TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Landon Collins smiled brilliantly, his shoulders pressed against the wall as he was crowded by a horde of reporters reaching closer to soak in his syrupy Cajun drawl. A thin, neatly trimmed beard framed his youthful features, wrapping around his jawline like a chinstrap.
Only a sophomore with four career starts at Alabama, he was the centerpiece of the top-ranked Crimson Tide's 45-10 win over Tennessee on Oct. 26. His 89-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Vols had the look of a seminal moment in his career, a play that, if everything goes right, could be looked back on as the start of something special. His eyes widened when he was asked about it.
"I'm lost for words," he said. "It's my first pick-six."
Much of his post-game interview revolved around the play and how he and the secondary had progressed in recent weeks. When it was learned that Vinnie Sunseri would be out for the season with a knee injury, Collins stepped in and started at his natural position of strong safety for the first time. He was named a Player of the Week by the coaching staff the following Monday.
But this was Landon Collins and no one in SEC country had forgotten his story. Alabama's next game would be against LSU, and only a fool would have forgotten the connection between the two schools and the five-star athlete they fought so hard to retain. Collins' announcement at the Under Armour Game in 2012 was a flashpoint in the recruiting world. He betrayed his mother and his hometown on national television when he chose Alabama over LSU that day. The weeks that followed proved to be a nightmare for everyone around him.
"It means a lot to me," Collins said of the game that was still two weeks away at the time. "That's my home state. They tried to throw me in the dirt when I made the commitment. Getting a chance to play against them and actually be on the field and knock some heads with them is a big thing to me."
The discussion veered off course briefly before it was noticed that Collins' mood had changed. His voice had dropped a touch and his shoulders slumped however slightly. He said he'd been holding in his feelings about the aftermath of his commitment for a while. School policy prohibited him from speaking to the media as a freshman and he seems relieved to be letting some of it out, even though there was little joy in his expression.
"There's a lot in me about that situation," he said.
Collins didn't go in depth, and it's easy to understand why. After speaking with those most affected by his choice to attend Alabama, it's no wonder. It isn't just himself he has to think about. The two most important women in a young man's life -- his mother and his girlfriend -- were nearly swept away by the crush of fandom that followed his commitment. Even today there's no telling if that powder keg of emotion is still lit.
She was the variable LSU couldn't account for.
The Tigers' coaching staff had so much to feel good about in recruiting Collins. He was from New Orleans and grew up rooting for LSU. He went to high school in nearby Geismar and his team's colors were the same purple and gold you'd see in Tiger Stadium on Saturdays during the fall. He developed a great relationship with LSU defensive backs coach Ron Cooper and was best of friends with Tigers' star safety Eric Reid, spending summers in Baton Rouge visiting with him.
But Victoria Lowery wasn't a part of LSU's equation.
If you followed Collins' recruitment, you probably know Victoria's face, whether you realize it or not. She's the beautiful young woman pictured alongside Collins in any number of images on the Internet, usually with some kind of hateful or derisive message attached. All because she was his girlfriend. All because she was set to attend Alabama.
I got all kind of tweets about -- I don't want to say -- the language was really vulgar about how I made him come here.
"-- Landon Collins' girlfriend Victoria Lowery
"I got all kind of tweets about -- I don't want to say -- the language was really vulgar about how I made him come here and that I was a B-word and he was only after me because I was giving up -- you know, those kind of things," she said last week, looking back on it as a sophomore honor roll student studying in the College of Education at UA. "I was amazed."
She hasn't spoken about the ordeal publicly until now. She said she didn't want Collins' commitment to be about her or her family. But now that so much time has passed, she doesn't mind setting the record straight: Collins didn't choose Alabama because of her.
"The only reason him and I even started dating was because we knew we were going to be at Alabama together. Many people don't know that.
"He asked me to be his girlfriend and everything, and I said yes, but I didn't know where he was going. He told me it was down to LSU and Alabama, and I told him I didn't want to develop more feelings for him if we were going to be at two different schools. ... He was like, I wouldn't be dating you if I was going to LSU. And that put a big smile across my face."
Of course, that part was left out of the message board and social media chatter. LSU fans saw Victoria as the reason Collins committed to Alabama. Her car was egged, her house vandalized. She was harassed online and in public. Three men came to the Smoothie King where she worked and shouted "Tiger bait!" at her behind the counter before running off.
Even LSU coaches blamed her.
"There were coaches, but I'd rather not say their names because I wouldn't want that drama to come back," she said. "But there were a few coaches that decided to put out my name and say I was the reason he left and saying I was recruiting him harder than they were. And I just feel like, you just didn't do your job."
But that's only the part that Victoria knows about. Some of what was said and written about her was held onto by her mother, Annette, who played basketball at LSU and teaches and coaches at Dutchtown High, where both Collins and Victoria attended.
Annette shared a letter that was sent to the Lowery home without a return address, postmarked June 2012 from somewhere in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
The letter was directed at "Ms Lowery." Its content is too graphic to be shown in full. The author uses several curse words, points out what he or she believes to be an improper interracial relationship and refers to Collins as a racial epithet. It says she deserves "nothing but scorn wherever you go." It's signed simply, "Concerned parents."
Annette looked into the letter and got the handwriting analyzed. She noticed that the author spelled the city incorrectly, using "Geisman" instead of Geismar. A few weeks later, she had an alarm system installed in Victoria's apartment in Tuscaloosa.
"That's not the only one we've gotten," Annette said. "We've gotten others saying that I'm a traitor to LSU. People calling my house with blocked numbers saying I'm a n-----. It was pretty bad."
