Last night I watched the Thursday Night Football game between Baltimore and Miami, and a memory was jogged.
One name kept getting called - Alex Collins, the second-year, former practice squad running back for the Baltimore Ravens.
“Alex Collins up the middle for 6 yards…Alex Collins gashes the defense for 22 yards…Alex Collins…Alex Collins…Alex Collins…”
Every time I heard his name - Alex Collins - I said the name “Budda” (pronounced like the founder of Buddhism) in my head.
I met Alex “The Budda” Collins in 2012 when he was a senior at South Plantation High School. Bill and I spent three days in Plantation, FL, to do a video on one of his good friends - third string quarterback Erin DiMeglio.
Erin was the first female quarterback in Florida (and possibly American) high school football history, and she played the part well. She was tough. The 18-year-old had already suffered a broken nose, a concussion, and dislocated fingers on the basketball court with South Plantation's girls' varsity team. She had played flag football since the 4th grade and had been a football team manager before suiting up as a backup quarterback.
We arrived in Plantation the Thursday before the game to shoot practice. Our first order of business was to find the coach, Doug Gatewood. He knew we were coming, but we wanted to make sure we didn’t get in the way of practice.
We shook hands with Coach Gatewood, then he pointed to the locker rooms, “Here they come now. That’s Erin on the right and Alex Collins on the left.”
Coach waved them over and introduced us.
“Erin, meet the folks from Sports Illustrated.”
We shook her hand first, introducing ourselves then turned to Alex.
“Hey, I’m Laura,” I told him.
“Alex,” he said back with a warm smile.
“But we call him Budda,” Erin quickly corrected, “because of his belly.”
She slapped him in his stomach and ran onto the field laughing.
Alex shrugged, the same warm smile on his face, told us it was a pleasure to meet us, and jogged up behind her.
We ended up spending three days in Plantation. It was fun to watch the team relationship with a girl on the roster. The boys clearly loved having Erin around. She was hugged, teased and protected; welcomed as a teammate and friend.
In out time at South Plantation High School, we got to know a couple players, but we talked to Erin and Alex the most.
Erin was focused on school. She was a dual enrollment student, taking college courses at her high school. Unlike some of her teammates, she knew football at the next level wasn’t an option. She talked instead of academic or basketball scholarships; whatever it took to get to a university.
Alex, on the other hand, was weighing options. One day after Erin talked about the colleges she was looking at, I asked Alex what his plan was for the next level.
“I don’t know,” he said, running his hands down his face, clearly exasperated.
He had talked to coaches at the University of Florida and Florida State, but no offers had been made (they were made later). He thought maybe he’d go to Miami. Maybe Louisville. Maybe Arkansas. He was clearly unsettled.
Other guys on the team, like starting quarterback John Franklin III, had already committed to Florida State (he is now at Florida Atlantic University, his fourth college) so Collins was feeling the pressure to make a decision.
After the story ran, I didn’t think much about it. Then, the following year, I started hearing a familiar name on TV - Alex Collins. Alex had chosen the University of Arkansas and - based on his freshman year in which he won SEC Freshman of the Year honors - it looked like the right one.
He had three successful years at Arkansas, but his performances were often overshadowed by the bigger named backs like Derrick Henry of Alabama and Leonard Fournette of Louisiana State. Still, he kept posting consistently good numbers regardless of whether anyone was watching.
In 2016 Collins was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks.
He had a quiet rookie season before being waved by the Seahawks on September 2 of this year. Three days later the Baltimore Ravens signed him to their practice squad. Ten days after that he was on the active roster after the Ravens lost Danny Woodhead to injury.
His carries started slow after he fumbled the ball a couple times. But the Ravens kept him on and Budda kept playing his game.
Last night he had the best game of his career - 18 carries for 113 yards and 30 receiving yards. He currently leads the NFL in yards per carry.
The uncertain kid I met five years ago is certainly making his mark.