Long before he emerged as the unexpected salvation of the Ravens offense, Alex Collins stamped himself as a rare character.
It began with him sprinting off the field after every practice as if he were late for class, his helmet still clamped over his shoulder-length dreadlocks and a dark visor — to ward off the migraines that made him vomit before high school games — obscuring his eyes.
Then the stories bubbled up about him taking Irish dancing classes with his high school coach’s daughter and a bunch of teenage girls. He dubbed his dancing persona Mitch Finn in tribute to “Lord of the Dance” Michael Flatley.
And don’t forget the YouTube videos of him taking lacrosse faceoffs, then rumbling through crowds of terrified prep defensemen as he twirled his stick in his left hand. Not exactly the norm for a football phenom in South Florida.
Just last Tuesday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh watched Collins bang out a keyboard accompaniment for the Cardinal Shehan School choir that came in to sing for the team.
“Who knew he can play the keyboard too?” Harbaugh says.
“I actually learned how to play in eighth grade,” Collins says matter-of-factly. “I had a piano class, and from that class, I just remembered all the notes and the keys, and any song that I like or think that I could play on the piano, I would look at a little tutorial and pick it up.”
There’s no end to the surprises with this guy, on the field or off.
The 23-year-old running back would stand out as one of the best stories on the 2017 Ravens even if he were the most boring guy on earth. The Seattle Seahawks dumped Collins in September, just one year after drafting him in the fifth round. No one much noticed when the Ravens added him to their practice squad. But from that nadir, he’s risen to become one of the most productive runners in the NFL, flashing a special gift for racking up yards after he takes an initial hit.
He delivered the best game of his career Sunday night in Pittsburgh, accumulating 166 total yards, including a remarkable 37-yard catch and run on which he bulled through two tackles.
Justin Forsett was the last Raven to rush for more than 1,000 yards, and as he watched Collins against the Steelers, he kept tweeting, “Feed him.”
“You can tell when a guy is feeling it,” Forsett says. “Especially a running back. I could see that the game had slowed down for him, the way he was hitting the holes and anticipating everything. He was running with great effort, but it was also cerebral.”
You might assume Collins’ creative cuts and fierce effort on the field are separate from his broad interests off it. He would argue that his relentless curiosity keeps his game from growing stagnant.
The Irish dancing, lacrosse and keyboard theatrics just scratch the surface of the Collins chronicles.
Did you know he’s a country music fan who lovingly name-checks performers such as Joe Nichols and Chris Young?
Did you know he hired a female agent, Kelli Masters, or that when his classmate, Erin DiMeglio, became the first female to play quarterback in a Florida high school game, Collins was one of her best friends and most ardent cheerleaders?
“I used to help warm her up,” he says, warming to the subject. “I was running full-speed routes for her and she used to hit me on the dime. So I’m talking to my coach like, ‘We’ve got to give her a chance.’”
Former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema chuckles as he reflects on Collins’ unconventional choices.
“He always looks for the unusual path,” Bielama says. “Sometimes, I think he’s too smart. He’s almost trying to figure out too much.”
Asked if he’s always marched to his own beat, Collins nods with a mischievous smile. What others regard as eccentric, he views as an essential quest to engage with the world around him. Without the dancing or the lacrosse or the friendships across age and cultural boundaries, he doesn’t think he’d be as good a person or as good a running back.
“With the Irish dance, some people might make fun of me. Or listening to country music and being out there at the concerts, it might not be where people expect to see me,” he says. “But I enjoy it, experiencing new cultures. I’m just always chasing new experiences. Just the thought and possibility of, ‘Could I be able to do it?’ is enough to make me want to see if I could be great at something.”
Here’s another paradox with Collins: He avoids interviews as determinedly as he eludes tacklers. This might make sense if, like a lot of young players, he didn’t have much to say or hadn’t yet found a comfortable public persona.
But that’s not the case. Pin Collins down and he’s a terrific conversationalist — looks you in the eye, offers thoughtful explanations for his choices, takes responsibility for his mistakes, laughs at himself.
So why is he so reluctant?
“Alex doesn’t want to talk to you,” says his high school coach, Doug Gatewood, who remains close to Collins. “He doesn’t want to say the wrong thing, doesn’t want to put his foot in his mouth. Trust me, we fought the same fight in high school.”
Collins offers his own explanation: “You take these pats on the back and then get complacent, like, ‘Oh, I’ve done it. The media’s talking.’ You get lost in it and lose that focus. So I guess it’s just about trying to move on from what’s happened, win or lose. I’m just trying to move forward as fast as possible.”
His story has never quite been linear.
