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Remembering West Charlotte’s 'Big Mo' Collins

Mo Collins played offensive line on a national championship college football team at the University of Florida and started for the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl.

But always, Collins was a West Charlotte Lion.

Collins, once an All-American at West Charlotte High, was in his first season as the Lions’ head coach when he died Sunday at age 38. He had hoped to not only restore West Charlotte to its spot as one of the state’s top football programs, but to also make a difference in the community and with its young people.

“I want people to know he thought about his football team all the time,” his wife, Jolin said. “He said, ‘They are my 45 sons, Jolin.’ He wanted the best for these young men, not just on the football field. He wanted them to grow up and work and have families and take care of their children. He tried to be an example that way."

Friday night, West Charlotte will pay tribute to Collins with a ceremony at halftime of the Lions’ home football game against Kannapolis A.L. Brown. Collins’ funeral will be Saturday at noon at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, with visitation at 10 a.m.

“He came with dreams and goals for what he wanted for West Charlotte,” said Ella Dennis, president of the school’s national alumni association. “You could see that he gave players -- and all students -- a yes-you-can kind of will power. He was just a big, teddy-bear kind of man.”

Collins played six years in the NFL but never forgot about his hometown of Charlotte and West Charlotte High, the school where his football career began and ended.

“I love West Charlotte,” he said in August. “If you’re an alumnus of West Charlotte, you understand there’s always a bond and love of that school. To see the program where it was last year, it hit rock bottom. I wanted to change that.”

According to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools news release, the cause of death was an unexpected illness. Jolin Collins told the Observer that Collins, who had been successfully receiving dialysis for kidney failure, had come down with what they thought was the flu several weeks ago, and he couldn’t get past it. He checked himself into a hospital last week and was diagnosed with pneumonia.

Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was getting ready to coach against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon when he got the news that his good friend and former high school football teammate had died.

“Mo was very passionate, you know, not just about the game of football, but life in general,” Hamilton said this week. “I had the opportunity to speak with Mo right before he took the job at West Charlotte and he felt like it was important for him to give back, not just a monetary standpoint, but to give back to the community that had such a big impact on his life.”

Hamilton said many Lions graduates, including Collins, have long had what they call “Lion Pride” about a school that was once a model for nationwide desegregation and major athletic success. During Hamilton’s senior year in 1991, he was a quarterback for a Lions’ team that reached the school’s third state championship game in six years. Collins was a sophomore starting left tackle.

“Back then, he was very aggressive,” Hamilton said, “and very conscientious to make sure he understood all the details of what we were doing. And, man, he was mean. Mo was a mean football player. He was a guy who took a lot of pride in finishing blocks and pancaking opponents. That was obvious by how far he took his career. He made us all proud.”

Respecting Big Mo

Collins grew up in Charlotte’s Hampshire Hills neighborhood, on the northeast end of town off Plaza Road. He lived two doors down from R&B singer Dalvin DeGrate of the platinum-selling group Jodeci. The neighborhood produced several major football stars at West Charlotte. In Collins’ graduating class in 1994 were Wali Rainer, a linebacker who starred at Virginia and played in the NFL, and Maurice Staley, who was USA Today’s high school offensive player of the year, and went to Tennessee.

Also from Hampshire Hills was David Green, West Charlotte’s quarterback in 1992, Collins’ junior season. Green, who went on to play at Duke, remembers how Collins would shut down any disagreements in the school hallways back in high school, or in the huddle, with his booming bass voice. He said everybody respected Big Mo.

“Mo grew up right around the corner from us,” Green said. “He was always bigger, so we never saw him in Pop Warner, but the guy has been the same way the entire time. He’s a gentle giant. He would do anything for anybody.”

Collins was the second of four children in a family raised by Carl and Barbara Collins, who both worked for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Carl Collinsplayed at N.C. A&T, almost made the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster and later played semipro football in Charlotte. He died unexpectedly in 2000.

Described by his mother in an earlier Observer story as “a big kid, he was never fat,” Collins nonetheless was too big to make the weight limit in youth football. So he played basketball – his first love – and baseball.

