La'el Collins did everything right. For this singular moment. To hear his name called on stage, to hug his mother, to cry tears of joy, to become a millionaire, to take care of his family.
This was going to be the culmination, his shining achievement thus far. It was an ending of a lifelong dream and the beginning of a new one. Instead, the dream quickly dissolved into a nightmare, a cruel fate of timing beyond anyone's repair.
The Cowboys offensive tackle endured the worst draft experience perhaps in the history of professional sports. That's not an exaggeration. Name another athlete who was projected as a top-10 overall pick days beforehand and ended up not being drafted altogether. Through absolutely no fault of his own. And in the process, lose roughly $15 million in guaranteed money.
Again, through absolutely no fault of his own, Collins lost his lifelong dream of being drafted and $15 million. If that's not the worst story in draft history, hard to imagine what is.
That was nearly five years ago and while Collins has become a warm and fuzzy feel-good story, playing leaps and bounds at the highest level of his career this season, having signed a five-year, $50 million extension in September, the memories of those dark days are still there even if the rawness has ever-so-slowly faded.
"It was hard, it was really tough," Collins said. "Not only for me, but my family, my mother, everyone who was with me at the time, waiting on that moment. I felt like I was going to get through it, and that at some point, looking back, it was going to be a bump in the road in this path to where I am headed.
"I mean, I lost my moment in time. I lost a lot of money. There was no doubt I would have been a first-round pick. Then to not hear your name called for three days and seven rounds, hopefully no one has to ever experience that. I did everything right for this moment and it evaporated in a fraction of time."
Six days before the 2015 NFL Draft, Brittany Mills was shot and killed just outside of her apartment in Baton Rouge, La. She was also eight months pregnant. The baby was able to be delivered before tragically dying a week later in the hospital.
Collins had a brief relationship with the woman previously and his name came up during interviews. The baby was not his, although that wasn't determined until the week after the draft. At no point was Collins a suspect in the case, but police wanted to talk with him. The problem was setting up a time that worked on both ends. A few days after the homicide, Collins' name leaked to the media as someone Baton Rouge police would like to interview.
His agents decided it would be best for Collins to fly home to New Orleans from Chicago, where he was scheduled to attend the draft. He wanted to meet with police on that Thursday, the day of the first round, convinced his name would be immediately cleared and he could be selected like planned. However, the detectives on the case said they couldn't. Friday wasn't an option either because Collins' lawyer was in court with another client. The meeting would be Monday, two days after the draft concluded.
Those were long days for Collins, who spent them talking with lawyers, advisors and, most of all, his mother
"She was my rock," he said. "We talked a lot, and I mean a lot, during those days."
There's much more to the draft process, but it's ancient history. Collins wasn't selected, was immediately cleared by police after talking with them and was now an undrafted free agent.
Within hours, 29 of the league's 32 teams contact his agents. With this sudden flexibility, Collins decides he wants to stay somewhat close to home and someplace warm.
Two days after talking to police, Collins and his mother, Loyetta, are sitting in the Highland Park, Texas, mansion of Jerry Jones, having dinner with the likes of Tony Romo, Jason Witten, the team's offensive linemen and coaches.
Jones took the recruiting pitch so seriously that he called old friend Barry Switzer, the former Cowboys head coach and quite possibly the greatest college recruiter of all time, for advice. By the end of the night, Collins knew he had found his new home.
"From the first phone call from Jerry, the next day dinner at his house – my mom is there and she loves him – it felt special, felt different," Collins said. "I just knew. I didn't need to visit any other team or city, this is where I need to be.
"Jerry loves football, he's always watching us behind the scenes, he's always there. That means a lot to me. He would do anything to win. He cares about us not only as players but men. He's always asking me about my mom. You talk to guys around the league and their owner never speaks to them, never comes around. Some have never even met their owner."
The lone downside, and this would have been the case signing with any team, were the financial restrictions of being an undrafted free agent. Collins inked a three-year, guaranteed contract for $1.7 million. If drafted where he was projected, the money would have been around $17-$19 million.
While Collins was elated beyond elation to be with the Cowboys, human nature being human nature, there was no way to mentally just move on from going through an experience like that without feeling, well, angry at the world. Like, this isn't right, I did nothing wrong, and someone owes me a whole lot of money.
"I knew I couldn't dwell on it once I signed here. There was so much to learn and pick up, but I was feeling so down," Collins said. "(Former Cowboys offensive lineman) Doug Free told me once, 'We all go through stuff in life in this locker room, but no one is going to feel sorry for you. No matter what you have, leave all that crap behind. So don't feel sorry for yourself.' That stuck with me.
"I won't lie, my mind was all over the place and my mind wasn't focused on what it should have been. From that point on, from what Doug told me, it hit me in all aspects of my life, and that's what helped me moved on. No one would feel sorry for me, time to go back to work, forget it."