Collins goes by the nickname “Budda.” For the longest time, he thought it was because he was a huge baby — 12 pounds at birth. Then his father told Bielema that actually he called Alex that because he considered him a good-luck charm, the only Collins child to inherit his complexion.
But Collins grew up mostly in the home of his mother, Andrea McDonald.
When he showed up at South Plantation High midway through his freshman year, kids kept asking Gatewood if he’d seen this kid “Budda,” who looked like he was 30 years old.
Collins didn’t play that year or as a sophomore. Then he showed up out of the blue for spring practice.
“What you see now is what I saw that day,” Gatewood says. “It was pretty incredible. God touched that child with incredible feet and incredible vision.”
Collins was not only Gatewood’s best player. He quickly became a surrogate member of the coach’s family, squabbling with Gatewood’s daughter, Bryanne, like they’d always been siblings and taking notes from Gatewood’s wife, Bethany, on how to present himself in public.
The Gatewoods learned that Collins never catered to anyone’s presumptions about what he should be. This city-raised superstar loved to compete at hunting, fishing and bowling as readily as football, basketball and track.
“You expect one thing, but you’re going to get something different from him,” Gatewood says. “He lives his life how he sees fit.”
Recruiting analysts expected Collins to succeed Edgerrin James and Willis McGahee in the line of brilliant University of Miami running backs.
Except he’d hit it off with Bielema and his staff, enough that he was willing to leave South Florida for Wisconsin and then Arkansas, after Bielema hopped from the Big Ten to the SEC.
Bielema recalls his recruiting visit to Fort Lauderdale, when he walked down Collins’ block, locked in conversation with the prized running back.
The neighborhood was home, Collins told his prospective coach, but he needed to find an opportunity to get himself and his mother out.
That led to the most public snafu of his young life. He arrived for his National Signing Day celebration all set to ink paperwork for the Razorbacks. His mother had other ideas. She wanted him to stay home and commit to Miami, so much that she actually fled the school with her son’s uncompleted letter of intent in hand.
Bielema says his staff had anticipated the potential drama and sent an extra set of paperwork, which Collins and his father filled out the next day. But Collins was the subject of mocking national headlines before he ever played a down of college football.
He says he shut out the unwanted attention, much as he does now.
But Bielema says he tried not to bring it up in future years. “He was a wreck, man. He was crying,” the coach recalls. “I knew it hurt his heart.”
At Arkansas, Collins joined Herschel Walker and Darren McFadden in the exclusive class of SEC runners who gained 1,000 yards each of their first three seasons. He surely could have made it four had he not left for the NFL draft a year early.
Well, not exactly. “You might have five great weeks in a row, but we always knew, ‘bad Alex is coming,’” Bielema says.
When Collins received his Pell Grant check for first semester, he went out and bought a motorcycle with it.
“No license, no insurance, never had a bike in his life,” Bielema says. “Doug and I were on the phone laughing about it. But I was so mad at him. It was like, ‘Man, what are you doing?’”
Later in Collins’ career, Bielema publicly blasted him for showing up late to a team breakfast. He told reporters Collins “pissed me off” and was his own worst enemy.
Yet he always believed his star runner operated with good intentions. When Collins ripped off a churning, 14-yard touchdown to seal the Razorbacks’ victory in the 2016 Liberty Bowl, Bielema viewed it as a parting gift in their tempestuous but affectionate relationship. He knew Collins was NFL-bound.
“There are going to be times during the week when you’ll get a little frustrated with him,” he told Seahawks general manager John Schneider after Collins was drafted. “But you’re going to love him on Sundays.”
Despite Seattle’s initial excitement at drafting such a productive player 171st overall, that chapter didn’t work smoothly either. Coaches felt Collins was overweight as a rookie, and an ill-timed fumble undercut his late-season push for playing time.
He fell even further down the depth chart this preseason, despite the fact he showed up 15 pounds lighter.
Collins doesn’t express bitterness when asked how he processed the end of his brief Seahawks career.
“A lot of people’s roads to getting to where they want to be in their careers aren’t easy,” he says. “Everybody has to face a little bit of adversity — especially when you’re passionate about something or you want to be great at something.”
He’s found a blocking system that fits him better and a team that desperately needed him. He even seems to have tamed that fumbling tendency, which threatened to interrupt his rise with the Ravens when he lost the ball twice in three games early in the season.
“The time you become a fan,” says quarterback Joe Flacco, “is when you are handing the ball off and he is running the ball inside and setting things up and being patient and hitting the hole really hard. … He is an impressive young man, and we are definitely happy to have him around here.”