WEST WARWICK — At the age of 22, former New England Patriots running back Tony Collins had it all. A second-round pick by the Patriots in the 1981 draft, he began his first NFL game as a starter after two other players sustained injuries, going on to play in the 1983 Pro Bowl and Super Bowl XX. His career spiraled out of control, however, after painkillers prescribed for an injury turned into a drug habit, and he retired in 1990 ashamed of the direction his life had taken. It would take the support of family, a commitment to faith and his own positive choices to put his life and reputation back on track over the next several decades.
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Collins shared his story of recovery and positive decision-making with sixth, seventh and eighth graders at St. Joseph School, West Warwick, during a recent speaking engagement at the school. The event was organized by Ralph Madonna, parent of a child at the school and founder of the Bouncing Back in Life Foundation, where Collins serves as a board member.
“We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have such an acclaimed person deliver such a positive message of change, hope and conversion of faith,” said Principal Jim Woodmansee. “He speaks about the power of a positive mindset. I think it’s something that middle and high school students need.”
The event took place in the school gym, where 58 middle school students listened attentively as Collins recalled his upbringing alongside 16 siblings in the small town of Penn Yan, New York. His parents, he said, were very faithful individuals who encouraged their children to seek success in life. For Collins, success meant playing for the NFL, a dream he told his mother about at the age of nine.
“I was speaking my future into the present,” he said. “You all have that same capability because your words have power.”
He was recruited to play for East Carolina University, where he excelled on the football field but lacked the motivation to match his talents in the classroom. He recalled one of his coaches pulling him aside and reminding him that he needed to put in work both on and off the field if he wanted to achieve his long-term goal, a message Collins passed on to the students.
“Faith without good works is dead,” he said, referencing a scripture passage from the letter of James. “You can have all the faith in the world, but you need to put in the work.”
After his initially successful NFL career ended in the shame of failed drug tests and early retirement, Collins turned to faith and family to guide him back on the right path. He recounted his first day at a new job working with high school athletes and their families and how, after feeling tempted to quit, he thought he heard a small voice calling him to stay.
“My mom and dad said when you hear that small voice, it could be the voice of God,” he said. Collins remained at the job, where he met his future wife, who was instrumental in helping him pull his life together. Collins later returned to school and obtained a bachelor’s degree in communication at the age of 52.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there’s a God,” he told the students. “That without God saving my life, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
These days, Collins spends his time speaking with middle and high school students about how to make positive choices and follow through on the effort necessary to achieve their goals. In 2007, he founded the Tony Collins foundation, which offers scholarships and youth program support to teenagers in his hometown region of upstate New York. This year, he hopes to spread the foundation’s mission to the New England area.
“My dream is to motivate and inspire young people,” Collins told the students of St. Joseph School. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of you all.”
Following the presentation, Collins distributed NFL memorabilia and signed autographs for the students, quizzing them on NFL trivia and the main points of his message. Two students, Austin Major and Li Rajotte, were honored for their demonstration of leadership and Christian values and presented with footballs and autographed posters. Major recently found his name on the school’s “Caught Being Good” board after teachers and classmates witnessed him offering his lunch money to a homeless person encountered during a field trip to Boston. Rajotte serves as president of the school chapter of the National Junior Honor Society, a position she was elected to by her peers.
Seventh grader Ryan Shurtleff received an autographed copy of Collins’s book, “Broken Road: Turning My Mess into a Message,” after correctly answering a question about the 1981 Patriots lineup. An avid football fan, Shurtleff was ecstatic at having the opportunity to interact with a former Patriots player, especially one who continues to hold the team record for most rushing yards in a single game. “It was awesome. It was inspirational,” he said.
Woodmansee thought Collins’s message of commitment to achieving personal goals was especially relevant for the St. Joseph student body, which displays a high level of extracurricular involvement. “His talk about channeling their positive mindset into what they’re doing — that’s going to have a positive outcome,” he said.