Collins had hooked up with Master P, the Baton
Rouge-based entertainment mogul who had built a $200 million
empire as a producer and performer of gangsta rap. Master P had
also helped start a sports talent agency called No Limit Sports.
Because the NCAA prohibits a student-athlete from entering into
a business relationship with an agent, the budding friendship
between the 28-year-old rapper and the 21-year-old football star
prompted DiNardo to call Cecil's father and Smith, the high
school coach. "He said, 'Danny, everywhere Cecil goes he's got
these guys hanging on him,'" recalls Smith. "[DiNardo] was
worried every time Cecil left the campus because all of a sudden
he would have this flock. Gerry was scared Cecil was going to
lead his program to probation."
Collins says he met the entertainer while playing basketball on
campus and knew him only as a casual friend. Master P, says
Collins, "never came out and talked to me" about being his
agent, "but I figured that later on down the line, you know, it
was going to end up happening."
To avoid any confusion about how the university regarded the
relationship, Haywood called Collins into his office. "I told
him point-blank, 'You will not be associated with those people
anymore,'" says Haywood.
Collins backed away from Master P, but his behavior had already
angered and mystified DiNardo, who eventually came to regard his
relationship with the player as "one where neither party is
benefiting." Says Haywood, "Gerry bent over backward to help
Cecil, but Cecil didn't trust many people. Gerry would ask Cecil
a question, and Cecil would give him an answer, then walk across
the hall into my office and tell me the truth, which was almost
always the exact opposite of what he'd just told Gerry."
When Collins was arrested last summer, DiNardo knew that any
discussion of the charges would produce only weak denials.
Nevertheless he called Collins into his office. "Cecil said he
didn't know what [the police] were talking about," says DiNardo.
Asked why he didn't wait for a trial to determine Collins's guilt
or innocence, DiNardo reflects for a moment, then says, "Is it
true that the greatest part of the iceberg is underneath the
Some people benefit from having a doctor or a lawyer as a family
friend. Last summer Collins had no better ally than his bail
bondsman, who happened to be none other than Teddy Berry, his
seventh-grade coach and now owner of Holsomback Bail Bonds in
Leesville. Berry posted a $20,000 bond after Collins's first
arrest, then one for $35,000 after the second. Berry next filled
another curious role for Collins, acting as a sort of placement
service. Having been granted a full release from LSU, Collins
could transfer to another school. If he chose to attend a
Division I-A university, he would have to sit out a year, but at
any other program he would be eligible immediately. Berry put
out the word that Collins was looking for a team, and in days
the bail bondsman began receiving calls from coaches around the
The first call came from Northwestern State's Goodwin, who
invited Collins to Natchitoches for a visit. "We rolled out the
red carpet, I guess you could say," says Goodwin. "We showed him
around campus, and it was all very positive, and then some
school administrators and I sat him down and asked him some
tough questions. I'm sure it was intimidating for him."
Collins had an explanation for both arrests, Goodwin recalls. In
one case he claimed to be the victim of mistaken identity, and
in the other, says the coach, "he said it was not as serious as
we read in the paper."
University administrators conducted an investigation of their
own, then advised Goodwin not to offer him a place on the team.
"We were getting a lot of misinformation from his side," says
After Northwestern State turned down Collins, Berry arranged for
him to visit Grambling, the historically black college in
northern Louisiana where former NFL quarterback Doug Williams is
the coach. "But we didn't like it too much up there," Berry
says. "The facilities weren't real good."
Next came a trip to McNeese State, where Collins interviewed
with Bobby Keasler, the coach at the time. "Bobby got down in
Cecil's face and said, 'Cecil, don't lie to me,'" says Berry,
who witnessed the meeting. "Cecil told Bobby the same story he
told me a hundred times, did not change a word. I talk to
criminals all the time in this business and their stories vary,
they're always changing. But Cecil's did not change. It's word
for word, and it's not written down on anything."
"We made it known that any foul-up [at McNeese], whether big or
small, and he was history," says Keasler, who now coaches at
Northeast Louisiana. "He understood that and said we didn't have
to worry about him and that he would take care of his business.
I gave him a chance and so did Coach Nagle. Every day he told
us, 'Coach, don't worry about me. I'm fine.' Well, he wasn't."
Having neglected to train all summer, Collins was 12 pounds
overweight when he reported for August two-a-days. Less than
halfway through his first practice, he passed out and had to be
helped off the field. "The Diesel ran out of fuel!" yelled one
of his teammates.
"The Diesel must be running on unleaded!" teased another.
Collins answered them with a smile. "That's O.K.," he said, his
body packed with ice. "I'll be back tomorrow. Just you wait."
