FOXBORO — Tony Collins rolled up more than 7,000 all-purpose yards as an elite running back for the New England Patriots during the 1980s.
But at the height of his powers, cocaine and injuries cost him his career and sent him down a path of substance abuse that lasted more than a decade. Collins, who now appears as a motivational speaker for school groups around the country, spoke to students on Thursday at Foxboro High School about life, the pressures of stardom and making good choices.
“The choices you make are important,” said Collins, a former Pro Bowler who scored 44 touchdowns in the NFL. “Your choices can hurt a lot of people. My mom, my dad and a lot of other people were hurt because of the choices I made.”
Collins urged teens to obey their parents, hang out with “good people” and work hard as students and athletes as part of a recipe for success.
Collins, who also played one season for the Miami Dolphins, was suspended from the NFL after testing positive for drugs. He was later reinstated but never regained the form that had made him a premier running back. The former NFL star shares his story in his book “Broken Roads” following his life from his upbringing in North Carolina to the NFL, addiction and recovery.
Collins said he had only one dream since the age of nine, the 15th of 16 children in his family.
“I remember I told my mother I was going to be in the NFL, not that I wanted to be but that I was going to be,” he said. Collins would stay in the backyard long after his older brothers had gone in the house, cradling a football under his arm and running back and forth eluding invisible tacklers.
In high school and college, he strove to spend more time in the weight room than anyone else, to be first on the field and last off it. Holder of multiple records at East Carolina University, he was drafted in the second round by the Patriots in 1981 and became an instant starter.
But while success seemed to come easily to the young man from ECU, injuries began to take their toll. Collins began taking pain killers for his neck, but found they nauseated him. A friend recommended marijuana, which seemed to relieve his discomfort. But it wasn’t enough.
“Then the marijuana turned into cocaine, and that took away everything I loved,” he said.
The public learned of Collins’s drug abuse almost immediately after the team lost its first Super Bowl to the Chicago Bears in 1986, when the Boston Globe carried the news that six members of the AFC Champion Patriots team had tested positive for drugs.
Collins was banned from the league for a year after testing positive a third time for marijuana and cocaine. He was later reinstated, but a move to the Dolphins didn’t work out because of Collins’s damaged knees.
Collins said pride and his self-image as a football star probably interfered with him getting help in fighting drug use.
“I thought, ‘hey, I’m Tony Collins. I can handle my problems. I’ve got this,’ ” he said. “Well, I didn’t have it. It had me.”
The former star running back said he began to master his addiction and turn his life around seven years ago, when he met his current wife. He said she had a “different way of thinking about life” that made sense to him. Seeing the potential damage he was inflicting on his children also motivated him to stop.
Collins told teens to nurture their dreams, work hard and above all, stay away from drugs.
“If you want to fail, if you truly want to fail, do the drugs,” he said. “If you want to succeed, stay the heck away from those things.”
He also said student-athletes should remember that they are students first and athletes second. One of his mistakes, he said, was to focus too heavily on his football career and not enough on his studies. He only recently finished his college degree at age 52.
Collins warned teens that students and athletes who want to excel can’t merely copy the behavior of others.
“If you want to be the best, you can’t do what everybody else does,” he said. “If you just want to do the work a regular athlete does, you’ll be a regular athlete all right. If you want to be the best you have to work harder.”
RICK FOSTER can be reached at 508-236-0360 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.