Sports

THE HEARTS OF CHAMPIONS

MATER DEI’S SEVERELY INJURED A.J. COLLINS FINDS A COMMUNITY, AND AN OPPONENT, RALLYING TO HIS SIDE

By Paul Martin     11/19/2014

Football players, as a rule, do not try to inflict injury—temporary pain, perhaps, but not injury. The dictum, particularly at the highest levels of high school football, is hit hard, but hit clean. And the teams of the Trinity League play at the very top of the pyramid. Among the tens of thousands of high school football teams in the United States, the teams from St. John Bosco, Mater Dei, JSerra, Servite and Santa Margarita have been ranked among the top 25.

But great ability cannot guarantee an injury-free game or season. Neither can it guarantee that an injury, when it comes, won’t be uncommonly severe. What can be guaranteed, however, if the aftermath of the Oct. 10 game between St. John Bosco and Mater Dei high schools is any barometer, is that when that dreaded injury occurs it will be unintentional and the entire league community will rally and offer support.

Going into the Oct. 10 game, both teams were undefeated. The final score figured to have broad implications for the league, the CIF and state and national rankings. Dozens of high-prospect players were on the field and many college scouts were watching from the stands.

 

“Football is not a contact sport. Dancing is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport.”

—Vince Lombardi

One of the standout players was André (“A.J.”) Collins. Going into the game, Collins, a junior wide receiver from Mater Dei, stood 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 195 pounds. He was clocked at a University of Southern California training camp running the 40 yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds. Before arriving at Mater Dei, Collins made the prestigious American Youth Football all-star team when he was in the seventh and eighth grades. At age 12, he was named most valuable player in the championship game.

On Oct. 10, Collins’ speed and agility was on display yet again when his number was called on a pass play.

“It was a normal play,” Collins later explained. “It’s called a ‘now route’ and I’ve run it a hundred times. Because of my speed, people usually give me space and play about 10 yards off. So I just turn and catch the ball, then head up the field.”

Ball in hand, Collins was heading down the right sideline when he was brought down by Braves middle linebacker Nas Anesi. There was no dreaded helmet-to-helmet collision, and many onlookers saw what looked like normal tackle. Viewers watching the play on Fox Sports West saw something drastically different, however: a severely broken leg reminiscent of the career ending injury suffered by former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann.

Collins lay on the ground with his leg broken in three places below the knee. He also suffered a dislocated ankle. Still, his thoughts remained steady, directed toward his team and the game.

“I don’t think I was in shock,” Collins said. “But I saw the whole team focusing on me and I don’t like that kind of attention.

“We had worked so hard for this. This is the Trinity League. Both our teams were ranked top in the nation and I didn’t want our guys to lose focus on why we were here.”

Following Collins’s departure, the game continued with a back-and-forth second half that ended with a 28-25 St. John Bosco win.

Collins currently is concentrating on his rehabilitation, and sees the injury as nothing more than a temporary setback. He talks with gratitude of the support he’s received since the game and holds particular admiration for the player whose tackle shattered his leg.

“You know, from all around the country people have sent me messages,” he says. “It blows my mind how kind and caring so many people could be.”

But “perhaps most of all, that player who landed on my leg, Nas Anesi, reached out to me, apologized, and told me he had no intention of hurting me.

“For a league so competitive and so full of such talented players, I’m humbled by how at the end of the day people matter more than just winning football games.”

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