Annette encouraged Victoria to get off social media after Collins' commitment and asked her to be vigilant about her safety. A planning person, Annette said she tried to build stability amid the chaos. When LSU coaches tried to recruit Victoria to get to Collins, she told them, "She's not a part of the recruiting process whatsoever."
"We had phone calls from ESPN, Fox News, you name it," she said of the situation. "Out of respect for his mom and his dad, we didn't speak about it whatsoever. But trust me, it was hard. It was heartbreaking and we were angry a lot of the time."
She admitted there was a desire to throw in the towel.
"There were plenty of times on different occasions. The house got egged, Victoria's car got egged, the letters, the phone calls, I stopped answering blocked numbers at home. And we kept a lot of it from Victoria because she was young and I didn't want her to worry.
"She put on a strong face for everybody and for us, but she'd come in her room and cry, saying, 'Mom, why do I have to go through all this? I just love my boyfriend and we want to be happy.' "
Collins and his brother, Gerald Willis, like to tease their mother, April Justin, about her sudden rise in popularity.
"They tell me, 'Oh Momma, you're not famous. You think you're famous, but you're not,'" Justin said. "But I didn't try to be famous. I was just caught off guard and I didn't know that it was going to be turned on me. It's crazy."
If you've seen video of Collins' commitment at the Under Armour Game, you know Justin. What you see is what you get. When she saw her son choose Alabama, her displeasure was obvious. She didn't have any problem holding up the purple and gold gloves on set and saying, "Go Tigers."
"They told me Landon's choice was Alabama, and I was like, What?! So I get there and I'm already pissed off. But then his daddy was like, Don't worry, he's going to flip before signing day. I called BS."
When signing day came, she threatened not to sign the paperwork for Collins' letter of intent with Alabama.
"I was 2 minutes from ripping them up," she said. "I really wasn't going to sign them. He wasn't getting no signature from me. They double-teamed me, Landon and Gerald. They pinky swore that he'd do well in class and play hard. I said, 'Play hard or don't come home.' "
To this day, Justin isn't pleased with the choice. She wishes her son was at LSU and not Alabama. There's the distance factor, but it's also no secret she doesn't get along with the coaching staff in Tuscaloosa. She said she's still never met Collins' position coach.
"No one reached out to me. I went to his second spring game and the coaches come and greet you at the table for the picnic and stuff, but not one coach, not one, said hi.
"I looked around and all the different recruiting coaches from the different areas were by their table, but [running back coach Burton Burns] did not come to the table."
Really, she got a bad impression of UA coach Nick Saban from the start.
"This is what I said to Nicholas" -- clearly emphasizing his full name -- "'You're not going to talk NFL to me. Talk education and life after football. I don't want to hear anything about the NFL because that's not promised to my kid, so don't put that in his head.'"
Because of her vocal opposition to Alabama, Justin gained more than her fair share of negative attention.
It wasn't just Victoria who took the heat, she said.
"She wasn't the only one. I went through it. I was called every name in the book ... all kinds of craziness."
People were saying all kinds of things about Justin online, creating rumors about her as a mother and Collins' recruitment. She started to believe that the Lowery's connection to her son was fishy. The NCAA eventually investigated.
"It was said that Saban and coaches gave Victoria a job," Justin said. "It was said that it was against the regulation to persuade the student with a girl. [The NCAA] asked her whether she knew of any money transactions with Victoria and the staff. I barely knew the girl."
Today, Justin said she's certain nothing untoward happened in her son's recruitment and she's grown close with Victoria, too.
It's clear, though, that Justin isn't interested in mending all fences. The one connecting her son to Alabama might as well not involve her, she said.
"I love the fans and the support they give the players. But I'm not their player. I'm just Landon's mother. They don't have to support me."
Meanwhile, her younger son, Willis, who holds offers from many of the top programs in the country, isn't even considering Alabama despite the staff's continued efforts. It's no coincidence, Justin said, calling Gerald more of a "momma's boy" than Collins.
"They can continue avoiding me," she said. "I don't care. It's just funny. This whole contest with Alabama is just so funny."
To this day, neither Victoria or Justin can understand what happened or why. Neither were prepared for the fallout of Collins' decision, how they'd get caught in the wave of a very public recruiting battle.
"Now that I look back on it, it was pretty funny," Victoria said halfheartedly. "But at the time it wasn't a joke. It was stressful, I can say that."
"Now we've moved on and he's happy and I'm happy that he's happy," Justin said, in a roundabout way still holding her ground. "Still, when I see him play I wish he was in purple and gold."
The flames of the rivalry over Collins have cooled since his recruitment. Collins went home to New Orleans this past weekend and attended his brother's high school football game in a white Alabama long sleeve shirt so he wouldn't stand out. He said he stayed "incognito" and no one bothered him.
LSU coach Les Miles was asked what he recalled of Collins and was noncommittal. Retracing the past seemed to be the furthest thing from his mind.
"We recognize ol' Landon," he said. "I remember his announcement, but I don't know that I remember much more than that."
Can Collins forget so easily? Not likely.
On Tuesday, he did his best to walk back his comments from a week earlier, saying that Saturday's game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 13 LSU would be like any other this season. Focusing on the game ahead instead of the emotion of the past was probably the more responsible thing to do.
But Collins was "thrown in the dirt" by Tiger fans and those close to him were dragged down along with him. It wasn't that long ago that his girlfriend was harassed by LSU fans at work. Collins came and sat with Victoria for protection, her mother said, keeping guard against the same purple and gold he'll see this weekend.
The threats, the anger, the resentment; the seeds of revenge were sewn then. And things like that cannot be forgotten.