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GREEN BAY - Nick Collins closes his eyes, and he’s kneeling in AT&T Stadium’s end zone all over again. The crowd roars. Cameras flash. One hundred million people watch.

More than six years have passed. A lifetime. His Super Bowl memory hasn’t faded. Collins can tell you all about that interception against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the weaving, 37-yard touchdown return that followed.

He remembers the media day snub during Super Bowl week, when hardly any reporters stopped by his booth to ask questions, pushing Collins to believe he better make a play in the game to make a name for himself. The feeling as he watched Roethlisberger’s pass flutter.

The relief once he finally crossed the goal line.

“It took so long,” Collins said. “Like, that was the longest ball ever. I’m like, ‘Please don’t drop it. Please don’t drop it. … OK, let’s go.’ Made a couple moves to get into the end zone.

“That moment, it was just unreal.”

This was the defining moment of his career. The pinnacle for a man who seemed destined for Canton. Collins was 27 years old. He was a second-team All-Pro each of his previous three seasons.

There was no way to know he’d play only two more games.

Football shows no favorites. It can be stripped from anybody. If Collins remembers making the biggest play in Super Bowl XLV, he’ll never forget what happened the next fall.

On an otherwise mundane Sunday afternoon, Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart hurdled A.J. Hawk. Collins lunged to tackle. Thwack. His head smacked Stewart’s backside.

A herniated disc between his C3/C4 vertebrae stole Collins’ career at age 28. He was entering his prime, still getting better. There was endless potential.

“Without question,” former teammate Charles Woodson said, “we would’ve been talking about Nick for the NFL hall of fame. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Woodson, himself a future Hall of Famer, presented Collins for induction in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame on Saturday night. The evening became a celebration of the franchise’s last Super Bowl title. Joining Collins was longtime left tackle Chad Clifton, presented by offensive line coach James Campen. Russ Winnie III represented his grandfather, former Packers play-by-play announcer Russ Winnie Sr.

Collins admitted he once considered his potential enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With better fortune, maybe his career would’ve ended there. But Collins didn’t complain. In a career cut too short, his induction showed Collins wasn’t alone in remembering what he meant to the organization.

“If there’s no Canton,” Collins said, “this is the best place to go into the hall of fame, here in Green Bay. This organization is top of the line, and I’m just grateful that I had a chance to play all my years here. I wouldn’t change it for nothing. I have no regrets. I’m just blessed to be here right now.”

They were two pillars in that Super Bowl champion team, Collins and Clifton. One a difference-making safety, the other a franchise left tackle. Clifton made two Pro Bowls in his 12-year career, starting 160 of his 165 games. He bridged the transition from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, protecting both quarterbacks’ blindsides.

Clifton couldn’t believe the hall-of-fame honor when he first got the call. At the time, he joked, his initial thought was former teammate Mark Tauscher must be pulling a prank. Instead, Clifton received the same distinction given to his former quarterback last year.

In two weeks, Clifton will watch as Favre is enshrined in Canton.

“There’s a lot of moments with Brett,” Clifton said. “It’s hard just to pick one. The thing that I say to people is, playing with Brett Favre was like playing sandlot football. You always saw the passion and the fun he was having with the game. It was evident to everyone – not just the players, but the fans as well.

“That rubbed off on a lot of guys, a lot of players. He made this game a lot of fun. He was a great teammate. So him going into Canton is a well-earned honor for sure.”

Collins never had a chance to match Clifton’s longevity, but few safeties in Packers history matched his career’s apex. In his final three full seasons, he had 17 of his 21 interceptions. He defended 40 passes from 2008-10, and played each game in those three years.

His Super Bowl touchdown became the final interception of his career.

For years, Collins said, he lived in denial. He continued working out, continued to hope. Each year, the NFL drifted further and further from being an attainable goal.

In time, Collins learned how to leave regrets behind. Where is his mind at today?

“At peace,” Collins said. “I’m at peace. There was a time I was thinking I could still do it. I was training, doing everything I can to give back to the game, and it just didn’t happen. One day I just said, ‘Forget it.’ Just to be around my kids on a day-to-day basis, it’s quite amazing.

“I’m at peace with that.”

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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