Catching up with ... Gary Collins
By Mike Klingaman
At 71, but Gary Collins won’t slow down. Drive through Hershey, Pa. in summer and you'll find the Maryland football great mowing lawns and mulching trees to help with his son's landscaping business.
Passersby don’t know that the oldtimer pruning shrubs and planting roses was a consensus All-American receiver for the Terps, a first-round NFL draft pick and the star of the Cleveland Browns' 27-0 upset of the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 title game. Nor does Collins toot his horn.
“I don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘Geez, I was a really good football player, and we shut out the Colts for the NFL championship, and I ought to be in the Hall of Fame,’” Collins said. “All of that ego stuff is gone. Why mow lawns and whack weeds 10 hours a day, five days a week? I’m helping my son. Plus, it keeps me in shape.”
Has it been 50 years since Collins, then a two-way end and punter, carried Maryland on his back? Week after week, he found ways to win games for the underdog Terps, who went 18-12 during his three varsity years (1959-61).
The Terps’ Tom Nugent called Collins “the finest player I’ve ever coached. He produces in the clutch and has never failed me whenever I asked him to do something special.”
Against North Carolina State, Collins (1) picked off a Roman Gabriel pass, (2) landed a punt six inches from the goal line, and (3) blocked an enemy punt, in the end zone, that a Maryland teammate fell on for a score. And in a 22-21 upset of Syracuse, Collins made a spectacular catch of a two-point conversion to win it. Earlier, on defense, he’d twice stopped All-American Ernie Davis on consecutive plunges at the Terps’ one-yard line.
Though violently ill against Penn State, Collins responded by leading Maryland to a 21-17 win in 1961, the Terps’ only triumph in their 37-game series. Double-teamed all day, he had six receptions, including one on which he dragged defenders for three yards to the end zone. On defense, he saved a Penn State score by running down a ball carrier from behind. Collins also punted six times, against the top-rated team in the East, for a lusty 46.5-yard average.
“I was sicker than a dog in that game,” Collins recalled. “I’d go onto the field, do something, and then come out and barf. Afterward, a Penn State player told me, ‘You’re a good player, but do us a favor and quit all of that acting on the sideline.’ “
It wasn’t his choice to play both ways, Collins said, but platooning was not yet in vogue.
“I didn’t like playing defense, but in the old days, you played 59-1/2 minutes,” he said. “Compared to now, the game was inhumane. Players speared you when you were down, and hacked at your head even after you were out of bounds.
“Conditions were prehistoric — and unsanitary. Clemson had no bathroom facilities at halftime; you stayed by the field and went in your pants. And when you wanted water, everyone drank from a ladle that had snot and boogers hanging off of it.
“Nowadays, every time guys come out of the game, someone squirts Gatorade into their mouths. Players don’t even have to squeeze the bottle.”
A native of Williamstown, Pa., Collins wore No. 82 in college, a nod to his role model, the Colts’ Raymond Berry.
“I copied his style of running pass patterns,” he said. “I was a bigger, slightly faster version of Raymond. Both of us could separate (from defenders), and both of us could catch.
“When I got to Cleveland, Berry found me after an exhibition game and told me how I’d improved on the style that he’d started. I felt pretty damn good about that.”
The fourth player selected in the 1962 NFL draft, Collins thrived in Cleveland, despite deferring to Hall of Fame runners Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly. He played in two Pro Bowls, led the league in punting in 1965 and still holds the Browns’ record for career touchdown receptions (70). He caught 331 passes and knows exactly how many he dropped.
“Seven,” he said. “And three of them were in a sleet storm.”
Baltimore fans remember Collins for having whomped the favored Colts in the 1964 championship. Three times in the second half, he caught TD passes from Frank Ryan to turn a scoreless tie into a rout.
His last reception (51 yards) was a dilly: The 6-4 Collins caught the ball at the 15, with the Colts’ Bobby Boyd draped on his back, then shed the 5-10 defender and scored.
“The Colts were the better team, but not that day,” Collins said. “They’d probably have beaten us 8 of 10 times. We played a near flawless game.”
He drove off in a bright red Corvette, given to the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Collins retired in 1971. Since then, he has coached briefly at Lebanon Valley College (Pa.) and in the World Football League, run a sporting goods store near Hershey, done some broadcasting and sold life insurance. Married 31 years, he has two sons and six grandchildren, one of whom wears his old Maryland jersey at times.
Three months ago, Collins phoned Art Modell, former owner of the Browns and Baltimore Ravens. The two men hadn’t spoken in years and, answering the call, Modell broke down.
“Art started crying,” said Collins. “He said, ‘You were my first draft pick when I became Browns’ president (in 1961).’ Then he invited me to a Ravens’ practice.
“I said, ‘Art, I don’t know if that would look good in Cleveland.’
“But maybe I’ll go, anyway.”