Time to go back to work. That's pretty much how Loyetta Collins made sure her four children would have the opportunities that she didn't. La'el's mother not only worked multiple jobs, she seemingly did them all: delivering pizzas, transporting shingles around Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, advising preschool parents for the local school district. She was even a casino security guard and prison guard at San Gabriel men's state prison, some shifts overlooking the prison yard with a shotgun.
When La'el was 2 years old, his father, David Phillips, was sent to a maximum security prison in Angola, La., known as "The Dungeon." When he was released in 2015, La'el told The Dallas Morning News, "If you want to know about me, it's better to ask me about my mother. My father was incarcerated. She raised me. I grew up against all odds in a neighborhood where a lot of kids are either dead or in jail."
For decades, offensive linemen have been well known as the toughest interview in sports. The majority wouldn't even speak on the record. There was an interview with former Cowboys tackle and current offensive line coach Marc Colombo back in the day where he answered 10 questions with a grand total of 18 words. The current corps is actually pretty decent. Joe Looney is hilarious, unarguably the funniest guy on the team. Travis Frederick is brilliant and cordial. Zack Martin is well spoken and willing to answer questions.
Collins is different, though. Kind of a tackle with the personality of a quarterback: confident, articulate, thoughtful. Sitting on a couch adjacent to the Cowboys' cafeteria at The Star in Frisco, he takes several minutes answering a single query, often pausing in mid-sentence for a few seconds and taking his thoughts in another direction. What was supposed to be a quick chat turns into a 40-minute discussion, with his miraculous mother the central character.
"My ma, she worked so hard, too hard," Collins said. "She did everything she could to provide for us – me, my brother and two sisters. That's where I got whatever it was instilled in me. One thing she always told us was if you start something to finish it. She instilled that so strongly, you start it, you finish it.
"Just watching her raise us, how she was determined to go to work no matter how tired she was. There were times I was getting ready for school in the morning and my ma would walk in the door from work, and then when I came home from school that afternoon, she was already at work. That was the norm. I could go two or three days at a time without seeing her. That was the commitment, that was the sacrifice.
"The times I did see her she would be dog tired from working so hard. That did something to me as a kid, seeing her work so hard. Once I was at the age to realize how hard she was working, once I realized how she was providing for us, I decided there's nothing I can't do. I can push myself even harder than what my mind and body is telling me. She showed me what it was like to have drive and ambition and to push myself to whatever limits I have.
"I never told her that. I told her a few years ago that she was where I got that from, that's where it was instilled in me. That meant the world to her. And she means the world to me."
You start it, you finish it.
When Collins was in second grade, his mother wanted him to experience a world beyond his neighborhood, see how other 7-year-old boys lived. Not only from a couple of blocks over but other towns and states. Exposure not only expands knowledge, it allows for relationships, friendships, conversations beyond that narrow world of school, home and the playground.
That's not only when young, but never undersized, La'el first started playing sports, first played Pee Wee football, and just as importantly, if not more so, joined the Cub Scouts. Then came the Boy Scouts. And as a senior in high school, the ultimate honor, one which was actually one of the most popular topics during his pre-draft meetings with NFL teams: Collins is an Eagle Scout.
"Boy Scouts taught me about teamwork, working together as a group for a common goal," Collins said. "That was my first brotherhood, my first bonds, my first type of real camaraderie and really my first experience with family outside of my real family. It showed me how to work with people from different backgrounds, different walks of life, from all over the country. Winter camp, summer camp, meet guys from all over and interact with them.
"You felt welcomed no matter where you were. No matter where you were you felt a brotherhood. No matter if from Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, wherever, you connect. It was all about counting on each other, having a guy's back, no man left behind. It showed me what it was like to be about team and a group of guys."
Speaking of teams, a lot of talking heads in the media and on the social networks thought that Collins would have commanded a lot more money than for what he signed in September via free agency after the season. And that was before the big fella dominated multiple games with an array of pancake blocks to the point of borderline manhandling opponents. Colombo calls him the enforcer of the unit and we're talking about a group inclusive of three All-Pros.
Make no mistake, though. There is no team for whom Collins has any interest in playing besides America's Team. Could care less if they are offering more money. He could be a Pro Bowl selection himself this season and will have zero regret about inking the extension.
"When it came time for the contract, it wasn't even a no-brainer. It was whatever is way more so," Collins said. "I hear free agency, more money and all that, but deep down inside, this is only place I want to be. This was the only option.
"These are my brothers, this is what we have built, this is what I have been a part of for five years. I don't want to go anywhere else. Ever. I want to show these guys I will give everything I have every game, every snap. That's the bond. I was never leaving if they wanted me here.
"I couldn't imagine myself anywhere else, that's the crazy part. Even though things didn't work out like I wanted, obviously, but I can't imagine being anywhere else. You talk to other guys around the league and no one has it like we do here. It somehow all worked out. The journey maybe wasn't how I envisioned it, but I am where I am supposed to be."
You start it, you finish it.
Collins has every intention of doing just that. Starting and finishing his NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys. The nightmares of the past have evolved into La'el Collins living his, and his mother's, dream.