When the trumpets blare, he will not be there. When they clomp through the tunnel, he will not be among them. When the roar of the crowd, 100,000 strong, lifts the Michigan players to a state of violent euphoria before the big game Saturday, banging helmets, slamming pads, howling as they leap into a bouncing pile, he will be quietly here on Earth, watching from the stands. A college student. No more, no less.
Shawn Collins quit football. He just quit. No injuries. No run-ins with the coaches. He was once rated America’s best high school linebacker. He belonged to one of the world’s most famous college teams. He is only a sophomore, he has years to go. Against Penn State last month, he got to start, and it turned out to be the biggest victory of the year.
Two days later, he walked into Gary Moeller’s office.
“I’ve thought about it, Coach,” he said, “and I just don’t want to play football anymore.”
Moeller, who bleeds the sport, was stunned. “Shawn, I don’t get it. You just started a game. Why?”
Why? It was a mystery that buzzed around campus. A rumor that brushfired across the nation’s sports machine. A stud recruit, and he quit the Wolverines? A sophomore? There must be something wrong, people figured. Must be a hidden problem. A discipline thing. He’s unhappy with their record. He just quit? Gave up his scholarship? Just like that? You can do almost anything
in football, vomit, weep, get dizzy drunk, beat someone senseless, lie in the middle of traffic, sing your fight song naked on the 50-yard line — but you can’t just quit. That’s the one thing football doesn’t comprehend.
Maybe Shawn Collins will show them all something before he’s through. There’s more to life
“It really hit me during an accounting exam,” he says, sitting on the bed in his small dorm room in South Quad. The late-fall sun comes in through the single window. Collins, a polite, thoughtful student, still carries the athlete’s tightly muscled frame, even though he hasn’t done hard workouts in weeks. “I knew I was falling behind in my academics, but I thought I could get by. Then they handed me this exam, and I looked at it, and I had no idea what was going on. No idea.”
He raises his shoulders, then lets them droop. It is mid- afternoon, and were he still on the team, he would not be sitting here now. He never just sat in his room while he was on the team. There was no time. He was getting up at 6:30 a.m. to go to Schembechler Hall and watch film. Then back to the dorm for a fast breakfast and a brief nap. Then off to class from 10 until noon. Then back for a fast lunch and a faster nap, because he was already sleepy again, then off to the football building by 1:15 for taping and prep. Then three hours of practice. Then training table. Then study table.
By 9:30 p.m., he was trudging back to the dorm. He had a bit of conversation with whomever was around, then fell off to sleep, exhausted.
And the next morning he started again.
This is a typical football player schedule in any major- college program. There is little time for studying besides study table — which can often be a distraction itself — and there is almost no time for going-out socializing during the week, unless you get by on three hours’ sleep. Which is damn hard when you’re banging your body and pounding weights six days a week.
Many make up for the limited study time by taking fewer classes during the season, or taking incomplete grades, or, quite simply, taking easier classes and skating by. As for fatigue and the lack of a non-sports life? Most endure it, because for them, football is either worth it, or it’s all they have.
For Shawn Collins, it was neither. Player first, student second
“There was this day, earlier in the season, where Coach gave us off because
we had a bye week,” he says. “I’ll never forget it. It was a Monday, and a lot of the players didn’t know how to act. Honest. They did not know how to act! They were like, ‘What are we gonna do?’ We weren’t used to that kind of freedom.”
And you? Did you like it?
“Oh, yes. I loved it.”
Maybe it started then, the voice in his head. Maybe it started when he saw the other students relaxing under trees, or playing volleyball, or just sitting in coffee shops in no apparent rush.
Or maybe it started long before, when Collins was a high school star in New Jersey. He liked football, but it came naturally to him, as did most sports. At 6-feet-2 and a strong 215 pounds, Collins excelled in pretty much everything. He played linebacker, fullback, he even won a state title in the hurdles. He had tremendous speed, and speed was very fashionable in college football, thanks to teams like Florida State.
So Collins was a blue-chip recruit. Several services rated him the best linebacker in the country. And all the while, he never got caught up in the ratings or recruiting as much as the fun he anticipated having at college. He enjoyed high school. He was a good student and a great athlete. Now he heard people say “college will be the best four years of your life.” He was looking forward to it.
When it started, however, he felt a certain emptiness. He was part of this huge football machine, where things were done for you, tutors, schedules, meals. Some kids love this. Some expect it. Collins, 19, found it constraining, like a jacket that was too tight. He still liked the game of football, but he didn’t love it the way everyone around him seemed to love it. There would be times during practice, especially toward the end, where his heart wasn’t in it, he was thinking about his grades and his future and meanwhile he was trying to tackle players who were trying to clobber him. He thought about getting injured. He thought about his slim odds of ever making the NFL. The voice in his head said, “If you’re not in this to get to the next level, why are you in it?”
Meanwhile, wherever he went, he was treated as a player first, because that’s what happens when you’re a stud recruit at a big-time football school. The questions were: “How’s the team doing? . . . How will the team play this week? . . . What’s the latest with the team? . . . “
“I never got the feeling they cared about me,” Collins says, “as much as the fact that I was a player.” A man without a team
Still, he might have endured all that, had his academics stayed strong. But when his grades started to slip, he felt he was sacrificing the wrong thing.
“I’ve always been taught to value education. Both my parents are teachers. And I want to go into business one day.
“It seemed like, whenever I thought about my life without football, I had this fascinated feeling. And whenever I thought about my life with football, it was like this ugly feeling. Like everything was already predictable.”
One day, when it got to be too much, he put his head down, and focused on the two worlds, a member of the team, a regular college student, member of the team, regular college student. When he lifted his head, he had his conclusion.
He sat outside Moeller’s office, on that Monday after the Penn State game,
“for the longest 15 minutes of my life.” He imagined Moeller’s booming voice trying to talk him out of his decision. He focused on his opening sentence.
“I thought of it like a thesis statement,” he says. “You know, state your purpose right up front.”
How do you like that? An athlete making an academic metaphor.
When the deed was done, he went down to where the players dressed. It was after two o’clock, and when his teammates saw him, they said, “Hurry up, get dressed, man. You’ll be late.”
“I’m not on the team anymore,” he said.
“WHAT? Come on. Stop joking.”
“Come on, man.”
He tried to explain in the brief and rushed moments, but the meetings were starting, you can’t be late, and next thing Shawn Collins knew, he was alone, a man without a team, looking at a whole new world that had to be paid for and negotiated without a safety net.
How could he explain it?
He felt . . . great. Finally, freedom
Understand that Collins has absolutely nothing against U-M football. He says he loves his ex-teammates, considers them like family, he has no problem with Moeller, his staff, or this year’s mediocre record. He respects everyone who plays football. He just wanted a more normal college life, with a focus on being a student planning for a future.
Why is that so strange, he wonders?
“It’s funny, but I get a chance to do my own laundry now, and clean the room, and go and meet with professors and people. If I want to come back to the dorm and study, I can. If I want to just hang around, visit with friends, I can do that, too. I feel like I’m learning to be responsible . . .
“The day I left the team, I remember walking outside. It was beautiful. The sun was out, and all these people were on campus, all these people at three o’clock that I’d never seen before. I liked it.”
It will be a costly enjoyment. Michigan, for an out-of- state kid like Collins, can cost upwards of $21,000 a year when you total everything. Collins’ parents are school teachers. They don’t make that kind of money. Collins says he’s trying desperately to line up financial aid, loans, grants. He says he wants to stay at U-M, not transfer to some cheaper school, but he admits he may be forced to do that.
You see him turn his back on a scholarship, a free ride, and there’s a part of you that wants to say, “Go back, it’s a good deal, never mind if you don’t want to be there.”
But how can you tell that to a young man?
So here he goes, into Michigan-Ohio State weekend, a student, rooting for his college team. His grades have improved, he says he feels “relaxed” and he still enjoys wearing his letter jacket from his freshman season, because, he says, “I earned that.”
There have been whispers about Collins. Some have questioned his heart, as if not wanting to pummel a football opponent makes you less of a man. And some, of course, simply whisper the word “quitter,” a label that always will shadow him.
It is unfair. When Collins made his decision, the last words Gary Moeller said to him when he left his office were these: “Good luck.” It brings to mind the old sports quote that football coaches often recite: “I’d rather be lucky than good.”
Collins was already lucky. Now he’s trying to be good, on his own, the hard way. That doesn’t deserve to be labeled anything, except admirable.