J. Brady McCollough
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Thursday, January 3, 2008

KU's Talib, Collins matured together

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. | The two friends shared a look. They knew each other so well, had gone through so much together, that words were normally not needed. But this was different.

 

Aqib Talib and Anthony Collins met each other for the first time as seniors in high school on a visit to Kansas. They hit it off immediately because they wanted the same thing. To get the heck out of Texas. Talib had gotten no love from the schools in his own state. And Collins would have gone anywhere to leave Beaumont, Texas.

 

They didn't exactly know why, but Kansas seemed as good a place as any. Hey, as their coach would say four years later, what is faith if not believing in something you can't see?

 

Well, Talib and Collins may have thought their eyes were playing tricks on them four weeks ago when they walked out of the Orlando, Fla., airport. They saw the palm trees and the sunshine, and they shared a look that helped them acknowledge that this was not an optical illusion, that they were in fact college football All-Americans up for major awards and soon to be playing in the Orange Bowl.

 

Then Aqib Talib spoke.

 

"Man," he said, "we made it."

 

***

 

Aqib Talib and Anthony Collins tell the story of Kansas football. From nobody to somebody. From scary tale to fairytale.

 

"It came true for us," Collins would say.

 

Before they could ever become Associated Press first-team All-Americans - the first KU tandem to make the team since 1968 - they would have to be humbled. They would have to clean house, to scrub away the rough edges. Literally.

 

Back in the summer of 2004, when Talib and Collins arrived in Lawrence, the NCAA did not allow freshmen to start receiving scholarship money in the summer. Talib and Collins were living together in Jayhawker Towers, but they had no money. So they worked as janitors in the towers, cleaning dorm rooms ravaged by kids just like themselves the year before.

 

This wasn't quite what they signed up for. Weren't they Big 12 football players?

 

"We scrubbed stoves, we cleaned refrigerators that old college guys used to have," Talib says, "so you know they get nasty. It was terrible, man. We hated it."

 

Talib had always believed he was capable of being a starting defensive back in the Big 12. Even though he didn't get the exposure he needed at Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas, and the Texas schools didn't think he was fast enough. Collins had only played high school football for one season - he was actually a more accomplished basketball player - so he truly had no concept of what life as a Division I-A player would be like.

 

It turned out that they both weren't ready. Talib and Collins would redshirt the 2004 season. Physically, they needed time to mature in the weight room and on the practice field. And mentally, they didn't yet understand the value of hard work.

 

KU defensive tackle James McClinton came in with Talib and Collins that summer. He also worked as a janitor. He remembers how they all became fed up with the job, how they were asked to mop the entire stairway one day and simply didn't show up, how they were all fired for the offense.

 

"I guess we got tired of it and walked off the job," McClinton says. "We were young and dumb."

 

***

 

It was obvious to everybody around the Kansas program that Anthony Collins could be special. But did he want to be?

 

"When he first got here," senior offensive tackle Cesar Rodriguez said, "he was kind of sluggish and didn't want to practice as hard as he could."

 

While Collins didn't play much during his redshirt freshman season, Talib had been thrust into a starting - and eventually starring - role. He was too good to keep off the field. Talib, a 6-foot-2 cornerback, surprised everyone around the country by making 54 tackles and leading the team with eight pass breakups. He was chosen a freshman All-American by Rivals.com and helped KU to a Fort Worth Bowl victory in 2005.

 

Still, he didn't get it. He was a preseason All-Big 12 selection his sophomore year but began the season on the bench with a two-game suspension because of a violation of team rules.

 

"I was a very immature person," Talib says. "I was on my own schedule. 'Man, I'll just do the Stairmaster. I'm not going to weights.' It was just very immature, not knowing my talent level, not knowing what I have a chance to do."

 

Aqib's older brother, Yaqub Talib, knew all too well what was out there for his little bro. Yaqub, three years his senior, had always looked after Aqib. He stayed on him constantly after his suspension.

 

"He kind of told me, 'Either you're going to live out your dream and play in the NFL, or you're going to mess it up,' " Aqib says. "He said, 'They're paying for your school. You came here for a reason. Do everything they say. It's a job. Act like it's a job. Get ready for the real world. The real world is hard.' It's a jump everyone makes. Everyone in this room has been young and immature before."

