"Secular religions are fascinating in the devotion and zealousness they breed, and in Texas, high school football has its own rabid hold over the faithful."
"The sight of a boy, a high school boy, sacrificing himself in the service of team and town on a glowing field is still a powerful intoxicant, just as long as it is accompanied by the intoxicant of winning."
— H. G. Bissinger
Growing up in Texas, Calvin Collins idolized football players.
But his role models donned in cleats and shoulder pads weren't Earl Campbell, Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett or Randy White. They didn't roam the college campuses of the University of Texas or Texas A&M, either.
When Collins played pee-wee football there were only a few players he would emulate, and they didn't play in front of national TV audience on Sundays or in front of Keith Jackson on Saturday afternoons.
Collins' football icons played under the glitz and glamour of the famed Friday night lights, in a place where Fridays weren't synonymous with another work-week gone by, but rather the launching pad to an evening of high school athletics at its apex of entertainment. Deep in the heart of Texas, high school football was king and served exclusively on the royal court.
"In a lot of places in Texas, there's not much else to do," Collins admitted. "It's the only show in town."
Collins wanted to be part of that only show in town.
Beaumont was no different than hundreds of communities located in the Lone Star State. Some of Texas' top high school football teams were a much greater spectacle than virtually any Division II or Division III college here in Minnesota. In fact, some Texas high school games could rival the crowds that attend the Division I University of Minnesota Golden Gophers at the Metrodome.
That isn't meant as a sad commentary to the apathy of Gophers fans but rather an endorsement for Texas high school football.
Because of that, Collins decided at an early age what he was going to do when he grew up: He was going to play high school football.
"I started lifting organized weights in sixth or seventh grade," Collins said. "I don't know if there are too many places that do that. That's how serious it is there. It was a dream to be on my high school team."
Collins' dream quickly evolved into reality. Because of his athletic gifts, as well as a work ethic created from an intense weight-lifting regimen that started in junior high, Collins was a lock to make his high school football team.
It wasn't a normal high school football team, either. Before practice the locker-room chatter didn't focus on what scout would be in attendance, but rather how many scouts would be there and how many players they would be observing. During one practice, several scouts would be charting the progress of a young kid named Frank Middleton, who would later become an offensive lineman in the NFL. At another practice, scouts would be watching some kid named James Brown, who would go on to be quarterback for the Texas Longhorns. Yet another day, the scouts might have stopwatches in hand timing Collins, who also had aspirations of advancing his game to a higher level.
Practices at Beaumont weren't the NFL Combine, but they were close.
"We had a lot of people on our squad that were Division I prospects," Collins said. "Every day our coach would tell us what scouts were here. They would be at practice every day. Some people, if you're already highly rated, would practice hard, but not really go all out. Those guys who were on the bubble (of getting recruited), those guys were bringing it all out."
Senior seasons are special for so many reasons, but during Collins' senior year, West Brook competed in the city championship, also known as the Beaumont Bowl.
Because of the magnitude of the game, the Beaumont Bowl for bragging rights of the city needed a bigger home, so the high schools borrowed the local college facility. "At the championship game, you'd be surprised if it was below 20,000 people," Collins said. "We rented Lamar University and used their stadium. The game was for bragging rights of the city. It was always televised."
Collins and his teammates claimed bragging rights.
"Fans rushed out onto the field after we won. The whole field was like a big party," Collins said. "It was unbelievable. If you see it on TV you'd swear it was a college game. It had that type of format and that type of feel, and the athletes were that type of quality. There were big-time athletes there."
The win was special for Collins and his teammates. Not only had they reached the pinnacle of their conference by winning the Beaumont Bowl, but they claimed the hardware for a teammate, who sadly wasn't able to win a piece of the championship for himself.
During the summer before their senior season, one of his teammates made a bet that he could swim across a quarry. Collins' teammate attempted the swim, but never returned.
The loss devastated Collins and his team. They dedicated the following season to their teammate's memory. It was a loss Collins and many of his teammates struggled with. For so many reasons, it was a season they would never forget.
"You build a bond," Collins said. "That's someone you bled and sweated with. That bond is hard to break. When it's broken, that hurts. It was pretty tough and very emotional. It was a while before we got back on the field."
They lost a friend, a teammate, someone who as a teenager seemed so invincible. As 17-year olds, the state of mortality was mythical. Death was incomprehensible to them. Among this group of high school football players, the tragedy seemed surreal.
Ten years later, Collins is witness to an emotionally similar situation.
Collins joined the Minnesota Vikings in October. The Vikings, who had lost teammate and friend Korey Stringer to complications from heat stroke two months earlier, are still suffering. Being a member of the NFL fraternity, Collins knew of Stringer, but admittedly didn't know him. He didn't want to speak for his teammates, because they all miss Stringer in different ways for different reasons, but Collins knows the pain, agony and grief his newfound teammates are experiencing.
He's felt that pain before. He's dealt with similar grief.
"If you don't play football, you have no concept or no clue to understand how hard it is to go on without your teammate," Collins said.
Collins hopes to be a positive influence on his Vikings teammates. Collins recently was elevated to starting status on the offensive line. Because of the endless injuries the Vikings' offensive line has suffered, Collins is undergoing a proverbial baptism by fire, spending time at tackle as well as guard.
"I think that he's picked up the offense really well," coach Dennis Green said. "He's looked good in practice — very powerful, outstanding run blocker, good punch, very smart, versatile."
The Vikings have numerous obstacles and hurdles to overcome before talking about the playoffs. Collins knows that if the Vikings are left on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in, it won't be because of a dearth of talent.
"There's a real, real thin line between being good and having a winning season and being bad and having a losing season," Collins said. "Any team can beat any given team. I think this team has the talent; there's no ifs, ands or buts about that. It's a matter of getting it to jell and having the ball bounce your way. I just think this team has the talent, it just has to get it together."
Even though the team dwells south of the .500 mark, Collins believes there is still time to make a late-season surge.
"It comes down to being professional," Collins said. "This is your job and you have to have some type of pride about your work and you're going to go out there and put your best foot forward." VU
Getting To Know: Guard Calvin Collins
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