At his first scrimmage, nearly 3,000 spectators, almost 10 times
as many as was customary, turned out to have a look at the
Cowboys' new running back. The school received only two calls
from fans protesting Collins's inclusion on the team, while
season-ticket sales soared. Fans began making reservations at a
popular hotel in Chattanooga, so certain were they that the
Cowboys would be playing for the Division I-AA championship four
Still out of shape when the Cowboys opened the season on Sept.
5, Collins gained 46 yards on 12 carries in a 43-3 win over
Southeast Oklahoma. But in the following week's 20-17 overtime
win over Northern Iowa, he rushed for 71 yards on 16 carries,
scored on a 15-yard run and "basically kept us in the game,"
says Nagle. "They couldn't tackle him. Their defensive
coordinator came up after the game and said, 'Golly, Coach, what
happens when he gets in shape?' I said, 'I don't think anybody
at this level will be able to contain him.'"
Collins, however, failed a surprise court-ordered drug test four
days later and, because he had violated the terms of his bond
agreements, was ordered back to Baton Rouge and immediately
jailed. His college career was effectively finished. Nagle
called Collins into his office to tell him goodbye. "He asked me
what was going to happen," says Nagle. "I said, 'Hell, Cecil, I
don't know what's going to happen, but I don't think it's going
to be good.' He told me, 'The judge likes me, and I'm going to
talk my way out of it.' I said, 'Cecil, you're about at the end
of talking your way out of things.'"
Collins made the drive to Baton Rouge alone, three hours to
contemplate his latest mistake. But even now he can't explain
why he would dare smoke marijuana again when he knew what he
stood to lose. "This one's hard," Collins says, searching for an
answer. "But I guess I was still in that immature stage. After
all that stuff had happened that summer in Baton Rouge, I was so
stressed and hurt and I'd gotten lost--I don't know, I was just
One day James Collins visited his son in jail, and the awful
irony of where they were meeting weighed heavily on both of
them. Since retiring from the Army after 18 years, the last as a
staff sergeant, James has worked as a corrections officer at a
prison for the criminally insane in Richmond, Texas. "I lectured
him," says the elder Collins. "I remember him saying, 'Daddy, I
don't belong here.' I said, 'I want you to know one thing,
Cecil. I'm there every day too, and I know the things you're
going through. Son, do you feel caged? Do you feel that your
freedom's been taken away? Did you give it away? How do you
feel? Look around you, son. If you're really the man you thought
you were, then why are you stuck in jail and not playing
James says his son started to cry. "This isn't the life I want
to live," he recalls Cecil's saying. "I can't stay in here. My
life has to turn around. My life is turning around. Right now,
Daddy. Right now."
Collins spent 28 days in jail, then was farmed out to a halfway
house for two months. While in the halfway house he signed with
an agent, Jimmy Sexton of Athletic Resource Management in
Memphis, and upon his release in late January, Collins moved to
Dallas to prepare for the draft.
Sexton gave Collins an allowance, hired a trainer to get him
back into shape and began spreading the word around the NFL that
his client was a changed man. His lawyers and prosecutors are
working on an agreement that if approved by the court would
protect Collins from the specter of a criminal trial during the
football season. Under terms of the plea bargain, Collins would
be sentenced to three to five years of probation and have to
perform 400 hours of community service.
Best of all for Collins, the arrangement should make him more
attractive to the NFL, because a team won't have to worry about
the possibility of losing him to a prison sentence just as his
pro career is beginning. "If I look back and then see how I am
now," says Collins, "basically--and this is the truth--I'm a
totally different person."
Shoulder to shoulder they stand with stopwatches poised at the
ready, waiting to time their prospect in the 40. Collins lowers
himself into a sprinter's position. His cheeks bellow as he
exhales great breaths of air, and sweat glistens on his head and
forearms. Slabs of muscle hug his thick frame, and his enormous
thighs and buttocks twitch with nerves. Collins exudes a power
and virility that one can sense even from a distance. No whistle
or starter gun prompts this challenge. He goes when he's ready.
When the sprint is over, the men from the NFL huddle and confer
in hushed, but excited, tones. Finally one steps forward.
"Four-three-seven to four-four-one," he announces, then allows a
Collins has put up a faster time than the 4.41 he had run at the
combine, the second-fastest time clocked in Indianapolis. It's
also slightly faster than that of most NFL running backs. "The
kid's a talent, all right," says Packers scout Alonzo Highsmith.
"My goodness, yes, he's impressive," says Bears scout John Paul
Young, shaking his head at the promise of things to come.
NAGLE. "He's a 22-year-old man with a 15-year-old brain."