Pulling to the outside, La’el Collins sent the Pro Bowl linebacker in front of him sprawling with a devastating hit. Without breaking stride, he lined up the Pro Bowl safety and rocked him, too, blowing him out of the play and very nearly into the third row of the stands.
If Looney Tunes had imagined offensive line play, this is what it would have looked like. But instead of Wile E. Coyote and Sylvester the Cat, the fall guys were Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas, star players known for delivering blows, not taking them.
It was only one snap of the ball, but with it, everything changed in our perception of Collins. The 22-year-old undrafted rookie out of LSU, playing left guard and making just his second start for a Cowboys team swirling in controversy, had previously seemed as inconspicuous as a 6’4″, 315-pound man can be. Now he was the man who did this:
When Collins got back to his locker at AT&T Stadium after the game, he checked his cell phone and found an inordinate number of texts and voicemails. Everyone wanted him to see the blocks. Collins saw that the Vine of the play had already been viewed 60,000 times.
Those two blocks are destined to become part of Cowboys folklore. The play was a stunning rite of passage, like Tony Romo’s five-touchdown-pass performance against the Bucs in 2006.
Even hardened coaches were in awe. Cowboys offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who has been part of the NFL for 19 years as a player and coach, told co-workers the play was one of the best he had ever seen.
“This is the NFL, and that doesn’t happen often,” Pollack said. “That is not the norm.”
Six months ago, it was Collins who was sent sprawling. But the blow did not come from an opposing defender.
Collins and family members flew to Chicago in anticipation of Collins walking across the stage to embrace Roger Goodell as a first-round draft pick. It was supposed to be one of the proudest days in family history.
One week earlier, though, 29-year-old Brittney Mills had been shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She was eight months pregnant. Her son was delivered, but he eventually died as well, and it subsequently was ruled a double homicide. Collins said he knew Mills as a friend but that they never dated. Mills suspected Collins may have been the father of the baby. Investigators wanted to talk with Collins about the murder.
Not only would he not be walking across the stage, but he also would not be drafted in the first round. Or the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh rounds. Forty-six names of offensive linemen were called during the draft, and none of them were La’el Collins. He had become a risk that no NFL team was willing to take.
Collins was devastated.
How was I supposed to feel?” he said. “I was stuck in cement.”
The week after the draft, Collins met with investigators and took a paternity test. It turned out he was neither a suspect nor a father. But he was about to become the most sought-after undrafted free agent in history.
His agent, Deryk Gilmore of Priority Sports, estimates he was contacted by at least 25 interested teams. Gilmore and co-agent Darren Jones studied every team, considering offensive schemes, offensive line coaches and opportunities to start. He even enlisted Giants guard Geoff Schwartz, also a Priority Sports client, to help in the research project.
They whittled down the list to 16 teams, then eight, and then they chose the finalists: the Bucs, Chargers, Cowboys, Dolphins, Falcons and Giants.
The Dolphins were one of seven teams Collins had visited in the predraft process, and they had left an impression. Before Collins could make his first post-draft move, Jarvis Landry, his old LSU teammate, came to visit along with Dolphins teammates Anthony Johnson, Mike Pouncey and Kelvin Sheppard.
“I told him how lovely it would be if he and his mother would come to the great state of Florida,” Landry said. “And I was trying to support him through a trying time.”
Collins made travel arrangements to visit the Dolphins—and the other team he was most interested in, the Cowboys.
And so Collins found himself in the dining room of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, taking in steak, shrimp and sweet nothings from Jones, his son Stephen Jones, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, Pollack, Romo, tight end Jason Witten and Pro Bowl offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick.
“It was a difference-maker, having the owner of the team welcome you into his home with open arms,” Collins said. “It felt like a big family.”
Collins and Smith had a shared history because Smith had been Collins’ host when he visited USC as a high school recruit. Collins had spent nearly three hours on the phone with Pollack prior to the combine. Even though offensive line was not a draft priority for the Cowboys, Collins was the 27th-highest-rated player on the Cowboys’ board, according to Stephen Jones.
At the dinner, Jerry Jones made a point of sitting next to La’el’s mother, Loyetta Collins, and being in her ear all night.
“Barry [Switzer] always told him, ‘Recruit the momma,'” Stephen said. “He recruited the heck out of her.”
Stephen, meanwhile, presented information from the Cowboys’ marketing arm about the popularity of the team: The team has the NFL’s most viewed website; the team is the most mentioned team on Twitter; the team is the perennial league leader in national TV appearances and so on.
They talked into the night about Collins’ opportunity to be part of a special offensive line. This is Smith’s team, and Martin’s team, and Frederick’s team. But it’s also Larry Allen’s team, and Rayfield Wright’s team. You can look up and see their names in the Ring of Honor at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys have a proud tradition of making space for their runners and giving their quarterbacks time to be heroes.
Stephen spoke of the history of the franchise and what it means to be a Dallas Cowboy. It resonated with Collins.
Jerry and Stephen Jones wanted to ensure Collins’ plane ticket to Miami the next day went unused. They set up a meeting the next morning with Collins, his mother and Gilmore at their hotel and arranged a phone call with Collins’ coach at LSU, Les Miles, who coincidentally was a former Cowboys assistant. Miles told Collins what he thought of the organization.
“Les is a big fan of ours, and he knows we do things the right way,” Stephen said.
And they kept working Loyetta. They had learned she had volunteered for the Salvation Army, so they brought along another member of the family—Charlotte Jones Anderson, Jerry’s daughter and former chairman of the Salvation Army’s National Advisory Board.
