BOZEMAN — Tucker Yates has gotten used to the sight by now, a scene on replay for most of the last four years.
When the Montana State senior defensive tackle walks by the MSU training room, Grant Collins is almost always sitting inside icing a variety of his ailing body parts.
“Sometimes, he’ll have as many as five ice packs all over his shoulders and knees. It’s like, ‘Geez, Grant, are you alright man?” Yates said with a respectful chuckle. “I mean, you have five ice packs on you.
“We’ve had conversations before and I’ve asked him if he is going to hang it up this last spring and this last fall camp when he hurt his shoulder again. He has said no. Every single time.”
Since breaking into the starting lineup at middle linebacker as a redshirt freshman in 2015, Collins has been a marvel of recovery. The Bozeman native had his first shoulder surgery when he was still in high school, an operation that derailed any plans to travel around the Northwest and solidify the interest he was already receiving from Pac 12 schools.
Collins has had three more shoulder surgeries since then. Through a coaching change and subsequent position change, he has hardly ever had an off-season to gain weight and strength. Instead, he’s dedicated most of his free time to the training room and rehab lifestyle.
Last season, Collins suffered a particularly violent injury on a sideline tackle against Eastern Washington. That shoulder rip cost him the rest of his junior season, snapping his string of 28 straight starts despite a switch to Buck end for about a dozen games between his sophomore and junior seasons, his first two years playing under head coach Jeff Choate and his staff.
Collins missed all of spring football this spring and was in and out during his final fall camp in August. He did not play in MSU’s season-opening 26-23 win over Western Illinois. He did not start in Montana State’s 45-14 loss against South Dakota State. He came back to the lineup on September 15 and made four solo tackles in a 47-24 victory over Wagner College. He has not missed another start entering Saturday’s showdown with rival Montana.
All season long, Choate has made comments about “just trying to get Grant to Saturday” every single week. The grizzled veteran will make his 37th career start this Saturday when the Bobcats face off against the Grizzlies, even though he’s spent way more time getting his body right than grinding through practices in preparation for the finale of his memorable Bobcat career.
“I have never been around a dude who had more reason and more excuses to hang it up than he has,” Montana State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Ty Gregorak said earlier this season. “Not one. He’s fought through it all. It’s crazy to think we are here. I remind him every day how many days he has left guaranteed so he can embrace that.”
On Saturday, Collins will cuff up his shoulders and put on his football armor for the last guaranteed time. Montana State is gunning for its third straight win over the Griz. The Bobcats have not posted three consecutive victories in the rivalry since 1983, 1984 and 1985.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words when I think about my career almost being over,” Collins said. “It’s one of those things where it probably won’t really hit me until it’s over.
“It would be a pretty great accomplishment to say I beat the Griz three of the four times I played them. That’s something not everyone can say coming out of here. That would be pretty awesome.”
During his seven seasons coaching linebackers at Montana, and four more as UM’s defensive coordinator and now three years with the Bobcats, Gregorak has coached some of the best players the Treasure State rivalry has seen. He helped Caleb McSurdy and Zack Wagennman earn Big Sky Defensive MVP honors and played a hand in Tyrone Holmes winning the 2015 Buck Buchanan Award in Gregorak’s final season in Missoula.
Over the last three years, Gregorak worked directing with Collins first at Buck end in 2016, then as MSU’s thumping Mike linebacker for three games last season and the last nine this fall. That resilience has impressed a linebackers’ coach who’s playing career ended at Colorado because of shoulder injuries.
“Grant is committed to football and he wasn’t going to let the game break him,” Gregorak said. “Which it has. Physically, it has broken him down. It’s been truly amazing to watch him overcome all this stuff with his shoulders. He’s a beaten up old man. I’m really proud of him fighting through like he has.”
As Collins gets ready to tape it together for one last showdown with his hated rival, he’s left an impression on Choate as well.
“I have more respect for that kid than any player I’ve ever coached and here’s why: how he goes about his practice habits,” Choate said in an interview in August. “He is fanatical. He only knows one speed. He understands that effort is the price of admission. He gets all of that. But when you look at what this young man has been through, how much he must absolutely love the game of football.
