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Finally 'at peace' with shortened career, Nick Collins enters Packers Hall of Fame

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Nick Collins is at peace. Finally.

There are two things Charles Woodson knows for certain about his close friend and former Green Bay Packers teammate. One, he is convinced that had Collins' NFL career not been cut short by a 2011 neck injury, he'd be in the process of putting together what someday would be viewed as a Pro Football Hall of Fame résumé.

"Without question, you would have been talking about Nick for the NFL Hall of Fame," Woodson said Saturday night at Lambeau Field, shortly before presenting Collins for induction into the Packers Hall of Fame. "There's no doubt in my mind.

"Before Nick's injury, he'd made [three] consecutive Pro Bowls, and at that time, there were two other safeties you really heard about in the league: [Pittsburgh's] Troy Polamalu and [Baltimore's] Ed Reed.

"I watch other players, and those are two of my favorite players. I loved to watch those guys play. Not only did I get the chance to watch Nick, but I actually played alongside him. And without a doubt, Nick was right there in that conversation with those guys. Had he continued to play, there's no doubt in my mind he would have continued to play at that level and have been in that conversation."

But even more important, Woodson is sure of this: His friend has, at long last, come to terms with all the what-ifs and what-might-have-beens that tormented him for so long.

Woodson, who announced his own retirement in December after 18 NFL seasons, lives in central Florida, not far from Collins and his family -- wife Andrea; daughter Jenajah, age 12; son Nicholas Jr., who'll turn 9 next month; son N'Mare, 7; son Nash, 4; and son Nixon, 1. And seeing Collins with them, Woodson says he believes his friend has at last made it through the first four Kübler-Ross stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining and depression -- to finally reach acceptance.

"Of course, for anybody to transition [to life after football], it would be hard. You still love the game, still want to play the game. He gave the game everything he had," Woodson said. "For Nick, his family is the one thing that keeps him going. He has five children, four boys. He doesn't really have a chance to feel sorry for himself or anything like that [anymore]."

Woodson is not the first to suggest that Collins, who intercepted 22 passes in 102 career games (including playoffs), was on his way to Canton at the time of his injury.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy said so when the team parted ways with Collins in April 2012, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers echoed the sentiment Saturday.

"Nick was a once-in-a-generation-type player with incredible range, speed and ball skills," Rodgers said from the American Century Championship in South Lake Tahoe, Nevada. "I'm so happy for him going into the Packers Hall of Fame, but anyone who played with him and against him can agree that he had Canton in his future, had it not been for the injury.

"Nick was a soft-spoken leader, a great locker-room guy, and a huge reason we won Super Bowl XLV. It was an honor to take the field with him."

It was especially difficult for Collins, whose injury resulted from a collision with Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart on Sept. 18, 2011. Set to turn 33 next month, Collins was just 28 at the time of his injury and "hadn't even hit his peak yet," Woodson said.

After his injury, Collins underwent spinal fusion surgery on the C3/C4 vertebrae, and the Packers sent him to a number of other specialists to gather multiple opinions on whether he should be cleared to return to action. Frank Cammisa, the doctor who performed Collins' procedure at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, and Pat McKenzie, the Packers' team physician, had their own input on Collins' future but also presented those other doctors' opinions to Collins.

In the end, the Packers decided they weren't comfortable with Collins resuming his football career with them. Both McCarthy and Alan Herman, Collins' longtime agent, said after Collins' injury and surgery that if Collins were their son, they would not allow him to play again.

Nevertheless, in the years that followed, Collins struggled to accept their recommendation.

In February 2014, Collins was still trying to drum up interest from the NFL's other 31 teams. When no one called, he officially announced his retirement in August 2014, saying it was “time to open up another book” in his life.

But then, in March 2015, Collins petitioned the NFL to let him participate in the veterans combine the league held in Arizona -- only to be turned away by league officials. That rejection was enough to convince him it was over. His only football comeback came last summer, when he played in Brett Favre's charity flag-football game.

Collins stayed connected to the game by spending last fall coaching a seventh- and eighth-grade Pop Warner team, and he has been on the Packers sideline for more than a half-dozen contests during the past few seasons. He would like to get into coaching in the college ranks or the NFL, but he's also interested in scouting, having reached out to Packers general manager Ted Thompson, Kansas City Chiefs GM John Dorsey and Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie. Both Dorsey and McKenzie were on the Packers' scouting staff when the team took Collins out of Bethune-Cookman in the second round of the 2005 draft.

#familymatters!!!!

A photo posted by Nick Collins (@nickthepick36) on

For now, though, Collins is focused on making up for lost family time, having been so driven during his playing career that he missed out on some of his older kids' early milestones.

"I'm at peace," he said after reliving some of his career highlights Saturday night with Woodson and others. "There was a time when I was thinking I could still do it. I was training, doing everything I could to get back to the game. and it just didn't happen. Then one day, I finally said, 'It's over.'

"Just to be around my kids on a day-to-day basis, it's amazing. I missed so much of their life already, and just to build those relationships, it's been tough. I'm still trying to learn how to play the daddy role. I know how to do it, but there are still things I have to learn, from being gone so much. I know it's different from being there every day, seeing them growing up, taking them here and there. That's what I'm doing now. I'm involved in everything, and I'm enjoying it. And I'm at peace with that."