Tony Collins: "I just want kids to make the right choices"
When Tony Collins says the word "opportunity," his entire face lights up, and the enthusiasm for his new life path seems to take over his entire being.
Collins, the former Penn Yan Mustang and New England Patriots star running back, has clearly found his place in the world, and he couldn't be happier. The broken road he followed to reach this place where he has found such joy took him from the pinnacle of professional sports to some deep valleys of despair.
Now, he's hoping his story will help others — especially young people, and in particular young athletes striving for a place in a professional arena — see the pitfalls and opportunities placed in their life paths by their own choices.
"I just want kids to make the right choices," he says. "I truly believe if I had somebody say to me, 'You've got to stay away from drugs when you get to the NFL' things would be different... I didn't have a plan B. I didn't have a plan C. Now, was I prepared? I was not prepared."
Collins says the NFL and NCAA are both doing a better job keeping young players on course, but players are still making bad choices.
In November Collins released his book, "Broken Road — Turning My Mess Into a Message." The book is his narrative of his life so far. It begins with a striking scene in which he visualizes the spectre of death through the fog of a drug binge in a community where he had cut ties with his successful past in Penn Yan, North Carolina and New England.
Collins spares few demoralizing details as he tells about the bad choices he made, the opportunities that those choices presented, and the pieces that finally fell into place in his life when he met his wife, Trudy — "his angel."
While he was in his hometown Penn Yan in early December to sign copies of the book, Collins spent part of an afternoon talking about the book, his career, his hometown, and his future.
The man whose only thoughts from age 9 through a great NCAA Division I football career were to play in the NFL now talks about the excitement he feels in anticipation of one of his motivational speaking engagements.
"For me now, going to speak is like going to a football game. You get the butterflies and you get excited because you want to do well, and you want the people to receive you. It's the same feeling that I had when I was a young kid and I was talking about getting into the NFL, now I want to help as many people as I can," he explains.
For the past five years, Collins has been returning to his Finger Lakes hometown to share the lessons he's learned painfully, and to raise funds to give back to the small town that cheered him through junior football, a high school state championship and a Super Bowl.
Each July, he and some of his former Penn Yan Academy classmates and Mustang football teammates organize the Tony Collins Class of '77 Golf Classic, which raises funds for youth programs in the community. The event brings other former big names from the NFL to Penn Yan who share their own encouragement for youngsters of all ages and abilities and their parents.
He has his eyes set on a goal to raise $1 million through his foundation to benefit the community he calls home. The foundation is working on establishing major sponsorships, and he's convinced reaching his new goal line will not take long, once the ball is in the right hands.
Returning to Penn Yan was one of the most difficult things he faced after finally recovering from a lengthy personal slide that became very public when drug use essentially ended his NFL career, and the related lifestyle choices broke his soul and his family.
"I was so ashamed. I felt that everybody was so disappointed in me that I didn't want to show my face. I didn't come back to Penn Yan because I felt that I had let everybody down. I didn't go back to East Carolina, I didn't go back to Boston. I cut all my ties with former players," he said. But a phone call from Penn Yan Academy classmate Pam Griffith and encouragement from Trudy pushed him to come home and face whatever came his way.
"When I first got back (to Penn Yan), I didn't know what to expect, but I got nothing but love," he says, quickly adding with a chuckle that maybe many people in Penn Yan forgot about the troubles he'd had.
But those troubles will always be a part of his life, and he's determined to use them to help others.
"The choices that we make can hurt a lot of people, and I hurt a lot of people. I mean I really did. I know for a fact that God has forgiven me," he says, adding, "Every person that I've hurt, I've tried to go back and call them, and I hope God brings back to my memory people that I've hurt... I want to have a chance to apologize for hurting them. If people can't forgive me, that's between them and God."
So one of Collins' messages for youngsters is a simple one. It's one his father told him when he was just an energetic Penn Yan kid dreaming about a career in the NFL.
Collins explains: "He came to me one day and said, 'Son, do you really want to be successful?' I said 'Yeah.' He said. 'If you do this one thing, it guarantees your success: Obey your mother and father. And he walked out of the room. That was it. I didn't get it then. I didn't get it at 9... So I was guaranteed to be successful just by obeying my parents, and that's hard to get into these kids heads," he says.
