One mother of a recruiting battle

LANDON COLLINS, the nation's top-ranked high school safety, rides shotgun in an old Jeep Cherokee headed toward his mother's house in Harvey, La. Collins is not pleased with his mom. Four days ago, on Jan. 5, at the Under Armour All-America Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., he became the most recognized recruit in the country, and not because of the interception and touchdown-saving goal-line tackle he made that night. Collins is famous because his mother upstaged him, on live TV, in the biggest moment of his life.

In the fourth quarter of the game, with Collins' family and friends crowded around him on a makeshift stage, ESPN's Dari Nowkhah asked the 18-year-old senior what school he would attend; he had narrowed the choice to LSU and Alabama. Nervous, excited, Collins drawled out an "I'm gonna go 'Roll Tide, Roll.'" His mother, April Justin, sitting next to him, placed a hand on her temple and shook her head. As the rest of Collins' family tried to applaud the awkwardness away, Nowkhah put the mic on Justin.

"There was not a lot of joy here," he said. "Can I ask why?" With a defiant look, she replied, "I feel LSU is a better place for him to be. LSU Tigers No. 1." Then she held up her index finger.

Collins, unsure of what else to do, fit his hands into Alabama football gloves and made a diamond, showing the calligraphic "A" on each palm. His mom saw the LSU gloves that Landon had left on the table and, eyeing the camera mischievously, picked them up and jiggled them for everyone to see. Meanwhile, Jamie McQuarter-Collins, Landon's stepmother, reached across Justin to hug him. Landon's father, Thomas Collins, standing off camera, strode into view and embraced his son. But during the roughly two minutes on air, there was no hug between April and Landon.

The video clip went viral instantly. Sports shows replayed the strange moment ad nauseam. Four days later, the fervor hasn't died down. As the Cherokee that Collins rides in heads over a bend in the Mississippi, he pulls out his phone to show the tweets he's received. Many of them claim that his girlfriend, Victoria Lowery, who also plans to attend Alabama, influenced his decision. Holding the phone warily, as if it might detonate, Collins reads a few of the nastiest messages, spelling out A-S-S and saying "eff" to avoid repeating the numerous profanities.

It's impossible for Collins to know whether this is just the typical vitriol that greets any high-profile commitment or whether his mother's actions added a dimension to it, gave people a license to unload on him. Either way, he's not about to second-guess his decision. Four years ago, he had another tough call to make: where to live after Hurricane Katrina tore his home apart. That episode divided his family in a different way but also built his trust in himself. That trust is what he has to lean on now. As he approaches his mother's house, the loss, hope, frustration, jealousy, love, protectiveness and pride that collided within Justin on a national stage -- all the emotions that unite and fracture football families as the recruiting process plays out -- thicken the air like unfinished business.

This will be Collins' first visit with his mother since St. Petersburg.

WHEN COLLINS WAS 6 YEARS OLD, his dad gave him some advice before one of his Pee Wee football games. "Do you," Thomas said. "Don't try to do what somebody else is doing. Just do you and everything will turn out fine."

Landon did the best he could to embrace that message of self-reliance through his childhood in Algiers, directly across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. His mom, a medical assistant, and his dad, a safety inspector, split up in 1995, before Landon was 2. Justin had begun a relationship with another man, Gerald Willis Jr., and she had a son with him, Gerald III, before the divorce was finalized the next year. Landon spent the next decade living with his mom and his new family, which would come to include his half sister, Gerrah, in 1999.

Landon and his younger brother Gerald were particularly close, competing in every imaginable sport together, all day long. Justin, who ran track, played volleyball and swam while growing up in New Orleans, swears her sons' athletic ability comes from her. That's perhaps why she was so forgiving when she discovered holes in a wall one day, after the boys had played football in the house. Rather than punish them, she told them to go outside, and when each was old enough, she signed them up for park ball.

In New Orleans, park ball is a community touchstone: Kids from ages 5 to 14, representing various neighborhood parks, square off every Saturday morning in organized games across the city. By the summer of 2005, a few months before his sixth-grade year, Collins was to start at linebacker and running back for Norman Park, with his dad serving as coach. But the buzz about the new season quickly faded as Hurricane Katrina raced up the Gulf of Mexico.

On Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005, the day before Katrina made landfall, Landon, Gerald, Gerrah, April and an aunt and cousin inched north on I-55 with thousands of evacuees, having packed a few days' clothes. Four hours later, they made it to the two-bedroom, one-bath home that a relative owned in Sicily Island, a small town about 200 miles north of New Orleans. Expecting a short family reunion, 13 aunts, uncles and cousins from southern Louisiana settled in as best they could.

The next night, New Orleans was 80 percent underwater. They couldn't go back anytime soon. The kids had to enroll at a local school, and Collins hated it. On one of his first days in class, he was handed a couple of bags from Walmart. He looked inside and saw school uniforms, burgundy shirts and khaki shorts. He was furious: Did he look like a charity case?

It was almost Thanksgiving before Collins' family could return to New Orleans. The loss of power had turned their refrigerator into the worst sort of science experiment. The house still had no electricity, so they used candles and flashlights. They bathed in the morning, when they could see. They ate out at night. Collins couldn't fall asleep, his city suddenly alien, so much of it destroyed, just gone, much like the park ball season that never happened.

One day during the holiday weekend, Landon's dad and stepmother, Jamie, took him to Port Sulphur, a community on the west bank of the Mississippi where the couple once lived. Their house had been split in two by waters from the breached levee; half of the home sat on the street. Thomas gripped his son's shoulder tightly and held it for a long time, the three of them looking at the surreal destruction in silence. "We took Landon because we lost everything," Thomas says. "He saw the pain. He felt it in us. I wanted him to know that things that make you weak make you stronger in the long run."

THE FOLLOWING YEAR, Thomas and Jamie built a home in Geismar, a small town about 60 miles west of New Orleans. Thomas picked up Landon for weekend visits, and on Friday nights they'd drive past Dutchtown High School, its stadium lit up like a spaceship, cars overflowing from the vast parking lot to both shoulders of the road, no patch of grass visible. Landon asked his dad what was going on, and Thomas told him it was for the football team. "Wow," Landon whispered.

Back in New Orleans, park ball eventually returned, but the team was different: New kids started fights and didn't practice hard. Some of Landon's cousins had moved to California. Collins was 14 now. He regretted that he saw his dad only on weekends and in the stands at his games. "I missed him a lot," he says.

After much deliberation, he told his mom he wanted to move to Geismar with his dad to attend Dutchtown. He braced himself for her reaction. Would she make this a fight? Lash out? As it turned out, that's not how Justin reacted at all. She agreed the move was for the best. Her world had been turned upside down by the storm too, and she was still trying to establish the stable life she'd once known. Her son needed a different kind of guidance than she could offer. "Thomas could show Landon how to be a man," she says. "I couldn't do that."

With 1,900 students and a college-style campus, Dutchtown overwhelmed Landon at first. Making friends was hard; he was shy. His grades suffered. But it all turned around when Collins became just the fourth freshman in head coach Benny Saia's 10-year reign to dress for varsity football games. That season, he played on special teams and occasionally at safety. It wasn't long before he found friends and brought his grades back up.

Over the next few years, Collins would call home often to talk with his mom and Gerald, who was developing into a football star in his own right. But as he grew more rooted in Geismar, he phoned and visited his mom less. It wasn't that he didn't miss her. But in the face of space and time, all relationships erode, at least a little. And there was so much in his new life commanding his attention, directing him to move on.

About town, grown men often tell Collins that they're huge fans. He gets out of his car at home and girls on his block scream Landon!

After games, students flank the walkway to the locker room and chant Lan-don Coll-ins! He's the first player in Louisiana history to be named all-state on both offense and defense. Nobody, including Collins, can list all the schools that have courted him.

Watching him against Ponchatoula in the first round of the Louisiana 5A playoffs this season, it's clear why Les Miles and Nick Saban wanted him so much. In the second quarter, opposing running back Mark Holland turned the corner and sped down the sideline. Nobody had an angle; he was going 80 yards to score. But Collins turned and gave chase from the 30-yard line, eight yards back. He caught up to Holland around the 10-yard line, where everybody expected him to dive and save the touchdown. But he ran a little farther, gaining more ground on the running back before dislodging the ball with a right-arm swat, bringing Holland down for good measure with his left. Dutchtown recovered the ball in the end zone, and the crowd roared. Collins ran back to the sideline more excited than he'd been after the two rushing touchdowns he'd already scored.