 

Collins' family helped him, too. All he had to do was think about his mom, Rhoda Goodman, back in Beaumont. She had raised him along with two brothers and four sisters, and they didn't have much.

 

"Momma's gotta eat!" became his personal slogan.

 

When he was tired, Momma had to eat. In the weight room, Momma had to eat. On the field, Momma had to eat. It was partly to make his teammates and reporters laugh, but there was truth in it. He wanted to give Goodman financial security, and he wasn't going to do that by wasting his talent.

 

"His attitude changed," Rodriguez says. "He looked at us and said, 'If I work hard, I can be a really good player.' He took that attitude and it kind of rubbed off on everyone else."

 

Talib and Collins both had successful sophomore seasons. Two of the most big-talking Jayhawks, they stepped out and predicted that KU would win big this year. Talib said nine wins, Collins 11. Clearly, the Jayhawks backed up their emboldened teammates.

 

The success brought more attention to Talib and Collins. Talib was chosen a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded to the best defensive player in college football. Collins was a finalist for the Outland Trophy, awarded to the best interior lineman.

 

Those awards were what brought them to Orlando for the nationally televised college football awards show. There, the country was introduced to the best friends and former roommates, who conducted a refreshing and funny interview with ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. It was just four years ago that Collins returned home from his visit to Kansas and looked up Talib's profile on Rivals.com. He didn't know anything about the kid. Now, they were both on top of the world.

 

"It was a great experience," Collins said, "seeing all the All-Americans, seeing that they act just like me. (Michigan left tackle) Jake Long and (USC left tackle) Sam Baker came up to my room. We were just relaxing. They told me that I need to stay another year."

 

Turns out, that will be another decision Talib and Collins will make together.

 

***

 

Back when they were young, when they couldn't see further into the future than the next second, Talib and Collins made a pact. They came in together, so they would leave together. No questions asked.

 

Of course, that was then, and now is a totally different ballgame.

 

"Back when we were freshmen, we were just talking," Collins said. "It's dealing with a lot of money right now."

 

While the NFL may be in the back of their minds, Talib and Collins couldn't be more focused on the task at hand. Both have reasons to leave everything on the field tonight against Virginia Tech.

 

Talib, despite his status as a consensus first-team All-America cornerback, is not impressed with his season. He finished with 61 tackles, 13 pass breakups and four interceptions. He had six picks his sophomore year.

 

"I kind of feel like my sophomore year was a lot better than this," Talib says. "I gave up like three or four touchdowns this year. As far as me stopping them from scoring, it was a lot better sophomore year."

 

Talib is happy to get recognition, but he wishes he felt more as if he had earned it. Tonight, the whole country will be watching, and when KU is on defense, the camera will find him more than any other player. His protégé in the secondary, freshman Chris Harris, says Talib wants this game badly.

 

"We were working out and running (a few weeks ago)," Harris says, "and he went off on the weight room coach because he felt like it needed to be way harder than what it was. That's just Aqib. He's ready to prove himself this game all over again to the world."

 

Tonight, Talib will return punts for the first time this year. It's a showcase game for him and for Collins, who was less than 70-percent healthy the last time he took the field against Missouri.

 

"That Missouri game was something else," said Collins, who basically played on one leg. "We played with a lot of heart. Everyone else was fighting, and I'm the leader of the team. I figured if everyone looked at me, I just had to fight through it."

 

When the game is over, Talib and Collins will discuss their future with their families. Then they'll talk with their coaches. Through it all, they'll be talking with each other. If they come back, Kansas might be worthy of a preseason top-10 ranking. If they leave, they'll be able to help their families and start anew, laughing about the days when they scrubbed dirty stoves in Jayhawker Towers.

 

"I knew him from the beginning," Collins says. "He's my best friend."

 

Talib says: "We're in this together."

 

You have to wonder: If Talib and Collins hadn't matured over the last four years, would Kansas be here, soaking up rays under those south Florida palm trees?

 

"They've taken a philosophy where they're not going to be dumb and waste their talent," Rodriguez says. "They've grown up into great men."

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