Collins wanted to be a Cowboy. And perhaps as important, Loyetta wanted him to be a Cowboy. There would be no trip to Miami.
The Cowboys had to look the other way and compromise integrity when they signed Greg Hardy and others. That was not the case with Collins. Miles, who had made him a captain at LSU, raved about his character to NFL teams.
Collins was an Eagle Scout. It’s difficult to find many missteps in his childhood, unless you want to investigate the time he received a detention for playing pencil pop. He sassed his momma once when he was a teenager. She chased him down and broke a broomstick over his back. He never sassed her again.
“La’el never has been a disrespectful kid or a kid who would use a lot of profanity,” said Raule Collins, Loyetta’s brother and a Houston police officer. “I’ve never had to spank my nephew, never. You bring him to your house, he’d make up the bed, wash the dishes. He was mature for his age because he would watch over his siblings and his nieces and nephews.”
Teammates say Collins keeps his head down and works hard. Some rookies might balk at showing up at 6:30 a.m. for the offensive line’s voluntary lifting session. Collins is there every morning without complaint.
“He works the right way,” Martin said. “He pays attention. He’s good in the meetings. You can tell he wants to get better.”
Collins is just following his mother’s example. Loyetta sometimes worked multiple jobs, including as a prison guard and pizza delivery driver. She currently is a security guard at a casino.
It hasn’t been easy to be a rookie on the Cowboys this season. The stench of the Hardy situation permeates the locker room. The team is gripped with tension.
One recent day, wide receiver Dez Bryant went off on reporters in the locker room in a profanity-laced tirade. Collins was being interviewed at the time. He stopped, looked over at Bryant and calmly asked if the reporter would mind relocating to another area where the racket would not be so obtrusive.
He is moving with the right crowd.
“One thing about this offensive line I really love is when things happen around this program, these guys, they never allow things to rattle them,” he said. “They always stay calm. That’s one thing we preach on a daily basis in this room.”
In his early days with the Cowboys, Collins experienced frustration and disappointment. He wanted to play tackle, but the Cowboys wanted him at guard. Through training camp, preseason and the first five games of the year, he was second on the depth chart to Ron Leary.
Collins leaned on his faith and worked through it, just as he worked through the dismay of not being drafted.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not how he acts when everything is great,” he said. “It’s what he does when he faces trials and tribulations and adversity.”
One of the reasons the Cowboys were reluctant to play Collins early is he sometimes would lunge and get overaggressive in pass protection. Stephen Jones said the team was more concerned about protecting Romo than developing Collins. But once Romo was sidelined with a broken clavicle, the emphasis switched to getting more out of the run game. Collins was given his chance.
Since Collins was promoted four games ago, the Cowboys have averaged 4.4 yards per carry. In the previous five games, they averaged 4.1.
Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
“Absolutely La’el deserves some credit for that,” Stephen Jones said. “He’s a better run-blocker, a better athlete and better at getting to the second level.”
Running back Darren McFadden has worked well in tandem with Collins.
“You know once you get behind him, you feel a lot safer,” McFadden said.
Collins’ pass protection remains a work in progress, but his ability to run and pull is rare. He has the instinct and athleticism to hunt down his target, and then he has the punch to obliterate it, as evidenced in the block that launched his career.
“That block,” Collins said, “is the nature of who I am.”
Pollack frequently feels an unusual jolt of power reverberate through his body when he holds up a big blue pad for Collins to attack in drills. “He really is heavy-handed,” Pollack said.
Offensive linemen like Collins are valuable commodities. But as an undrafted free agent, he was forced to accept a three-year contract with an average annual salary of $533,167. Gilmore estimates the murder might have cost his client between $14 and $20 million. He is fairly certain Collins would not have dropped past the Giants, who had the ninth pick. Their selection, offensive lineman Ereck Flowers, signed a four-year contract worth more than $14 million.
A budget, monitored by his agents, now is a part of Collins’ reality. He took out a loan for a disability insurance policy before his senior season and is paying back the $64,000. He took out another loan in the six-figure vicinity before the draft. That is being repaid as well.
He had dreams of buying a Mercedes G63 AMG, which would have cost him a minimum of about $140,000. He even drove one before the draft. Instead, he bought a Ford F150, which can be had for about $100,000 less.
To supplement his NFL paycheck, Collins takes advantage of whatever marketing opportunities come his way. Autograph signings, appearances, youth camps—he’s game for just about anything.
He is philosophical about what could have been.
“I know life would have been completely different,” he said. “I would have been able to really help out my family like I wanted to, not just things here and there. I could have set myself and my future family up for the rest of our lives. So I have to learn how to be more conservative, spend less and appreciate it more.
“I can’t say, ‘This could have happened, that could have happened.’ For me, it’s motivation. I know one day things will be where they should be.”
For now, though, he is a steal for the Cowboys.
“I don’t know when you’ll ever see this situation again,” Stephen Jones said. “We benefited from something very unfortunate.”
D.D. Lewis was a Cowboys linebacker from 1968 through 1981. He was a team captain and played in 27 playoff games and five Super Bowls. But his most enduring contribution to team history may have been his observation that the hole in the roof of the old Texas Stadium was there so God could watch his favorite team.
If what he said is true and America’s Team still is favored despite dancing with devils, then Collins’ presence can be understood.
His first name, translated from Hebrew, means “belonging to God.”
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.