Kerry Collins is widely regarded as the best quarterback in the history of Penn State football.
It’s not hard to see just why. He guided the Nittany Lions’ most prolific offense in 1994, on an undefeated team that scored just shy of 50 points per game. He was a Heisman candidate, a Davey O’Brien and Maxwell awards winner, and a leader for a team bursting with offensive firepower.
He was deservedly named to the College Football Hall of Fame on Monday. But his career wasn’t filled with just praise and trophies.
He had to overcome obstacles and adversity month after month, year after year. It wasn’t an easy road — but the destination on that path fraught with speed bumps was a Hall of Fame college career and an incredible NFL one.
This is the timeline of Collins’ journey to greatness:
April 19, 1990: Recruiting Class
Kerry Collins became one of four quarterbacks in the 17-player Penn State recruiting class — and expectations weren’t all that high for the Pennsylvania product. He joined Danny White (San Diego, Calif.), quarterback-turned-eventual linebacker Brian Gelzheiser (Pittsburgh) and John Sacca (Delran, N.J.). He finished his senior season at Wilson by completing 101 of 208 passes for 2,043 yards.
Here’s what The Daily Collegian wrote, “Collins will be redshirted this season, but the following season he will get a shot behind center. Until then he will work on his grades and continue developing his vast athletic potential. It is conceivable that by his senior year he could work his way into the starter’s spot.”
Overall, his first season — which he did redshirt — was very quiet.
April 21, 1991: First Blue-White Game
Offensive coordinator Fran Ganter didn’t even mention Collins by name in the days leading up to the Blue-White Game. He simply referred to both Collins and John Sacca as “the two young kids” and mentioned how they were still “getting a feel for things.”
In the annual scrimmage, Collins saw limited reps for the White Team. He finished 5 of 9 for 51 yards, with one interception and no touchdowns. He also had four rushes for minus-10 yards and a score. He made a nice 22-yard toss to tight end Troy Drayton, but his lone highlight essentially came on a gadget play. Ganter plugged in two defensive tackles in the backfield to have some fun, and Collins sprinted ahead for a four-yard rushing TD.
Collins was simply hoping to beat out John Sacca and Danny White for the No. 3 job. Tony Sacca and Matt Nardolillo were both the clear-cut 1-2.
Sept. 7, 1991: First Snap
Penn State pulled its starters after a 40-0 halftime score against Cincinnati in a game it eventually won 81-0. Everyone played — except the players that Joe Paterno planned to redshirt.
Four quarterbacks took snaps, including Collins, but he didn’t throw a single pass. He just handed off and ran once himself for no gain. Said Collins: “I’m disappointed I didn’t get to throw any passes, but I’m glad we showed class and didn’t run up the score.”
Sept. 23, 1991: The Potential
It didn’t take long for Joe Paterno to see what he had in Collins.
When Tony Sacca was injured the week before, and he was questionable as late as Thursday, Collins was the one seeing most of the first-team reps — even over the more-experienced Matt Nardolillo. When Paterno was asked a few days later what would’ve happened if Sacca couldn’t go, he still insisted he wasn’t sure what he would have done.
But, by then, fans started to realize they had a prospect in Collins.
“Collins is a big kid with a really big-league arm, but he is not as clever as Nardolillo,” Paterno said. “Matt knows more about our system.”
A week after that, Paterno acknowledged that Collins had at least moved even with Nardolillo as the backup QB to Tony Sacca. He said Collins clearly had more “raw talent.”
Jan. 3 1992: Fiesta Bowl Champs — Now What?
Penn State finished the season No. 3 in the country after a 42-17 win over Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. But, with Tony Sacca set to graduate, the big question now was, “Who’s the next quarterback at Penn State?” Most felt it would be Collins, who attempted just six passes in the ‘91 season.
“Collins is not very much different than Sacca,” Joe Paterno said. “He may not be as fast as Sacca, but he’s the same kind of kid. He’s had a chance to develop slowly without a lot of pressure on him.”
April 26, 1992: Collins Is The Starter
At the time, Matt Nardolillo left the team after Paterno told him he wouldn’t be the starter. The fifth-year player eventually returned in August, however.
Still, it became clear Collins was the best option for the Nittany Lions. He even threw for more than 400 yards in the Blue-White Game.
Here’s what Collins said earlier in April: “Whether I take advantage of that situation and take the No. 1 job is up to me. But this is where I would have liked to be before I came here.”
