The only player from Illinois on the Georgia Bulldogs football roster took the unlikeliest path to get there.
Luke Collins, a freshman linebacker from St. Ignatius, never played a down before last year. Not allowed to play the sport by his parents through his high school years, he went behind their backs and used his entire life savings to go to a prep school in Alabama to learn the sport.
Now, he’s getting ready to dress for the College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
“I’m dumbfounded myself why I’m here, to be quite honest with you,” Collins said before Christmas. “It’s probably the biggest blessing I’ve had in my life.”
The story starts sometime during his high school years, after Collins had stopped asking his parents to play football and was focusing on finishing up a three-year varsity basketball career for St. Ignatius.
The summer before his senior season, Collins’ teammate and best friend Dan Flourey was getting college looks. A recruiter noticed Collins and asked if he played football. When Collins said no, the coach told him, ‘You play basketball like it’s football.’”
That was more fuel for Collins’ fire to hit the gridiron. But there was also a powerful tug in the other direction: his parents’ opposition, based on the risk of concussion or other injuries.
“I love my parents so much,” Collins said. “My dad (Patrick, a prominent lawyer and former assistant U.S. Attorney) is my idol and my hero. Having to be so strong and go against something he advised, that was something I struggled with.
“Having to literally disobey them — even today, looking back — doesn’t sit well.”
“I always call it ‘the COVID surprise,’” Patrick Collins said. “Basketball is the first love in our family. This came out of the blue.”
Defying his family wasn’t the only struggle for Collins. His senior year at St. Ignatius, he sent out dozens of emails a week, trying to find a place — junior college, prep school, whatever — that would teach him how to play football.
It was a month before he even got a response; that was from a prep school in South Carolina that said, no thanks.
But finally, Tim Sanders, the athletic director and football coach at Birmingham Prep in Birmingham, Alabama, called Collins and said, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. We won’t stop you [from coming].”
That was all Collins needed to hear. He and his dad drove to Birmingham in the early days of the pandemic, sleeping in their pickup truck because all the hotels were closed.
Collins enrolled that fall, paying his way with his $3,000 in savings,.and Sanders took the newcomer under his wing.
“He fed me, he clothed me, he let me eat with him and his family,” Collins said. “He really looked out for me [like] a son.”
Collins played for Birmingham and put together a highlight tape that he sent out to a bunch of schools. Georgia was one of them, and was at the top of his wish list because of Collins’ admiration of coach Kirby Smart.
But Collins was realistic, which is why he widened his net.
“I didn’t have an amazing season [at Birmingham Prep],” he said. “There’s nothing that’s going to jump out at you [on the highlight tape] and say, ‘That’s a walk-on at Georgia.’”
But last December, Collins got a text from an unknown number, saying the sender was with the Georgia football staff and gauging his interest.
His first thought: It was his high school buddy, Flourey, pranking him. But Flourey denied it, and a few weeks later came the call that changed Collins’ life: Georgia really was interested in him as a walk-on.
Collins enrolled in the fall and joined the football program, wearing No. 57. He has what he calls a “very, very limited role” with the scout team as he continues his late-starting football education. But he has dressed for some home games and will be part of the traveling party for the Orange Bowl.
Now, his parents are even on board with his dream. “My dad ... he’s been my biggest supporter,” Collins said, and his mom “watches every single game.”
“Right now,” he added, “all I’m thinking about is becoming the best football player I can be.”
Which beats wondering if he’d ever be a football player at all.