CHANDLER, Ariz. — With one simple click of a button on Monday, Jamie Collins told the world exactly what he’s all about.
“Behind my smile is a story you’ll never understand,” was the message he posted on Twitter.
The world is trying to get to know Collins, the Patriots’ athletically freakish linebacker, at Super Bowl XLIX. But he’s a man of few words.
The man his teammates call “Tweet” for the canary yellow earrings he sometimes wears doesn’t like to say much to reporters. But he doesn’t say much to his teammates, either. He’s usually walking around Gillette Stadium with headphones on, and keeps to himself.
“He doesn’t like a lot of attention,” said fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower, one of Collins’s best friends on the team. “He’s not selfish. He’s just a kid from Mississippi.”
But Collins isn’t Marshawn Lynch, either. Collins dutifully performed his media obligations this week, patiently answering questions from a booth at Media Day and from a ballroom table on Wednesday at the hotel the Patriots are staying in. He’ll occasionally flash a big, gold-toothed smile, and answers questions respectfully and humbly, if not briefly.
“I don’t really need all the publicity,” he said. “I do it for you guys. It’s cool. Whatever.”
Collins has a heartbreaking backstory he doesn’t say much about, but it made him the mature, 25-year-old man he is today.
“Jamie’s kind of a quiet, introverted kind of guy until he learns to trust you,” said Larry Fedora, his college coach at Southern Miss. “Then he’s really outgoing and talkative and all those things. But if you don’t know Jamie, he’s going to be more reserved.”
Collins was born and raised in McCall Creek, Miss., a tiny, unincorporated town off US Highway 84, near Homochitto National Forest in the southern part of the state. Collins, the youngest of five, grew up modestly.
“McCall Creek has a post office, a store, and a saw mill, and not much more than that,” said Trent Hammond, his coach at Franklin County High School in Meadville, population 500. “I left the area a year after Jamie did. My wife wasn’t very happy being 35 minutes from a grocery store.”
Collins was forced to grow up quickly. His parents died by the time he was 6 years old, the causes of which he won’t talk about. His oldest sibling, Lisa, essentially raised Collins and his three older brothers.
“I had so much adversity coming up, so adversity is nothing to me,” Collins told the Hattiesburg American in 2012. “I’ve fought and fought. I sort of like adversity. I believe that’s what really wakes me up.”
Hammond recalled a kid who usually sat in the front of the classroom and didn’t give his teachers any problems.
“Family was always a big deal to him,” Hammond said. “But for the most part he just kind of took care of himself. He was really mature. He hadn’t been the guy with the silver spoon in his mouth, so he had to grow up fast.”
Collins is fiercely loyal to his siblings, but also protective. I asked Collins if he wouldn’t mind sharing Lisa’s contact information so I could speak to her for this story.
“Nah,” he replied. “She won’t talk. She’s worse than me.”
Sports were always Collins’s outlet. A lean 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pounder in high school, Collins almost single-handedly led Franklin County to the state championship game in his senior year as the quarterback, safety, and punter. He threw down monstrous dunks with his 41½-inch vertical leap, and was a state champion in the shot put and discus, and he finished second in the high jump and triple jump.
“When Southern Miss recruited him, he was jumping over the high bar at 6 feet, and we were throwing him the football and he was catching it,” Hammond said.
Collins originally committed to play football at Auburn, but decommitted when the coaching staff was fired. He signed on at Southern Miss, in large part to be only an hour away from his family.
“Jamie could’ve played anywhere in the country now, but there aren’t a lot of schools going to Franklin County,” Fedora said. “It’s the opposite end of the world as Boston, I can assure you.”
The Southern Miss coaches didn’t know what to do with Collins, but knew they had to get him on the field. His freshman year, he was a nickel defensive back. Then he packed on weight as a sophomore and transitioned to linebacker. Then he packed on even more weight and became a pass rusher during his junior season.
Collins’s maturity and dedication to the film room helped him transition smoothly to each position. He also graduated from Southern Miss in 3½ years.
So it should come as no surprise that Collins had the most versatile stat line of any Patriots defender this season — 4 sacks, 2 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 6 passes defended, a blocked field goal, and a team-high 130 tackles in 15 games.
Now a filled-out 250 pounds, Collins is strong enough to bull-rush a guard, fast enough to cover running backs 5 inches shorter, and limber enough to pull off consecutive back flips on the practice field.
“He’s a freak of an athlete,” Fedora said. “There aren’t many of them out there that can do the things he can do. I think his best ball is ahead of him, because he changed positions every year and never got to settle in and learn the nuances of one position.”
Collins’s teammates on the Patriots are in awe of his athleticism.
“Certain times he’ll be rushing the passer, he’ll be rushing a certain way, and I’ll say, ‘Hey Jamie, how’d you do that?’ ” said Chandler Jones, the team’s best pass rusher. “And he’ll be like, ‘I don’t know.’ So I’ll be rewinding [the tape], trying to see certain things he does, thing I can learn from him.”
Collins said moving to New England has been a culture shock, but he doesn’t venture into Boston much. He prefers keeping things low-key at his home in the quiet suburbs near Gillette Stadium.
“Jamie’s a man of few words, but when he speaks, everyone’s listening,” Patriots linebackers coach Patrick Graham said. “He’s not one for wasting time, of talking just to talk.”
He’d rather let his smile do the talking for him on Sunday.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin