Ricky Collins didn't know if he was going to play football again. Frankly, he didn't care.
Five games into his career at Midwestern State University, his world came crashing down when he learned that his father and namesake had suffered a stroke. He no longer was a wide receiver — he was a son.
Collins made the 41/2-hour trip from Wichita Falls, Texas, to his parents' home in Tyler, Texas, and vowed not to leave until his dad recovered. He knew the opportunity he was letting slip away, but it didn't matter.
"It was a reality check," said Collins, one of the Green Bay Packers' 18 undrafted rookies. "At the end of the day, that's my dad. He did everything to make sure I had everything I needed when I was younger growing up. He supported me all through football. I took it into a man's position where he needed help."
Collins didn't make the decision in haste. The 6-foot, 198-pound receiver worked hard to get to that point in his career. He had Division I talent coming out of John Tyler High School, but academic problems led him to Kilgore (Kan.) Junior College.
He played there for two seasons, catching 84 passes for 1,225 yards and nine touchdowns before committing to Midwestern. Collins started two of his five games at Midwestern and appeared to be catching on when he hauled in two passes for 68 yards in a 45-28 win over Texas A&M-Kingsville.
They turned out to be the last passes he'd catch for the Mustangs. A few weeks later, Collins was gone.
"I really wasn't thinking about football at the time because I was totally focused on taking care of my family and doing what I had to do there," Collins said. "If football came around … I was going to go back."
As his father recovered, Collins did his best to keep things together for his family. It was only when Ricky Sr. was released by his doctors that Collins felt comfortable enough to go back to school and give football another shot. The problem was finding a place to play.
Colby Carthel had just been named head coach at Texas A&M-Commerce, inheriting a program that had won four games in the three seasons before his arrival. Carthel was familiar with Collins because he recruited him during his time at West Texas A&M, where his father, Don, was the head coach.
Only about 11/2 hours from Tyler, Collins had friends and cousins who had played at the school. He reached out to Carthel and inquired about a comeback.
"I knew who he was and what he's about, so it was a no-brainer," Carthel said.
There was a catch, though. Midwestern State hadn't given him his release, so he wasn't eligible for the one-time transfer exemption. In order to switch Lone Star Conference schools, Collins would have to sit out a year and pay his own way through school.
Carthel showed Collins a picture in his office of New Orleans Saints running back Khiry Robinson, whom he coached at West Texas A&M. That was the only offer Robinson had out of junior college, but it's the only one he needed.
"You have a chance," Carthel told him. "But you have to do this. I can't help you scholarship-wise. You have to go to class. You have to take care of business, but if you do that maybe you can get a picture like that of you up in these offices."
It was risky. Collins had a lot responsibilities back home, including two children to provide for, but he bet on his ability and accepted A&M-Commerce's offer. Taking out student loans to get through his redshirt year, Collins split his time between textbooks and scout-team reps.
His ability on the practice field became something of legend. The Lions carry roughly 125 players on their roster, but only 60 travel with the team. The players who don't play on Saturdays take part in a Thursday night scrimmage, which Collins dominated during his redshirt year.
"I think we had 10 Thursday night football games and I think he was MVP nine times," Carthel said. "Throw Ricky a hitch. Throw Ricky a slant. Just throw it to Ricky and he would score. He'd make everybody on the field miss. He's an NFL receiver playing with a bunch of redshirt guys in D2 that aren't playing on Saturdays. It was a total mismatch."
The games kept Collins hungry and allowed him to get his speed and timing back after the year away from the game. He kept his grades up and was rewarded a scholarship for his senior year.
Once the season started, it was like Collins never left the field. Paired across from Vernon Johnson, who signed with Detroit as an undrafted free agent, Collins had at least 100 yards in seven of A&M-Commerce's 11 games and broke the school's single-season record with 14 touchdown receptions.
With Collins' family attending most home games, the Lions led the country in total offense (535.4 yards per game) and scoring (54.1 points per game). They capped a nine-win season with a 72-21 victory over East Central in the Heart of Texas Bowl.
As the yards piled up, NFL scouts started pouring in. The Packers brought Collins in for a predraft visit on the heels of his 1,187-yard season. Although he went undrafted, the Packers called shortly afterward to offer him an undrafted free-agent contract.
Ten minutes later, Collins was giving Carthel the good news.
"He had to make a lot of sacrifices, financially especially, and also with his time," Carthel said. "That's tough when you're 22 years old and you have two kids and you're broke and you're taking out $15-16,000 dollars in loans just to have a chance to play one more year. That's a great big sacrifice and roll of the dice.
"It's kind of a tribute to the chance he took, but he also put faith in himself that he was going to get it done and he did. Now, it's paying off for him."
It was a monumental year for A&M-Commerce, which had seven players either sign a professional contract or attend an NFL rookie camp on tryout. It's usually a good year if one or two players get the call.
There's a big difference between the NFC North and the Lone Star Conference, though. Collins faces stiff competition for a job, but Carthel believes in his persistence. He told many scouts that Collins could've been the best safety in the conference if the Lions needed him there. The same goes for special teams, where Collins occasionally played in a pinch.
"I think the Packers will have a hard time cutting him," Carthel said. "There's nothing physically that he can't do in terms of the NFL game."
Collins worked hard to get his football career back on track. With his father and family cheering him on from Texas, he's focused on maximizing the opportunity before him and providing for his family.
Collins may have given up football for a year, but he never quit on his dream.
"It meant a lot for me," Collins said. "Coming from a small town and then having to stop playing football to take care of my dad and still end up getting this chance to be in the NFL is something that everybody doesn't get — they just dream of it."
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