The starting lineup was clear to anyone who was paying attention. Collins was No. 1, and John Sacca was No. 2. So, two months later, Danny White announced he was transferring to Arizona. “Kerry Collins had a great spring, and he deserved to get the start,” White told the Centre Daily Times.
Aug. 24, 1992: Injury Strikes
Collins had essentially won the job, but then he suffered a broken index finger on his throwing hand — allegedly from playing volleyball at a family picnic — before preseason practice. (Paterno said, in 2009, he didn’t believe the excuse: “Yeah, and I’m Knute Rockne,” he said he told Collins at the time.) The initial diagnosis was that he would be out for at least the first two games of the season. He was out for closer to half the season. That put John Sacca as the starter.
In the first game, Sacca went down with an injured collarbone — and, with Matt Nardolillo also injured, true freshman Wally Richardson came in and eked out a 24-20 win over Cincinnati. Sacca didn’t stay out for long, however.
Sept. 28, 1992: QB Controversy
Penn State rose to No. 9 after starting out 4-0 — with victories over Cincinnati, Temple, Eastern Michigan and Maryland. John Sacca was playing well, very well, and that led plenty to wonder if Collins would still be the starter when he returned from his injury.
“I really have no idea,” Sacca said. And a few days later: “I just go out and do my best. ... I can’t be worried about anyone else.”
In early October, it seemed as if Collins was on pace to possibly return against Rutgers on Oct. 3. But then he suffered a setback. “I told him not to take snaps until I talked to the doctor,” Paterno said. “He took some snaps — and how he’s got a sore finger.”
Oct. 17, 1992: Collins Returns
Finally, Collins could take snaps without a protective sponge wrapped around his finger. Still, he wasn’t expected to play much against Boston College — until John Sacca aggravated his sprained collarbone late in the fourth quarter.
With three minutes left, Collins — who hadn’t even warmed up — took over on third-and-3 from his own 17. On his first play, he rifled a 24-yard completion to Justin Williams. Four plays later, he had the Nittany Lions in the end zone and brought trailing Penn State to within a 35-32 score.
Penn State recovered an onsides kick. But Collins threw an interception. The comeback came up short. Still, it seemed as if Collins could play. There was no rust where there should have been.
“Eventually Joe’s going to have to make a decision,” Sacca said after the game.
Oct. 24, 1992: Collins Gets The Start — And The Win
After his performance in the loss against Boston College, Joe Paterno felt confident enough to insert Collins into the starting lineup.
He wouldn’t be disappointed.
Against West Virginia, Collins finished 15 of 30 for 249 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Penn State won 40-26.
“There is not a better feeling in the world than this,” Collins said.
Oct. 29, 1992: No More Controversy
John Sacca — who started six of seven games — was likely done for the season.
With an injured knee, suffered in a practice Wednesday, John Sacca was expected to miss at least five or six weeks. That put Collins in the driver’s seat.
Against BYU, Collins’ Nittany Lions came up short 30-17. But that wasn’t necessarily Collins’ fault; Penn State ran 33 times for 101 yards while Collins threw for 317 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. But he didn’t capitalize off some red-zone visits. No. 8 Notre Dame was next — and Penn State fell 17-16 after a 7-of-28 passing performance by Collins.
“I’m certainly not going to say I played well,” he said after that game.
Nov. 21, 1992: Demolishing Pitt
It was an up-and-down season for Collins, between the injuries and the losses. But he got back on track with an easy, impressive 57-13 win over Pitt — thanks in large part to the 300-plus rushing yards.
Still, Pitt coach Paul Hackett was impressed. He made it a point to praise Penn State’s quarterback: “With a healthy Kerry Collins from the beginning, they might have had a chance to make a run for it (the national championship).”
The Nittany Lions went on to fall to Stanford 24-3 in the Blockbuster Bowl and finish their season 7-5. Collins didn’t end the season they way he wanted to and hurt his finger. When asked if he thought he’d be the starter next season, he said, “I don’t know, I’ll tell you in spring practice.”
Jan. 29, 1993: A Setback
After returning from injury to regain the starting quarterback spot for the last half of the 1992 season, Collins underwent corrective surgery on his index finger on Jan. 12, 11 days after the Blockbuster Bowl. He told reporters that during the surgery it was discovered that the ligaments in his hand had been severed. They were reattached via a pin insertion, and he was expected to return around the middle of the spring.
