IRVING, Texas – It was a fitting end to an unprecedented week that La'el Collins found himself in unprecedented circumstances on Wednesday.
Whereas the vast majority of coveted NFL prospects are drafted into a new organization, Collins sat down at Valley Ranch having made a choice. Given his choice of places to start his NFL career, one of the best prospects in this year's draft opted for Dallas.
"I had the opportunity to choose from 32 teams where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy," Collins said. "I wanted to be in a place where I would fight for championships, year in and year out. I wanted to be in a place where I would reach my full potential around guys that see the same vision I see, a team that stands for something."
Emphatic as it might be, that quote can't hope to do justice to what has happened to Collins in the last 10 or so days. Originally projected as one of the draft's top talents, Collins fell off of draft boards entirely when news emerged that police in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., wanted to talk to him in regard to a local murder case.
"I've not had this experience in the NFL," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "I've never seen anybody have this experience that La'el's had."
That experience started with him departing the NFL draft ceremony in Chicago in order to return home to Louisiana, where police hoped to talk to him about the murder of 29-year-old Brittney Mills – who had been pregnant at the time. Collins was never considered a suspect, but the mere mention of his name in connection with the case caused him to fall – not just out of the draft's first round, but out of the draft entirely.
"I could easily have been bitter. I could have easily been mad at the world, taken it out on anybody," Collins said. "You have a lot of reasons, whatever the case may be, but for me from the moment everything went out, however you have it, I never dropped my head. I knew what I stand for. I know the person that I am. I know what I believe in."
Collins met with police on Monday, and the paternity test he took for investigators came back negative. That peace of mind prompted several teams, led by Buffalo and Miami, to talk to the 21-year-old. The Cowboys' name entered the conversation on Wednesday – but not before Jones himself had a conversation with Collins.
"I got a call from Mr. Jones a couple nights ago – late, around 11 o'clock," Collins said. "We had a long conversation, man and that was the first time I really felt like somebody seeing me for who I am."
That conversation led Collins and his mother, Loyetta, to Dallas on Wednesday night to meet with Jones – except Jones didn't come alone. At a dinner at Jones' residence, he and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett brought team leaders and Pro Bowlers Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick to help with the sales pitch.
"We had a really special night last night," Garrett said. "We had a lot of guys who have had different things and obstacles they had to overcome in their life and I think there was a real connection among all the people that were there."
It all led back to Collins' choice, and sitting down with Cowboys team leadership clearly had the intended effect, as Collins answered questions from reporters in a shiny new Dallas draft day hat.
"The moment I was in Mr. Jones' home I just felt something that was indescribable," he said. "Just the way he sat down in front of my mom, my agent and the guys that were there. And the way that he just embraced us, I knew from that moment this is where I needed to be, this is where I wanted to be."
There might have been other visits in the works, but none of them ever materialized. Collins landed in Dallas on Wednesday night, and word about his visit had spread by Thursday morning. His signing had been confirmed by early afternoon.
Collins might be the most highly-touted undrafted free agent in league history, and he's joining what many consider the strongest offensive line in the league. That won't bring back the millions of dollars he lost when he didn't hear his name called last week, but he hardly seemed to mind.
"What's for me is going to be for me. The money, all that – that's cool," he said. "If I handle my business and this team handles the business that we know we're going to handle, that'll come."
In the meantime, Collins and his team of choice will focus on putting a surreal week behind them. NFL rules stipulate that the newest Cowboy won't be on hand for the team's rookie minicamp, but given the motivating factors at work, that reprieve won't last for long.
"We are looking forward to being part of this organization. It's important being here," Collins said. "I feel the same way and can't wait to go to work. There is a lot of hard work to do. There are a lot things I've got to do to become a great player."
It might not have been a moment Collins or the Cowboys were anticipating, but it might have been the most compelling moment of a week that's been full of them.
"Sitting here today with my family and sitting here today with Mr. Jones, everybody, where else would I be? Where else do I want to be? Nowhere," Collins said. "I want to be here. I want be a Dallas Cowboy, and I am a Dallas Cowboy."