In the stands, his dad had a that's-my-boy smirk on his face. A few rows away and a few minutes later, Landon's mom approached her other son, Gerald, who'd just arrived. "Did you see that play?" Justin screamed.

COLLINS KNEW HE wanted to play for Alabama when he saw the Tide beat Florida 31-6 in Tuscaloosa his junior year. "I just felt the love when I got there," he says. "I stepped on the field and it just felt ... big." His dad was with him on that trip and on all of his visits, acting as his lead adviser. He was the one who returned coaches' phone calls when his son was busy or disinterested and hosted them in his home. He was the one who helped his son break down the pluses and minuses of all his suitors and made sure he wasn't being overwhelmed by the attention.

Landon included his mom when it came time to finalize his decision. That's how, with Collins leaning toward Alabama this fall, Saban came to visit Justin. She says the coach offended her during his stay by promising that her son would be a high NFL draft pick and receive a multimillion-dollar contract. "I think he stereotyped me," Justin says. In her mind, Saban had told her what he thought she wanted to hear, when her real concerns were about academics and how a program would take care of her son.

Saban's visit left a permanent mark in her mind. After Collins arrived in Orlando for the week of practices before the Under Armour Game, he called his mom to make it clear that he would likely choose Alabama and that he had reached this decision on his own. Justin responded with a text that said she couldn't support his choice and wasn't going to come to the game. Collins texted back about how he loved her and that she wasn't that kind of mom -- that's why he knew she would come. She arrived the afternoon of the game.

If you talk to Justin now, she will tell you she had her reasons for saying what she said on Landon's big day, that she had been set off before the cameras even came on. Shortly before the announcement, Landon's girlfriend, Victoria, was urged by her sister to stand onstage. Justin said only family would be in front of the camera. A confrontation ensued. Thomas intervened. Moments later, Landon arrived and the recording started, Victoria directly behind Landon, and Justin, now stewing, sitting next to him.

Maybe this all seems like nothing more than a petty family drama. But it was not petty to Justin. Something was eating at her on camera: She saw this girlfriend she didn't know at all, who lived five minutes from her son in Geismar, acting, in her eyes, as if she helped shape Landon's choice. And where did that leave her? Four years after letting her son go, the most selfless thing she could do, she was an outsider. She could see that now. It was staring at her. "There's going to be a lot of people who come in your circle and try to be manipulative," she says. "You've gotta keep your circle small."

Justin has always valued a tight-knit family. She and her children go every winter to Florida and spend a few days at theme parks like Universal Studios. She has a photo from several years ago of her and her three kids screaming during a free fall. The picture sits in a prominent place in Justin's TV room. This year was the last opportunity for such a trip, before her son headed off to college. But with all the hoopla surrounding Landon, Justin knew the trip wouldn't happen.

She knew she would fly home without him.

FOUR DAYS AFTER the biggest moment of his life, Collins pulls up to his mother's driveway and gets out of the Cherokee. He and Justin have agreed to pose for photos for this magazine, and she's standing outside waiting for him. Collins appears at ease. That is, in hindsight, one of two remarkable things about this visit: He has moved past the episode that made him famous. They exchange hellos, and Collins lets her fuss over him and joke with him; she's clearly trying to apologize in her own way. Justin brings up when her son got some muck on his face recently. "Landon won't even let me wipe his face," she says. "I can't be Mama to him."

"I'm old," Landon says.

"You're still my baby," Justin says. "Always."

"That's it," Landon says, smiling. "Mom issues."

The photographer makes Collins hug his mother, and there it is, the second remarkable thing about this day: Justin has chosen to wear purple pants and a gold T-shirt. LSU colors. She explains that they're the colors of Gerald's school too, which is true. But alongside Landon's Alabama hat, Alabama sweatshirt and Alabama necklace, it's true in a willfully provocative, mom's-not-letting-this-go kind of way.

Yes, she has her reasons for doing what she did. But she doesn't need to explain anymore. The poses tell you everything you need to know: A mother in purple and gold, hanging on; her child, in full Alabama gear, breaking free of her grip, smiling as he goes.

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