Instead, he missed the entire spring. “The Kerry Collins thing is a real setback for him personally as well as for the football team because he’ll miss the spring practice he needed,” Paterno said near the end of March. “He can’t throw a football. He can’t even grip a football.”
Aug. 5, 1993: Another QB Controversy
Collins showed a lot of talent and potential in the second half of 1992 but, at this point, no signal-caller had separated himself. Collins would have to earn it all again.
“We have three kids who have good potential, but none of them right now i could tell you will be the quarterback,” Paterno said, referring to Collins, John Sacca and Wally Richardson.
In late August, Collins was the first quarterback to see action in a scrimmage — and it appeared as if he was on his way to reclaiming the starting spot. A week later, however, Joe Paterno made the official announcement: The starter was John Sacca.
Sept. 18, 1993 : Collins Gets Another Shot
Fan chatter was mounting. After John Sacca’s 6-of-17 performance with two interceptions against USC — in a narrow 21-20 win — most wanted to see Collins under center.
Joe Paterno gave Sacca a vote of confidence. But, at the start of the second quarter against Iowa, Paterno pulled him after he went 1 of 7. Sacca didn’t get back into the game until late in the final quarter of a 31-0 win. The game was Collins’.
“I just felt it was time for a change,” Paterno said. “I was gonna play Kerry today even if John was hot as a firecracker.”
Sacca wasn’t pleased. He said the day after the game that he would probably quit the Nittany Lions and leave the university — but friends and family persuaded him to stay.
A few days later, on Sept. 23, Joe Paterno made it official: Collins would get the start against Rutgers.
This was the start of Collins’ climb to the top.
Oct. 30, 1993: The Criticism
Penn State started off hot, opening the season with a 5-0 record, reaching the No. 7 ranking in the country. But then came a 21-13 loss to No. 18 Michigan, followed by a 24-6 loss to No. 3 Ohio State.
And the Buckeyes didn’t hold back after the game. They said they knew where the ball was going when Collins dropped back.
“I just read his eyes,” free safety Walter Taylor said. “All I was waiting for was for the ball to come down.”
Collins needed a performance to get back on track. Fans’ confidence wasn’t exactly at an all-time high.
Indiana cornerback Jason Orton took a verbal jab at Collins a week later: “Their quarterback seems to get a little shaky under pressure, and I think our front four might be encouraged by that.”
Orton probably shouldn’t have said that. Penn State beat the No. 17 Hoosiers 38-31.
Nov. 27, 1993: Collins leads comeback against Spartans
Collins went on to defeat Illinois and Northwestern — although it wasn’t all roses. The win over the Illini also was lackluster, as he completed 5 of 18 passes for 49 yards and three interceptions. But, after the game, he still had a vote of confidence from Paterno.
“I think Kerry Collins is on his way to becoming a fine quarterback,” Paterno said after the Illinois win.
Against Michigan State, it was a different story. He passed for a career-high, at the time, of 352 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-37 win at Michigan State to complete the regular season with a 9-2 record. The Nittany Lions rallied from a 20-point deficit, with the go-ahead score a 52-yard strike from Collins to Bobby Engram. The win helped put the Nittany Lions in the Citrus Bowl.
The doubters got a lot quieter.
Jan. 1, 1994: Nittany Lions thump Tennessee
Collins was fired up about all the attention that was paid to Tennessee’s quarterback Heath Shuler, who was a Heisman Trophy candidate that season, before the Nittany Lions met the Volunteers in the Citrus Bowl. After the 31-13 thumping after entering the game as a 9 1/2-point betting underdog, Collins let loose.
“To hear about Tennessee, to hear about this game and us being underdogs, it just added fuel to the fire,” he said that day. “You’d talk to everybody on the street and they’d say, ‘Maybe if you guys pull out a miracle you can beat (Tennessee) or stay with them.’”
Later adding, “That’s ridiculous.”
Shuler passed for more yards in the game, but Collins was far more efficient and threw for four touchdowns.
“All it was, was ‘Heath Shuler this, Heath Shuler that.’ ... To be honest with you, I felt a little bit ticked off because Shuler was getting so much hype. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t take it personal.”
April 23, 1994: No More Controversy
Finally, this was Kerry Collins’ team.
He was the starter in the spring. And this was going to his season to lead the team to prominence. He was healthy, he was experienced — and he was ready.
He didn’t know it back at the Blue-White Game, but he was about to help produce a season that no Nittany Lion fan would ever forget.
