There was the running back who sprinted with a fury — whose legs thrashed forward, and whose dreadlocks flailed like lashes in his wake.
When Alex Collins had the ball, you didn’t want to stand between him and where he wanted to go.
Opponents in Collins’ best NFL season, when he ran for 973 yards in 2017, learned this side of his violent, north-south rushing style, which was a lockstep fit with the Baltimore Ravens.
But those close to him got to know the other side: the charming, caring teammate and friend who could brighten a room with a flash of his smile or a quick hit of his signature Irish dancing.
That’s the person that is being remembered this week, after Collins died Sunday in a motorcycle crash in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. He was 28 years old, an age that Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey (who is 27) could scarcely comprehend.
“You never think about a guy that was just in the League, playing with the guy [that] life could end so soon,” he said. “To Alex Collins, he was a funny teammate. I think he made everybody laugh, but I just want to encourage everyone — whoever’s listening — just tell your people that you love them because you truly just never know.”
Collins’ NFL career was about as short as many running backs in this era: He appeared in 50 games total, and wound up with 2,464 yards from scrimmage in his career. This year, he seemed hopeful for a comeback to the NFL while playing for the Memphis Showboats in the USFL, but his season was cut short by injury.
If a comeback to the NFL seemed unlikely, his tenure with the Ravens is a good reminder that it was best not to doubt what Collins could do. He started the 2017 season with the practice squad as Baltimore’s third-ranked back. By season’s end, he was the most reliable skill player in the Ravens’ 27th-ranked offense.
Humphrey called it “the ideal story” of an NFL underdog.
“To kind of see that journey for him, it was surreal,” he said. “I’m sure it was a surreal feeling for him, but also it was you really can start low and get [to] where you want to be after already getting drafted earlier, going to the bottom and then coming back.”
But Collins also played what might be the most cutthroat position in the NFL. He couldn’t create the same magic in 2018, and then was cast to the injured reserve after a foot injury — opening the door for Gus Edwards, another Ravens practice squad success story.
The brevity of Collins’ career belied how much of an impression he could make with the people around him. Lamar Jackson, then a rookie, was drawn to Collins in part because he, too, hailed from Broward County. But he was also an easy person to get along with, no matter where you called home.
“We were always chatting and playing around and stuff like that in the locker room,” Jackson said Tuesday. “[He had] great energy [and was] a great guy to be around. [I’m] just sorry for the loss and especially to his family, because he was a great guy.”
Perhaps the thing that is best remembered about Collins: His Irish dancing registered like a gimmick at times. Did reps in the Gaelic tradition truly make him a better running back? It’s tough to honestly say.
But it is clear that Collins wasn’t flippant about it, going to Ireland in part because of his appreciation of the art. Anne Brodsky owns Encore Dance Theater, where Collins would train with the Drake Irish Dance company that rented a studio — when he trained, the other dance students were drawn to his energy.
“The biggest thing I could say about him, he was the sweetest, kindest — he brought such a light,” Brodsky said. “You just wanted to be around him. Just being in the studio with him, you could feel his energy. He was very, very sweet, and he was so respectful of it.”
Up until the end of his football career, Collins had surprises. In one of his final USFL games, he threw a touchdown pass for the Showboats. He also remained giving of his time: USFL spokesman Darryn James remembered asking Collins to do some Irish dancing for a national TV segment at a dance studio in Memphis. Though it had been some time since Collins had put on his dancing shoes, he drove across town to help bring publicity to the league.
It’s all the tougher to stomach for the Ravens, who have seen two members of the 2017 team — including fellow Arkansas Razorback Ryan Mallett — die in the last few months. Mallett was just 35 years old when he died in June after being pulled unresponsive from the water off a Florida beach. When players leave the NFL, it is sometimes difficult to fathom how young they still are and how much life seems to lie ahead — until it is tragically taken.
What’s left are memories. The people who knew Alex Collins will hold onto them tightly.
“He was a bright spirit — someone that was always happy [and] having fun,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. “A great guy to have in the locker room, and [I’m] deeply saddened by what happened.”