But Collins’ size worked for him when he arrived at West Charlotte. By the time he was a senior, he had grown to 6-foot-4, 275 pounds. He also developed an aggressive streak that would serve him well throughout his playing career.

During his senior season of 1993, Collins played in a memorable state semifinal playoff game against South Mecklenburg. The Lions won 24-23 on a controversial play when the clock expired as a Sabres’ player tried to run out of bounds to get one more play. Some called the victory lucky.

“That’s not luck,” a defiant Collins said after the game. “That’s guts. It was just teamwork. There’s no such thing as luck. They tried to scare us, but they didn’t. It didn’t work. We’re the No. 1 team in the city. No way that was luck.”

Former West Charlotte coach Tom Knotts called Collins one of his favorite players in a coaching career that’s lasted more than 30 years.

“He and his daddy were two of my favorites,” said Knotts, now coach at Dutch Fork High in South Carolina. “Mo was always competitive, driven and goal-oriented. He knew from the get-go he wanted to play in the NFL. I loved him as a football player and more than that, I don’t remember him being mad at anybody. I remember him being a beast on the football field and a teddy bear off the field.”

Collins spoke to Knotts since he was named coach at West Charlotte to ask for advice. He planned a trip to Dutch Fork to learn more about effective coaching.

“I just hate this happened because he was at West Charlotte now for all the right reasons,” Knotts said, “and I think with a little bit more experience, he was going to do good things there. I feel for the family, the kids. It’s just terrible.

Collins was among the top five high school recruits in North Carolina. He chose to play collegiately for coach Steve Spurrier at Florida, where he had an eventful career.

After missing much of his freshman season with a knee injury, Collins returned the next year and helped the Gators to the 1996 national championship.

Collins missed the Gators’ final regular-season game of his sophomore season against rival Florida State with another knee injury, but this time it was just a sprain. Returning to the lineup for the national championship game against the Seminoles, Spurrier recalled Collins taping his shoes “spats” style, writing “We’re” on the left shoe and “Back” on the right one.

“He almost had tears in his eyes before that game,” said Spurrier earlier this week. “He was pumped up to play.”

Collins also found trouble off the field. Two weeks after the national championship game, he accepted $500 from an agent’s representative. He was suspended six games the following season.

Collins’ gregarious nature made news in 1997, helping fuel one of college football’s fiercest rivalries at the time.

“I think Peyton Manning is highly overrated,” Collins said of Tennessee’s quarterback. “He’s a good player, but I don’t know if he deserves all the exposure he’s getting. I just want to know what the big thing is.”

Collins’ Gators beat Manning’s Volunteers 33-20. A few weeks later, Collins had perhaps his finest game at Florida, holding Florida State All-America defensive end Andre Wadsworth without a sack.

Collins, who graduated from Florida in four years with a degree in sports administration, left Florida to turn pro after his junior season.

Paying the price

That spring, Collins ranked as one of the strongest offensive linemen at the NFL combine by doing 30 bench-press repetitions with 225 pounds.

Collins was taken by the Raiders in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft. He used part of a $2.5-million signing bonus to buy his parents a house back in Charlotte.

He began his pro career as an offensive tackle, but Raiders coach Jon Gruden switched Collins to right guard. It was a move Collins embraced.

“If I run 20 yards, I’m going to hit someone – a corner, a safety, a referee, anyone,” he said. “Someone’s paying the price.”

Gruden remembers being one of those who paid that price.

“He’s actually the reason I had to have elbow surgery,” Gruden said in an email. “I was (filling in as) a linebacker in practice one day, blitzing up the A-gap. He knocked me backwards. He was a powerful man that had a lot of ability.”

Collins was a starter on a Raiders team that played in the Super Bowl following the 2002 season. Collins enjoyed the pregame hype that surrounded the Super Bowl, which the Raiders lost 48-21 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After a German reporter interviewed him, Collins said, “I love your Mercedes, man.” USA Today photographed him while he answered a question from a finger puppet.

