You really don’t know Maliek Collins.
But that’s OK. You might be surprised how much company you have.
In the 2016 draft, the one that brought Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott and Jaylon Smith, in the third round (ahead of Prescott), with the 67th overall pick, the Cowboys added an unheralded defensive tackle from Nebraska. A young man who could be the anchor of a defensive line for years to come. Or here for just a moment in time. Either way, Collins may appear to be hard to get to know. But it’s worth your time to try.
Don’t try to measure him by statistics. The position he plays doesn’t lend itself to that. He did have five sacks as a rookie in 2016, which helped get him noticed outside of the locker room.
But he doesn’t play for that, the notice. He plays for his family and his teammates, and he plays with a relentless nature that belies his quiet demeanor. Unless he has something to say, and trusts you. And even then.
Despite a broken foot in his rookie OTAs, young Collins got noticed for his play, in a good way. He quickly became a starter, and an enigma. Head coach Jason Garrett was asked about him once.
“Maliek doesn’t say much,” Garrett smiled. “Usually, I’ll say, ‘How you doing, Maliek?’ He’ll say, ‘Good, coach.’ That’s about it. That’s a long conversation.”
Today, halfway through his fourth year, it’s fascinating to try to gather descriptions of Collins from people outside the defensive line room. (That’s low-hanging fruit. Those people know him the very best.) But we can start there.
Antwaun Woods, his fellow starting defensive tackle, compares him to NBA star Kawhi Leonard, like a sports assassin who does you in before you know it. For the people who have to block him in practice, independent of each other, the answers are eerily similar.
“Very quiet,” said All-Pro guard Zack Martin. “Really good player. Really good. Really quiet.”
Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick added, “If he hadn’t battled injuries the first few years, if he’d been totally healthy, I think he’d be recognized as one of the top defensive tackles in the game. He’s awfully good. Doesn’t say much.”
From second-year guard Connor Williams, possibly the best description of all, “A quiet wrecking ball.”
Guard Xavier Su’a-Filo said, “I really like Maliek, but he’s really quiet. I know he likes old cars. “
So Maliek, what do you think your teammates mostly said when asked to describe you?
“Probably quiet,” he responded. But it’s not because Maliek Collins doesn’t have anything to say.
“When you don’t talk a lot, you don’t give people a lot to evaluate,” he mused, sounding like the voice of experience. “When you don’t give people a lot to evaluate, you must do a lot by action. So what they see on tape is what they know about me. I just like to observe a lot. I like to read people, read body language. I read people a lot. I watch you. Like if I see ‘Twaun’ [Antwaun Woods] today and I see he’s got one thing off, I’m going to tell him. I think that’s what being a teammate is. I can let him know if I see something. If it’s in his daily demeanor or in his game, I’m able to make that evaluation of him. And he’s able to do the same for me. I think that’s where we’re able to connect as a unit and as a team.”
Not always so quiet, then, always. More like the old adage that still waters run deep.
It’s a reasonable assumption that someone who says, “When you don’t talk a lot, you don’t give people a lot to evaluate,” might feel that somewhere along the line, something he said might have been misevaluated, and probably to his detriment.
“That could be true,” Collins said. “I don’t like misjudgments, but I also don’t like when I say something but it doesn’t really describe what I was trying to put out there. If I misspoke and said something that wasn’t right. So I try to keep it a little bit internal.”
But do not mistake a minimum of conversation for an absence of thought or feeling. Turns out the quiet wrecking ball is a prolific writer.
“It starts with my notes,” he said. “I’ve been (writing, journaling) my whole life. It starts with my notes, but then I just kind of branch off and start writing about everything. I do it all through the day. I start off the same way, with football technique. Get-off, pad level, key technique footwork. That’s what I start off with every day. Being relentless. Edge. Then I start writing things I’m thankful for. Thankful for my health, thankful for my family, my kids, just to be in this position. Things like that. Then I try to live by whatever I write. If I’m writing that I’m thankful, I try to live that way. Let my actions follow what I’ve put on paper. It doesn’t always change much, but I have notebooks on notebooks on notebooks with the same kinds of things.”
So this quiet, relentless wrecking ball, who helps set the tone for his physical, sometimes noisy defense, turns out to be a prolific writer, a person of deep faith, and a man driven to be the kind of father he didn’t have long enough.
“Things change fast,” Collins said, thoughtfully. “Up until I was 6 years old, my father took care of everything. He was a man’s man. You hear anybody talk about him, all you hear is that he was that model man in the household. He died when I was 6. After that, things changed. Then it was me, my mom and my two older sisters. She struggled to keep it going.”
Today, Maliek Collins is the father of two young sons. The oldest is 6. The age Collins was when he lost his dad. How is that relationship?
That brings out a Collins grin that will light up a room.
“It’s a cool relationship. People say I’m quiet, but I will talk a lot of trash,” he said. “Mainly in our (defensive line) room, to keep people honest, keep them true to who they are. I kind of do the same thing with my son, and he does the same thing to me. We might talk a lot of trash to each other, but he’s cool. And I get to see him be a kid. That’s the main thing I wanted, for him to keep his innocence and still be a child.”
Something 6-year-old Maliek didn’t have. Collins also has a 3-year-old son who was born during Maliek’s rookie season, three and a half months premature.
“He weighed 1 pound 8 ounces,” Collins said. “He was in the NICU from Sept. 3 to Dec. 22 of 2016.”
When Maliek was trying to establish his pro football career. Again after breaking his foot in his rookie OTAs and missing training camp. Just in case you thought any of this was easy.
And how is his son today?
“He’s fine. Strong. That fueled me, his fight. The way he fought through that. He’s still a fighter.”
What Collins wants, besides winning, is to take care of his family. Wants to buy his mother a house. Take care of those kids. He embraces being a leader, for his kids and for his young teammates. He knows when he’s the one who needs guidance, and he knows that when he has something to say, it’s best to say it.
“I’ve experienced that before,” said Collins. “Bad things can happen when nobody speaks to somebody who’s going down the wrong road.”
A number of young men with whom Collins grew up and called best friends have met violent ends, victims of mean streets, gun violence, the wrong road. He may seem quiet, but he knows when not to be. Collins lost a man he thought of as a little brother the day before the season opener last year.
“I still feel like if I had one more conversation with him, I could have told him something that might have helped him,” he said, “even though I told him how I felt about certain situations.”
Through injuries and personal difficulties, Maliek Collins has always been there, having missed just three games in three and a half years. And yet most of us don’t really know him. So what would he like fans to think of when they hear his name?
“I’d just like them to know how much time and work went into what we do,” Collins said. “No one goes on the field wanting to mess up a play. If you don’t like what happened, trust me, we feel 10 times worse about what we did. But the best feeling in the world is to make a play that makes someone’s day, or makes someone jump out of their seat.”
Or maybe it’s to be a great dad to two little boys because you know how much that means.
Quiet? Nah. Maliek Collins will speak volumes … if we’ll listen.