Sept. 11, 1994: Nittany Lions make statement against Southern Cal
Collins passed for 248 yards and two scores, the No. 8 Nittany Lions rolled up 534 yards of offense and pasted No. 14 Southern California 38-14 at Beaver Stadium.
“That Penn State football team overwhelmed us,” Trojan coach John Robinson said after the second lopsided win in as many weeks to open the season.
And that was just a harbinger of things to come.
Oct. 16, 1994: Nittany Lions take showdown with Wolverines
Penn State got into the driver’s seat for the Rose Bowl with a 31-24 victory over No. 5 Michigan in Ann Arbor. Collins was 20 of 32 for 231 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning 16-yard connection to Bobby Engram with 2:53 left.
“This was the first big game (for me) where something was riding on it,” Collins said after the win. “This was the biggest game of my life.”
The performance also drew the fullest of confidence from coach Joe Paterno after there were questions earlier in the year whether Wally Richardson should be the starting quarterback.
“He had a lot of pressure on him and he made some great plays,” Paterno said. “That’s the first time in a long time he has had a lot of pressure. He missed one or two reads for the first time in a long time, but he came back and madde some great throws.”
Oct. 30, 1994: Buckeyes crushed by Lions
Now No. 1 in the nation, Penn State left little doubt about the most dominant team in the Big Ten, buring Ohio State 63-14 to all but lock up a Rose Bowl berth. Collins completed 19 of 23 passes for 265 yards and two scores to go with Ki-Jana Carter’s 137 yards and four touchdowns. The outcome, the Buckeyes’ most lopsided since 1902, came a year after humbling Penn State 24-6 in Columbus.
Nov. 6, 1994: The Nittany Lions’ win that costs them national championship
When Ki-Jana Carter reached the end zone after an 80-yard run, Penn State appeared to have a win over Indiana locked up. But the Hoosiers scored a pair of late touchdowns and the Nittany Lions only won 35-29 in Bloomington.
Collins passed for two scores but also was picked off twice, the team made a number of other mistakes and enough Associated Press voters were unimpressed with the Nittany Lions’ play to jump Nebraska over Penn State in the weekly poll — a position the Cornhuskers would never lose.
Nov. 12, 1994: The 96-yard drive at Illinois
The Nittany Lions’ perfect season hung in the balance.
Shockingly down 21-0 in the first quarter to Illinois — which boasted a defense led by All-American linebackers Simeon Rice and Dana Howard — Penn State had to rally. And to Collins’ credit, he led the charge.
After an early interception, Collins rebounded and finished with 300 passing yards on 24 completions.
What everyone remembers, though, was the Nittany Lions’ final drive. Collins completed 7 of 7 passes for 60 yards on a 96-yard, five-minute decisive scoring series. Brian Milne’s 2-yard touchdown run with 57 seconds remaining complemented Collins’ heroics and captured a 35-31 win in Champaign.
The victory clinched Penn State’s first-ever Big Ten Championship, secured a spot in the Rose Bowl and added to Collins’ legend.
Dec. 11, 1994: Carter, Collins fall short in Heisman race
Collins and Carter were in the audience in New York to see Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam win the Heisman Trophy. Carter finished second in the voting and Collins was fourth. Collins finished the regular season completing 176 of 264 passes for 2,679 yards and 21 touchdowns. His 172.9 passer rating led the nation.
Jan. 2, 1995: Rose Bowl victory, but no national title
Despite an impressive 38-20 performance against Oregon, Penn State came up short in the eyes of national voters to finish No. 2 in the national polls behind Nebraska. Carter raced for an 83-yard touchdown on the Nittany Lions’ first play from scrimmage, and Collins passed for 200 yards in his final game.
Penn State finished the season 12-0, the fourth undefeated team under Paterno to complete the season undefeated but without a national title.
“I think we deserve a split,” Collins said after the game. “It’s a shame ... that the two best teams in the country this year didn’t face each other. Until that happens, if you have two undefeated teams at the end of the season, you can’t crown one of them undisputed national champion.”
April 1995: Panthers make Collins 1st draft pick in franchise history
Collins added another milestone at the NFL draft, taken No. 5 overall by the Carolina Panthers, the first draft pick in the new franchise’s history. He later played for the New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants, guiding the Giants to Super Bowl XXXV and a 34-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
The Panthers initially had the No. 1 pick but made a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals — who picked Ki-Jana Carter.