Collins says the message from his mess is that everyone has an opportunity to be successful. "What you do with that opportunity is totally up to you," he adds.
Sports writer Bethany Bradsher worked with Collins on the book. While working with Collins, Bradsher was struck by Collins' candor. "I love how honest he was from the very beginning. He talked about how he was not thinking properly."
Bradsher, who has written two other sports-related books, says Collins set the bar high for a biographical work. "His story is phenomenal," she says.
Explaining the decisions to begin the book at such a dark point in his life, Bradsher says a chronological approach is often preferred, but she and Collins agreed to start with something that would grab the reader's attention.
There was discussion about using a football action photo on the cover, but the designer recommended a current image. Then, it was natural to choose the starting point. "How did he become the guy that's standing on the cover?" she explains.
Collins said the idea to begin the story there was, "Let's just show people how God can change things for you, and how one person can say encouraging words to you and change the way you are thinking. And that's what this book is about. I want to change the way people think... especially young people in understanding how important choices are (and) how important it is to surround yourself with good people."
"God doesn't give you things, he gives you opportunities," Collins continues, adding, "I believe that every mistake you make creates an opportunity. First - to learn, then to get stronger, but it creates an opportunity for you to help someone not make the same mistake. I chose the road I went down and God just kept giving me chance after chance after chance."
"Tony's enthusiasm is contagious. He is truly an inspiration!" says Nancy Nielsen, a PYA classmate who has read the book.
Penn Yan School Board Member Kathy Guenther told Collins the first chapter of his book moved her to tears, and she plans to donate copies of the book to the Penn Yan Academy library.
Now, as Collins continues to reconnect with Penn Yan, Foxborough and East Carolina, and as he takes his message to other communities, he hopes he can make a difference in someone's life, and his face lights up and his voice dances with joy at the thought of those opportunities that lie ahead. Then, his voice softens, and in reverence at the thought of his wife, he adds, "It took one person to help me change my life. It takes one person to change someone's life."
PENN YAN — Christmas for the Needy has had its most successful year yet, and has expanded to meet the growing need. In addition to the toys and clothing at the Army Reserve Center and the food at the First Baptist Church, good second-hand clothing was offered at the Presbyterian Church, and a third day of food distribution was added to the schedule.
One of the organizers, Rachel Andersen says, "We had 355 families come through the armory, representing 1,576 people, including 895 children. We had 15 families that cancelled or were no-shows, but that was balanced out by 17 walk-in families."
George Schaeffer, responsible for food distribution at the First Baptist Church, says that a rough count showed a total of 590 families came through Wednesday through Friday, with an average of four people per family. The Presbyterian site was also very well attended.
Matriarch of the movement, Milly Bloomquist, 95, was a central figure and in fine health and spirits. About 25 Penn Yan Academy students and 18 from Dundee High School took this time from their studies to carry and fetch for the visitors and the older volunteers.
Volunteer Linda Raide says the visitors expressed how much better the displays and flow of people at the armory was this year. "They said they felt like they were really shopping, and were very glad to come into a reception room rather than standing in the cold for hours." Much of the credit for that success goes to new volunteers like Andersen and Donna Johnston, who have brought fresh eyes and organizational skills to the effort.
About Tony Collins
Anthony Collins, who was inducted into the Penn Yan Academy Sports Hall of Fame in September 2012, was also inducted into the East Carolina University Hall of Fame in 2012.
A member of the Penn Yan Mustang football team in the 1970's, he was drafted by the New England Patriots in the second round of the the 1981 NFL draft. He spent nine seasons in the NFL with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins. His successful career was highlighted by a Pro Bowl selection in 1983, a single-game rushing record of 212 yards for the Patriots, and a trip to Super Bowl XX.
Although Tony did not complete his undergraduate degree during his initial time at East Carolina, realizing the value of an education, he has since gone back to school to pursue his bachelor's degree in communications. Through his experience as a parent of eight and his charitable work with the "Tony Collins Foundation," Tony has developed a deep appreciation for the advantages athletics and academics can provide and hopes to spread that message to families around the country.
He is an engaging motivational speaker whose message appeals to all ages.
He lives with his wife Trudy and their family near Greenville, N.C.
For more information about Tony Collins and the Foundation, visit www.tonycollinsfoundation.com.