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 football 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.
“He thought about his football team all the time,” said his wife, Jolin. “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.”
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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 noon Saturday at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, with visitation at 10 a.m.
Collins played six years in the NFL but never forgot about 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.”
The cause of death was an unexpected illness, according to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools news release. Jolin Collins told the Observer that her husband, 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, not just about the game of football, but life in general,” Hamilton said. “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 West Charlotte graduates, including Collins, have long had what they call “Lion Pride” about a school that was once a model for nationwide desegregation and athletic success. In 1991, Hamilton was a senior 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, (Collins) 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.”
Collins was the second of four children in a family raised by Carl and Barbara Collins in the Hampshire Hills neighborhood in northeast Charlotte. Carl Collins played at N.C. A&T, almost made the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster and later played semipro football in Charlotte. He died unexpectedly in 2000.
Mo Collins 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. He had grown to 6 feet 4 inches, 275 pounds and was one of the state’s top players. He also developed an aggressive streak that would serve him well throughout his playing career.
Former Lions teammate David Green remembers how Collins would shut down any disagreements in the school hallways, or in the huddle, with his booming bass voice. He said everybody respected Big Mo. “He’s a gentle giant,” said Green, who went on to play quarterback at Duke. “He would do anything for anybody.”
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 remembers Collins as a “beast” on the football field and a “teddy bear” off of it.
“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.”
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, and I think with a little bit more experience, he was going to do good things there.” Knotts said. “I feel for the family, the kids. It’s just terrible.”
Collins chose to play for coach Steve Spurrier at Florida. 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 a sprained knee injury. 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 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.”
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 in four years with a degree in sports administration, left Florida to turn pro after his junior season. He was selected by the Raiders in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft and used part of a $2.5-million signing bonus to buy his parents a house back in Charlotte.
In 1999, he donated $17,000 to West Charlotte to buy weights for a new weight room. “To this day, I’m still a Lion,” Collins said then when he presented the ceremonial check to the school.
He began his pro career as an offensive tackle, but Raiders coach Jon Gruden switched Collins to right guard.
“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 started on a Raiders team that lost to Tampa Bay 48-21 in the Super Bowl following the 2002 season. He played six seasons in the NFL, retiring in 2003 after starting 64 of 71 regular-season games.
Collins enjoyed the Super Bowl pregame hype.
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 loved playing for Oakland, and he loved coming home.
“When the season ends, I usually go home before the sweat dries,” he told the Observer in 2003.
After the NFL, Collins returned to Charlotte and began coaching at local scouting combines and as a high school assistant. He became an advocate for high school athletes who wanted to play in college, writing a book called “The Ultimate College Recruiting Guide” in 2012.
In 2013, he was 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 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 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.”
Ella Dennis, president of West Charlotte’s national alumni association, said Collins immersed himself at the school.
“He came with dreams and goals for what he wanted for West Charlotte,” Dennis said. “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, 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.”
In 2003, he appeared on HBO’s Real Sports for a program called “Supersized NFL Linemen” about the dangers of obesity in the NFL. Also on that show was New Orleans Saints’ lineman Norman Hand, who would die of heart disease in 2010 at age 37 in Walterboro, S.C. It’s unclear if Collins’ weight played a role in his death.
This season, West Charlotte had already won four games (its most since 2010), when Collins started having flu-like symptoms.
Just before Collins checked into the hospital, he told Kennedy about an offensive lineman at West Charlotte who he thought could be a big-time college player. “If you can’t do anything else for me, just take care of my boys,” Kennedy remembered him saying.
Kennedy said it wasn’t a last request, rather a typical conversation with Collins about doing good for kids.
Condolences have poured in from across the country as people paid final tribute to “Big Mo.”
“The guys loved him,” said Spurrier, his former college coach. “We all loved Mo Collins from Charlotte, North Carolina.”