Alabama's Head Trainer for Football Rodney Brown explained; "He's not sure how he did it, but he first noticed it in the Mississippi State game. On the undersurface of his rotator cuff that communicates with the joint, he had some fraying of some of the tendon fibers. What we call an undersurface partial tearing of the rotator cuff tendon. There was some scar tissue, and that can make you sore, too."
"I hurt my rotator cuff in my shoulder," Collins said. "It hurt pretty much when I raised my arm above my head. As a wide receiver, that could be pretty tough. I hurt it during the Mississippi State game, and went through treatment every day during the rest of the season, three times a day since then, trying to get it better."
As a junior Collins played in every game, starting twice. He was credited with only 18 receptions, but four of those were good for touchdowns. Collins averaged 14.0 yards per catch, for a total of 252 yards on the season. Despite hurting his shoulder versus the Bulldogs, Collins had a season-high four receptions for 52 yards against Mississippi State. The Fayette native had two TD receptions versus Tennessee, and a 58-yarder against Ole Miss was his longest catch of the year.
Collins' injury was mentioned in the February '02 edition of ‘BAMA: Inside the Crimson Tide, which highlighted athletes that fought through pain to continue playing for the team. "Sam's a tough kid," Brown said. "Like Hirchel (Bolden) and Kindal (Moorehead), they're just tough kids. They want to play, and Sam toughed it out. Now that the season is over, we're going to solve his problem."
Despite his painful shoulder, Collins played through that crucial season-ending stretch, doing his part to produce the four-game winning streak that ended Bama's year. "You've got a commitment to your teammates to go out there and perform," he said. "You've just got to play through some pain. Take a couple of Advil or whatever it takes to push through it.
"Actually, in the game everything is going by so fast that you don't realize. But once the play is over, that's when you realize ‘Man! That hurt.' But when you're out there, you're a competitor. You just put everything aside you can and help your team win."
Unfortunately, sore shoulders are not uncommon on a football team. And a normal course of treatment prescribes rehab and targeted exercises designed to strengthen the joint. Most athletes recover without surgery, but some do not. "We were hoping that the rest and the exercise after the bowl game--but mainly the rest--would help," Brown said. "But when we got back from the rest time after the bowl when school started back, Sam came in. He was in even more pain. And he hadn't done anything (since the bowl game)."
"At that point we did what we call an enhanced MRI," Brown continued. "Where you inject some material that provides greater contrast. It didn't show up anything really more significant, except the rotator cuff strain."
But the continued pain indicated a problem, and the decision was made to do arthroscopic surgery to repair the known problem, while also inspecting the joint for any hidden damage. Brown explained the procedure; "They went in and shaved the damaged area down smooth, and cleaned the joint out. They also looked around to see if there was anything that the MRI had missed. Fortunately they didn't find anything more.
"Sam's in rehab now and doing very well."
Along with Freddie Milons, Antonio Carter and Jason McAddley, Collins finished the season listed first-string at one of four wide receiver positions on the team depth chart. Of course Milons and McAddley are now off to pursue professional careers, and Collins will be a key member of next year's receiving corps.
But while his shoulder should be as good as new by fall, Collins will approach spring drills cautiously. "We're going to play it by ear with Sam and see what we can do," Brown said. "But I don't anticipate him working at a strenuous level during the spring. He'll be able to do some things from the get go, and we'll gradually work him back into other activities. We're not going to put him in any full-speed type activities or put him on the ground."
That means agility drills and even some pass skel work this spring, but no live contact and certainly no scrimmaging. Brown explained; "Sam probably won't be ready for full contact in the spring. I anticipate that he will be able to get out there and run routes, get his timing down with the quarterbacks. He should be able at least to come back after spring break and run routes and stuff like that. That will give him six practices.
"We know Sam can play. Our goal is to have him ready in the fall."