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October 8, 2013

Faith and football come into focus for Collins

By: Jimmy Robertson

A rededication to faith has enabled Tech defensive end J.R. Collins to turn his game and his life in a positive direction

J.R. Collins played the best game of his career with his two-sack, seven-hurry performance in the Hokies’ win over Marshall.

He spotted her from a distance, and the young woman timidly approached him.

He had wanted this exact moment, an opportunity not just to help others, but also to expand his faith and to grow as a person. He wanted to learn more about being a leader, the type willing to do a job and willing to tell others how to do it and help them along the way.

The location was “Skid Row,” America’s hometown for the homeless, and J.R. Collins was there with Athletes in Action, a group of Christian athletes who use sports as a platform to spread the gospel.

But at this moment, Collins was alone, thousands of miles from home and the comfort of those whom he knew. This spot in Los Angeles serves as the home for the highest concentration of homeless people in the United States, the place where dumpster diving is imperative for survival, and Collins was about to meet one of its citizens.

This reserved young man, nearly 2,000 miles from his hometown of Stafford, Va., and his own sheltered world, was understandably nervous.

“She was probably in her late 20s,” Collins said. “She told me a little bit about herself. She shared a story about how she turned dates for money and how she wanted to change her life.

“She asked me for some money because it was Father’s Day and she wanted to go see her dad. I gave her some information about the homeless shelters that feed people weekly, and I gave her $5 to catch the bus. I didn’t want to question her, so I just gave her the money. That’s what felt right.”

It also felt good, as it so often does when one helps another. The chance encounter left him feeling humbled. The trip did as well.

This was a new feeling for Collins, who readily admits that he hasn’t always been one to appreciate his own opportunities. Last season’s disaster on the football field opened his eyes to what he was missing. His summer trip to California only reaffirmed it.

“Going to Cali [California], I saw that some of them don’t have the access to the things I had or the resources, and they’re not doing the things I’m doing because they don’t have the opportunity,” he said. “I was humbled – again.”

With those experiences under his belt, he’s taken advantage of his senior season so far, and he feels fortunate.

It was an opportunity that he almost didn’t get.

In the past, Collins had always been one to appreciate opportunities. He learned as a kid not to take things for granted.

That lesson came about primarily because of his father’s career choice, and later, his older sister’s.

Lanford Collins, who, according to J.R., played football at Mississippi Valley State and later tried out for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, joined the U.S. Army reserves after getting cut by the Buccaneers. His military obligations eventually took the family from Mississippi to Northern Virginia to be closer to government agencies and the Pentagon.

J.R. developed an appreciation for those who serve in the military and an understanding of the sacrifice that those people and their families make, particularly in light of what transpired on Sept. 11, 2001. Lanford Collins often worked in the Pentagon, but fortunately wasn’t there that day when terrorists hijacked a plane taking off from Dulles International Airport and flew it into the building.

“He wasn’t in it, but he took pictures as he was driving away from it,” J.R. said.

Lanford Collins has traveled all over the world. He spent time in Korea, and he also served two tours in Iraq. One of those stints came during J.R.’s freshman year of high school and the other came during his senior year.

J.R. and his siblings – an older sister and a younger sister and brother – grew used to seeing their father leave for long stints. Their mother, Connie, did her best to reassure them, especially during the Iraq tours. They watched little in the way of national news and rarely read the newspapers. They feared becoming paralyzed with fear.

“We were definitely worried because he was over in Iraq, and there were guns and bombs everywhere,” Collins said. “You never know what’s going to happen. You’re hoping for the best.

“He told me some bombs went off close to him, but he doesn’t really talk about what happened. We were used to him being gone. One time, he went to Korea for about six or eight months, so him being away was something we were used to. But with him being in Iraq … you hear everything on TV that was going on, and you think, ‘Why does this have to be happening to my dad?’”

Collins’ older sister also joined the U.S. Army reserves and left the family home in Northern Virginia. Today, she is currently in Germany. So the family knows a lot about sacrifice.

To keep his mind off the potential dangers that his father and older sister faced, he decided to stay active. That meant playing football, lots of it.

He developed into a 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive end. His final two years at Brooke Point High School, he recorded 16 sacks and 24 tackles for a loss.

Collins visited Penn State and BC. But he didn’t want to stray too far from home, so he ended up choosing Tech.

“At first, I didn’t know what to think when picking a college,” he said. “But it came down to staying in Virginia and being at a school that I knew had some success. Isaiah Hamlette [a former Tech defensive tackle who played with Collins at Brooke Point High] was going to school here and Jake Johnson [a former Tech linebacker who played against Collins while at Stafford High] was here. There were two people I knew I could connect with and get some information from. They all said that the program wasn’t the No. 1 program, but they see it being a powerhouse in the years to come.

