ARCADIA, Fla. — Today began like the previous 4,710 days for Cecil Collins. He woke alone and made coffee. He washed his face and read from the Bible (Ephesians, this morning). He put some sports radio station on headphones and swept some rooms.
The sweeping is new. He started this job six, eight, maybe 10 months ago. It serves no purpose to count time in prison, and so Collins isn't exactly sure when he became a "House Man,'' as the position is called.
For years, he worked on "inside grounds," cutting grass. Then he worked in the kitchen, mainly in the butcher shop distributing pre-cut meat.
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"Now that I've got some seniority in here, I get the easy job of a House Man,'' he says. "Dec. 16, 1999 is when it all began. That's some seniority. It'll be 12 years soon."
Thirteen years, actually, he's told.
"Thirteen?" he says.
He looks in the air, counting. For the previous hour in an interview room at the DeSoto Annex Correctional Institution, Collins alternately has sounded upbeat, grim, mature, forced, defiant, resigned, optimistic — surely the sum of any inmate's moods.
Now he laughs.
"Thirteen years,'' he says.
He shakes his head and exhales loudly, his cheeks puffing up. And for a moment as he smiles, just a moment, there's the glimpse of the Dolphins' rookie who flashed such personality and promise, way back when, that people thought he was hope falling out of the sky, rather than just another star shooting too fast across it.
But when that face falls, what's left is a middle-aged man in prison blues, asking the question anyone who hears his story does in some form.
"Can you believe I'm still in here?" he says.
Here are some things Collins gained in the past 13 years: A daughter, Zakayla, who was born from his former girlfriend a month into his sentence and wears his No. 34 at her youth softball games; a wife, Elena, whom he met when she and a friend visited another inmate; a 10-inch scar on his belly after a chicken bone ruptured his esophagus and nearly killed him; a tattoo on his left forearm that reads, "Only God Can Judge Me;" and the nickname "LSU,'' for the school he roots for and once played football.
LSU replaced "Cecil The Diesel." That was the first piece of his past he shed.
"I think 'The Diesel' is the guy that got me in trouble,'' he says. "The Diesel ran in clubs, ran with the wrong people. The Diesel didn't know how to handle all the money or celebrity coming in."
The Diesel spent, what, $8,000 on a good party night in the fall of 1999? Maybe $9,000? Even for a fifth-round draft pick, the money and temptation was more than he could handle.
So when he was convicted of burglary for sneaking through the back window of his neighbor's Davie apartment, Collins got a 15-year sentence, in part for being on probation with a similar charge. That's when he said The Diesel had to die.
"At that point, I started to find out who Cecil really was,'' he says. "And what I found is Cecil was a good guy."
It took a while to get there. But time is something Collins had plenty of. He lost his grandmother. He nearly died from the esophagus rupture, realizing in the prison hospital, "I didn't want to die here."