Collins also loved being a Raider, fist-bumping fans before games.

“The loyalty Raider fans have cannot be taught,” he said. “Two fans showed me their tattoos. And they were women.”

Said Gruden: “I’m obviously saddened by the news that he passed away. I remember Mo as a great football player. He was also a fun guy to be around. I am happy to have known him and I wish his family the best. It’s a big loss to the Raider Nation and to the Gator Nation.”

Collins, though, never forgot his Charlotte roots while he was playing in the NFL. In an Observer interview he talked about how great it always felt to see Charlotte when he was flying home.

“When the season ends, I usually go home before the sweat dries,” he told the Observer. “I love it. It’s not the big city, but it’s not a small town. I love the land. I love the traffic; it’s a lot easier than California’s.”

Collins also didn’t forget West Charlotte. In 1999, he donated $17,000 to the school to buy weights for a new weight room.

“To this day, I’m still a Lion,” Collins said when he presented the ceremonial check to the school. He also pledged $2,000 a year to West Charlotte as long as he played in the NFL.

Collins retired from the Raiders in 2003 after starting 64 of 71 regular season games in six seasons.

Coming home

Collins returned to Charlotte after his NFL days and began coaching at local scouting combines. He became an advocate for high school athletes who wanted to play in college, forming the Momentum Sports Group and writing a book called “The Ultimate College Recruiting Guide” in 2012.

Collins got his first taste of high school coaching as a volunteer assistant at Victory Christian in 2007 and spent two seasons as an assistant coach at Northside Christian. In 2013, he worked as general manager for the Charlotte Speed indoor football team and returned to West Charlotte as a physical education teacher and assistant football coach.

A year later he was hired as the Lions’ head coach. His task: Resurrect a program that had four losing seasons from since 2008, including a winless season in 2013. Equally as important to Collins was helping his players grow up to be responsible adults.

“He took so much pride in that school and when it wasn’t right, he had a problem with it,” said Larry Kennedy, a friend and teammate of Collins’ at Florida who is now an assistant coach at South Mecklenburg. “He was very opinionated. He would say the alumni need to step up and put more focus back into West Charlotte. He wanted to be the coach there more than anything. Him being able to get into the school system and have (health) insurance again, and so many things, his life was good.”

Dennis, the alumni association’s president, said Collins immersed himself at the school.

“Where you see successful athletic teams, it’s when people go above and beyond to help,” Dennis said. “He knew there are students who come from homes where they don’t get hugs in the mornings. He was willing to work longer and knew he couldn’t do it himself.”

Collins, who played at 325 pounds with the Raiders, lost more than 100 pounds in 2012, according to posts on his Facebook page.

“He wanted to get rid of the weight to be healthier,” said Jolin. “He did it by swimming, diet and just normal exercise. No magic pill or shortcut.”

Collins appeared on HBO’s Real Sports in 2003 in program called “Supersized NFL Linemen” about dangers of obesity in the NFL. Also on that show was the New Orleans Saints’ Norman Hand, who would die in 2010 at age 37 in Walterboro, S.C., of heart disease. It’s unclear if Collins’ weight played any issue in his death.

Kennedy said he was aware of Collins’ health issues, relating to the dialysis, but he never thought that would affect his coaching.

“His health had nothing to do with his coaching,” Kennedy said. “That was never a crisis point that held him back.”

This season, West Charlotte had already won four games (its most since 2010), when Collins started having cold symptoms.

Collins told Kennedy about an offensive lineman at West Charlotte who he thought could be a big-time college player. Just before Collins checked into the hospital, he told Kennedy: “If you can’t do anything else for me, just take care of my boys.”

Kennedy said it wasn’t a last request, rather a typical conversation with Collins about doing good things for kids.

Spurrier, who coached Collins at Florida, said this week that Collins was one of his all-time favorite players.

“He was a really good player and a good guy. The guys loved him,” Spurrier said. “We all loved Mo Collins from Charlotte, North Carolina.”

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