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This interview original ran in early December 2007.
Andre Collins retired from professional football in 1999, but eventually his professional life came full circle -- kind of. He now serves as the Retired Players Director for the National Football League's Players Association, a position in which he helps pro athletes transition into the so-called "real world."
But that is not all Collins is up to these days. He recently wrote a children's book, he is a family man with a wife and three kids of his own and -- whenever he can -- he keeps tabs on the football program at his beloved alma mater.
We recently caught up with Collins to get an update on the many facets of his life.
FOS: What are you up to these days?
AC: I retired from the NFL in 1999 and since then life has been great. There was a little bit of a transition; there tends to be a rough patch after the league for most players. You always have a coach telling you what to wear, what to eat, what to do -- then you have to become independent after that goes away. That can be tough and weird. Once you make it through that, though, things get easier.
My Penn State education did not fail me. I started off working at a hospital in Virginia as an emergency room administrator. I was looking to get back into football at some level. The Player's Association was looking for a Retired Players Director. I was really grateful of the opportunity. It's certainly not an easy job, but I really enjoy it.
FOS: What does being Director of Retired Players with the NFL Players Association entail?
AC: I wear a lot of different hats in this role. The organization focuses on players in dire need financially and when they are looking to transition out of the league. There's a lot to it, like managing and negotiating benefits and educating them on various aspects of benefits, disability and the like.
FOS: Your job is described as "helping to make the transition out of football smoother and easier for retirees." How do you feel most NFL players make that transition?
AC: I think most players have a rough patch that they go through right after they leave the league. But, unlike other athletes, football players tend to adapt well. These guys have to stay in college to compete, so the educational piece is usually there for them.
It's not like a player who leaves high school right for the pros and may not have the college experience or education. In the 1960s and 1970s most players had a second job since the incomes weren't that great. That changed in the 1980s and 1990s -- with players depending solely on their pro salary. Today's players are smarter with their money and tend to protect their wealth. A lot of progress has been made in this area and we have helped facilitate that on different levels.
FOS: Current PSU middle linebacker Dan Connor is about to embark on his NFL career. Having played a similar position in the same program, what advice would you give him as he looks to the next step?
AC: Dan is a great player. He is an animal. He harkens me back to the days of Shane Conlan. Dan doesn't just tackle; he tries to bury the ball carrier. He is so fierce.
In regard to the next level, it's simple really -- mind your football business. Let your game do the talking. He works hard and is smart so he does not have anything to worry about. Paterno has the players ready and aware of the glitz and glamour, so they don't get too caught up in it. They do what is asked of them.
FOS: You were an outstanding linebacker at Penn State, an All-American and a Butkus Finalist in 1989. What do you think of the crop of linebackers PSU has had in recent years? What are the similarities and differences you see between them and the type of ‘backers you saw while at PSU?
AC: I am very proud of what PSU has turned out recently. Going back to Aaron (Collins), Lavar (Arrington), Brandon (Short), Paul (Posluszny) and now Dan (Connor), these guys are all so different in their abilities, but they are all smart and physical players.
Being a former linebacker you always want that tradition to continue -- you always want to uphold the name Linebacker U. What is special is that at Penn State the guys honor that tradition, they understand the importance of it and dig deep to carry it on. I am very pleased with the job they have done.
FOS: Penn State's Linebacker U. tradition took a hit in the earlier part of this decade. It looks to be back now though, what does that mean to you for that tradition to be upheld?
AC: It really means a lot. Football really becomes part of your personality when you have played it for so long -- you commit so much at it. Linebacker U. is part of your personality and connects you back to your playing days. It's exciting being a former PSU player, more exciting than being a former NFL player. It's more gratifying to be part of PSU. I feel closer to Penn State than I do to the Redskins; you're not playing for yourself or the money at PSU. You are playing for the team, for the students, for the whole state, the whole region. At Penn State you are playing for so much and for so many.
FOS: Is there a physical difference between ‘backers then and now?
AC: I started as a corner back at Penn State and worked into a safety position. I saw some time at strong safety and then I went to linebacker. Paterno said he needed a linebacker and it was my job to lose. I wasn't that big, but I was quick.
Today's players are bigger, faster and stronger. I would have to be a different player in order to compete today. I would probably struggle actually. My speed helped me a lot, but today the game is faster. The average player is just flat out a better athlete than back then.
FOS: What was the most challenging aspect of playing inside linebacker at Penn State?
AC: The most challenging thing is being the quarterback of the defense. There wasn't a whole lot of offense to talk about back then with PSU. We were three yards and a cloud of dust -- the defense had to win games. The offense just wasn't that complicated.
The inside linebackers were responsible for everyone [on defense]. Jerry Sandusky had a very complex defense with Joe Sarra. In fact, I would study my football notes before my class notes -- there were so many hand signals, which was difficult to learn. The terminology was also tough, it was like another language.
It was also tough getting guys lined up correctly on the field. You had all that just moments before the snap. We were ready physically though. Sandusky and Paterno beat us to death in practice -- they can't do that today, everything is controlled. The games were actually easier than the practices were. So we were also well prepared for games.