“And Coach [Bud] Foster was a big reason. He’s a good defensive coordinator, and I wanted to play on a good defense.”

Collins was going to be a college football player, just like his dad. Could he be the same type of leader?

Collins’ career at Tech kicked off in the right way. After a redshirting season, he played in 13 games as a redshirt freshman, starting one. The next season, he won the starting job and finished with 57 tackles, including 9.5 for a loss, and six sacks. For that, he earned honorable mention All-ACC honors.

“The year before [his redshirt freshman year], I had some experience, but I wasn’t really counted on to be the No. 1 guy,” he said. “I think that helped because I wasn’t all the way there yet. The second year, I was able to use what I had learned the previous year. I had a little bit of success. It was a lot of fun playing out there and being a starter. Me and James [Gayle], we competed a lot, and when we both got the starting job, it was fun, on the field and off the field. We hung out a lot.”

His career trajectory seemed to be going upward. But something happened last year.

Collins played decently in 2012, but not great. He certainly did not take the next step in the usual progression of a player. In fact, he probably took a step back.

Collins’ numbers were down in every statistical category. He started seven straight games early in the season, but after the Hokies’ 38-17 loss to Clemson, he lost his starting job. He gained too much weight during the season and found himself moved to defensive tackle. He started arriving late to position meetings and appeared too tired to pay attention.

The changes mystified the coaches, and maybe to an extent, Collins himself. Looking back, he chalked up last season to being immature.

“Yeah, I wasn’t as mature as I am this season,” he said. “All the things Coach Foster said to watch out for, the minute you start feeling good about yourself, someone knocks you on the your butt. I didn’t think that was me, but it was. I was feeling too good about myself.

“Last year, I felt I didn’t have a horrible season, but at the same time, there were plays that I could have made if I had taken things more seriously. Just practicing hard and taking it one day at a time. I think I was so worried about stats and all that, and I wasn’t getting the little things done. It was definitely a lesson learned last year.”

Things came to a head shortly before the end of the regular season. Late one time too many, he received a summons to head coach Frank Beamer’s office. Beamer gave him an ultimatum – show up late for anything else and stay home for the bowl game.

Collins survived the rest of the season, but at its conclusion, vowed to change.

Part of Collins’ rebuilding of himself started with getting into shape. He lost 27 pounds over the spring and summer in preparation for this season.

Part of it involved finishing his classwork toward his degree in human development. He took care of all his academic responsibilities this spring, and in May, received that degree to eliminate a lot of stress.

Part of it came from weekly meetings with former team chaplain Johnny Shelton. Collins, like many people, had strayed from his faith. Shelton helped him find the path and provided him with a voice to encourage him to stay on it.

But the biggest part of Collins’ personal reclamation project came when he made the decision to take that trip with Athletes in Action to Los Angeles this past June. He got away from football for the first time in his life – and got back to faith.

“I wanted to take some time off from football and focus in on developing my faith,” Collins said. “I felt a lot of times in my career that I was focused on football and getting to the next level, and I wasn’t taking care of the little things, or taking care of what was important. Going there showed me that I was taking a lot of the resources here for granted.”

The trip involved working with underprivileged children at various recreational centers throughout the city. Collins found himself chosen to be a leader of a group of six that mentored those children.

The group also went to Skid Row, the area with a large homeless population, and to MacArthur Park, an area that has been the location of gang violence. Collins witnessed a different world, one that made him appreciative of the one he currently lives in.

Perhaps that serves as the reason for his dominance on the field for the Hokies this season. He already has more sacks than last season, and his performance against Marshall earned him 73 points on the coaches’ grading scale – the most ever by a defensive player since the staff implemented this scale.

“Coming from the depths he came from, he has flipped it 180,” Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “It’s been a good story. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

But for Collins, the story hasn’t ended. The conclusion hasn’t been written.

He is in discussions with the Blacksburg Recreation Center in hopes of working one day a week as a mentor. He also hopes one day to run his own rec center back in Stafford County.

“I’d like to make something where kids could go and play sports and get some tutoring – something like what we have here [at Tech],” Collins said. “That way, a lot more guys could go to college instead of being at home not doing anything. It would give them something to do because we don’t really have an area for sports [in Stafford County]. I’d love to coach at my high school and be the head coach. Eventually, that would be nice.”

He wants to help young children grow, go to college and realize the opportunities that he has realized in his time at Tech. This summer, he saw the alternative. It came in the form of a young, homeless woman on a street in Los Angeles.

The image still remains. The impact will last forever.