Finding Cecil

By Dave Hyde
Updated: July 12, 2009

Red: “What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?”

Parole Hearings Man: “Well, are you?”

Red: “There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that.”

— Parole hearing in the movie The Shawshank Redemption.

IMMOKALEE, Fl. — Cecil Collins looks back on the way he was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. He wants to talk some sense to him. He wants to tell him to respect his talent more, work harder and stay off South Beach because, “It’ll suck you bone dry.”

He wants to tell that young, stupid kid not to live the kind of carefree life where decisions weren’t weighed, career opportunities weren’t seized and there were too many days dropping a couple of thousand dollars on clothes, a few more thousand in clubs wearing those new clothes and so much more on stuff he never remembered that often when he tried to put a number on the day he couldn’t.

Did he spend $8,000? $9,000?

That kid’s long gone and this grown man sitting here now in this empty room is all that’s left. Collins is fine with that. He really is. He’s 32 now. He’s married now. He sounds upbeat and happy and says he’s altogether different now.

Whatever happened to Cecil Collins?

“You’re looking at it,” he says, sitting in prison-blue shirt and pants at the Hendry Correctional Institution somewhere in the Florida Everglades.

He’s just come in from playing the only football he has since he fell through the trapdoor a decade ago. He was the Dolphins’ risky hope to the future then, the running back Jimmy Johnson took a fifth-round flier on, the guy with a background who lit it up in preseason and scored a couple early touchdowns only to hurt his shoulder, break his leg and, ultimately, get arrested after breaking into an apartment where a woman slept.

Now he’s come out of retirement this season to quarterback the Dolphins, a seven-on-seven flag-football team. He plays barefoot — “Kunta Kinte style,” he says — because inmates aren’t allowed to have designer sneakers for fear they’d start fights and the shoes they are allowed won’t help on the sand and pockmarked field.

“I hadn’t had a football in my hands since I left the Dolphins,” he said. “I didn’t want to do it, because it brought up too many memories, all the way back to LSU days, playing in front of 65,000 screaming people. Now I play in front of 50 inmates and guards.”

He’s seated in an interview room, across a desk. A guard looks in the door’s window every few minutes and checks that everything’s OK.

Collins is “on the turn,” as they say in here, meaning the end of his 15-year sentence is within sight. He has three years left, so he will have served the demanded 12 years and six months of the total.

He doesn’t want to talk about how he got 15 years for his nonviolent crime when Donte Stallworth was released Friday after serving 24 days for driving drunk and killing a pedestrian. He doesn’t talk much about Michael Vick, other than to say he should be able to play now that he’s served his time.

What he wants to say is, “I’d like to get out and work with kids. I’ve got something to tell them. I’m a walking example of what can happen to a guy who has all the talent in the world and doesn’t use his head.”

Just last week, the NFL assembled a few hundred rookies in Palm Beach for an educational symposium on the quicksand of fame. A couple of hours from there in the Everglades, through five security doors, an electric fence and two razor fences, Collins tells a rookie reality story.

Money?

“I never had any in my life and then it was raining on me,” he said. “I was making the minimum. What was it, $290,000, maybe $300,000? I don’t remember what my paycheck was. I just know I spent it all.”

Fame?

“Everyone was wanting to be with you, not because of you, but because of who you were,” he said.

Women?

“Everywhere you turned,” he said.

He hasn’t seen anyone from that world for six, maybe eight years. Even then he can count on a hand the people he saw. That says plenty about how plastic it was around him in that time. He understands. And he knows the world keeps moving on. Even in here, he can look around to see that.

The daughter who was born a couple of weeks after he went to prison in 1999 is now 9 years old, living with her mother in Houston. He sees her every year behind these walls.

He has another regular visitor, too. In 2001, she arrived with a friend who was visiting another inmate. This was when Collins was at the South Bay Correctional Institution in Palm Beach County. The two of them began talking and haven’t stopped.

Elena kept visiting on weekends from her Broward home. After five years of visits, they were married in 2006 in the visitors center, Elena in a wedding dress and Collins in his prison blues. They had bread at the reception, not cake, and cranberry juice, not wine.

“We still haven’t been on the street together,” Collins says. “But she knows me, the real me. I’ve changed so much from when I was 23. Back then, I was a young man who didn’t know himself. I didn’t realize what I had.

“Now I’m more mature. I analyze. I think. I thank God I didn’t do something so stupid I got a life sentence.”

He sleeps in the bottom bunk of a room with 80 inmates. He has a job of keeping a side yard’s grass cut and clean. He reads books by Sidney Sheldon and John Grisham. He plays football, basketball, softball and anything else he can.

Mostly, he checks off time. When I wrote Collins a letter about interviewing him, he wrote back, saying, “I don’t want to go into my past mistakes too much. I have moved on and have a new life and I would like to keep it that way.”

He regrets being that young, stupid kid. He’d like to talk to him. But a decade has passed, the chance in football is gone and all he can do is shake hands on his way back to his prison room and say, “Think anyone will listen to me?”