FOS: As one of five brothers who have worn Blue and White, you're family has been called the first family of PSU. What was it like being one of 19 kids and what role did that play in the person you are today?
AC: Being one of 19 is the foundation of who I am. It wasn't one of those hard luck stories; my dad worked hard and my mom was home. We had a very traditional American family. The competition in the house was fierce though. We had our own basketball and football leagues. I made my best plays in my backyard growing up. Most of my PSU and NFL plays paled in comparison to those early plays in the backyard, because we all competed so intensely.
FOS: Is there going to be a next generation of Collins players coming to PSU?
AC: There will one day. We got off to a late start with the next generation in the family. The oldest boy is about 10 right now. It's coming, but it'll be a few years. He's showing signs of being both smart and athletic. We're not pressuring him, but I could see it.
FOS: In 1988 you were on a PSU team that faced some adversity, resulting in the program's first losing season since 1938. How do you feel the team responded in 1989 and what did that '88 season teach you personally?
AC: It was humbling because of PSU's rich tradition. It was painful in the off-season that year. It marked the beginning that college football was changing. It wasn't a lock that PSU was going to have all the great players anymore.
The early off-season in November was a change for PSU and Joe was very hard on us. He made us eat with the students; he made us feel very regular. He took away everything that was special for us. We got up at 5:30 (a.m.) to do workouts, he banned walkmans. He treated us rough to show us we had work to do. We were all so anxious to get back on the field to show we were better than that.
FOS: Having seen a losing season and a national yitle during your PSU career, what were the fundamental differences between the '86 and '88 teams? Was it simply a matter of talent or was there more separating the two squads?
AC: I think top to bottom you have to look at the talent. The ‘86 team had almost 40 guys who played in the NFL to some degree. The ‘88 team simply couldn't say that. We never replaced all of that great talent. The ‘86 team worked so hard -- they were special.
That ‘86 Fiesta Bowl game was a blur. I played, but mostly on special teams. The intensity was a blur. It was so surreal. The seniors really had a journey -- the year before they lost the title. I remember them all crying after the game in the locker room because of the journey they had been through. It really was a family.
FOS: Talk about Joe Paterno. Do you have a favorite story you can share?
AC: I love Joe Paterno. I love the fact that he was tough and unmerciful on us. I loved him as my coach. There are a lot of stories; I really loved when he threw players out of practice. He was always tough.
I remember when I got tossed out of the Coaches Clinic Scrimmage before my senior season. [Tight end] Al Golden was trying to embarrass me and gave me a cheap shot in a drill. I retaliated. Joe saw it and he tossed me. I said, "Joe, for crying out loud, it wasn't me!" Joe just said, "It's never you Andre. Now get outta here."
I was the captain of the team, but he didn't care. I was treated just like everyone else. I remember he came into the locker room after and got after me more. He was always tough, which made us better,
FOS: With his contract up after the 2008 season, there is a lot of debate swirling around his future. What do you think about Paterno's current situation? Should he continue coaching?
AC: I think he has done an outstanding job coaching a young team and rebuilding them. This team does not have a lot of seniors and has had some defensive line injuries. I would love to see him coach two more season. He'll end up with a very veteran team with some success, sort of like the '85 and '86 seasons. Worse comes to worse, he deserves to coach these players the next two years.
AC: I always wanted to write a children's book. I have three small kids 9, 5 and 2 year old. I love being a dad -- I wrote through the eyes of my kids. I wanted to tell them about PSU and sports. I think being on a team has helped shape me. I wrote it from that perspective with a focus on teamwork. The book is for kids ages 3 to 7. It's a true children's book. I just wrote it as my kids would speak. Part of the book's proceeds goes to The Second Mile, which is a great cause.
FOS: What did you enjoy most about writing the book?
AC: I think the fact that I can check something else off my list. I enjoyed revisiting some of the PSU spots in my mind: Phil's barber shop on Pugh Street, Brother's Pizza -- the best pizza in America -- Ye Old College Diner and of course Beaver Stadium.
FOS: What do you hope the book conveys to children who read it?
AC: I want the book to be fun. They are kids and the message is soft. There are subtle messages about teamwork and tolerance. I tried to include different people in the book. It's a good, wholesome, all-inclusive message.
FOS: You have had a pretty impressive football career -- a national title, a Super Bowl ring and now Director of Retired Players with the NFL Players Association -- what's been the most rewarding experience of your football career?
AC: Football has been so good to me. I had no idea I would end up playing as I did at PSU. I was a linebacker at Linebacker U. I had a 10-year NFL career. I played for the Bears and Redskins. It's been a storybook career.
I was not a Hall of Fame player; I was a role player and filled in where I was needed. I wouldn't trade it with anyone though, not Emmit Smith, not Lawrence Taylor or Tom Brady. I was on some good teams and helped our team win. I am very pleased with the experience I have been fortunate enough to have had.
Andre lives outside of Washington, D.C., with his wife Ericka and their three children. His book, What Teammates Do, is available at MVPKidsBooks.com.