“Going back to his junior year of high school when he started having these shoulder surgeries, almost every single year he’s had to endure that. Then fight through that, come back, go through the pain of the rehab, go into the weight room, try to build his body back up knowing that, quite honestly, the way his shoulders are constructed, it’s probably going to happen again.
“A lot of guys get one of those and they are like, ‘I’m good, Coach.’ I think clearly, if you look up passion for football in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Grant Collins. He plays the game the right way and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and his toughness.”
Because his off-seasons have been washed away, Gregorak knows Collins has limitations. Collins knows them too. He will be the first to admit he’s probably not the right guy to be covering slot receivers or running backs running routes out of the backfield. But his ability to come downhill and smack ball carriers with authority remains potent.
Following the Idaho State game, ISU head coach Rob Phenicie sought out Gregorak to tell him how impressed he was with Collins’ play. Phenicie was the offensive coordinator at Montana under Bobby Hauck from 2003 until 2009, the same seasons Gregorak coached Griz linebackers.
“In September, once he said, ‘Screw it, I’m playing,” Grant is playing middle linebacker at a really, really high level,” Gregorak said. “Phenicie liked the way he played tackle to tackle because he does come downhill, he will smack you.”
Collins had 88 tackles and five tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman in 2015. He was solid at holding the edge but struggled to maintain the mass needed to rush the passer during his full season playing Buck. He finished 2016 with 28 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks.
In his first game back playing Mike linebacker full time, Collins did what Choate calls “puncturing the line of scrimmage” with his aggressive, physical play against Weber State’s power run game. He notched 11 tackles and a tackle for loss that afternoon. He finished the season with 34 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss when he latest setback offered.
“I had played with a hurt left shoulder all of 2016. Then a freak deal with my right shoulder last year,” Collins said. “With both of them messed up, I knew I had to get it fixed so I could come back and play at the level I wanted to.”
Over the last five weeks, Collins has reached his top level of production as a Bobcat. He played sparingly against Eastern Washington as the Bobcats employed mostly a nickel package in a 34-17 loss. The following week against Idaho’s pro-style offense, Collins provided the hammer, piling up 10 tackles, including seven solo tackles in a 24-23 victory.
He rolled up 11 tackles and a tackle for loss at Weber State, 13 tackles and two tackles for loss at Idaho State and 10 tackles, including seven solos, against Cal Poly’s brutally physical triple option.
“He runs to the ball like a maniac,” Yates said. “He plays so hard. That’s what I love about Grant. He’ll throw himself in there no matter what. He’s had so many shoulder surgeries and just has had no regard for his shoulders. He had a major injury this fall camp and he’s back already. I just appreciate Grant for that sort of toughness.”
Last week on Senior Day, Collins set the tone with his attitude and edgy play in a dominate 35-7 victory to sew up the Bobcats’ first winning season since Collins redshirted in 2014. The local product piled up seven tackles, including six solos in his final regular-season game at Bobcat Stadium.
“He has the most pure character and integrity that I have ever met in a human being,” MSU senior defensive tackle and captain Zach Wright said. “I’m never seen him waiver. I’ve seen him get down. But his resilience, I’m never seen that ever waiver in that man. The amount of fight that dude has in him, just how good of a person he is, he’s very unique. I’ve never really met a person like him.”
This season, he has 60 tackles, second on MSU, including 34 solos and three tackles for loss.
“Invaluable,” Choate said when asked what Collins’ availability has meant to the Bobcats. “Without having (junior inside linebacker) Josh (Hill), Grant has had to be the guy. He is tough, man. He is tough. The battle every week is get him to game day. Whatever he has to do, he’s going to do. He’s going to fight like a warrior until the end and that’s who he is.”
During that redshirt year in 2014, Collins and a collection of other now fifth-year seniors sat out while MSU made its most recent push to the postseason. Following a 47-41 home playoff loss to South Dakota State and the completion of finals week, the redshirts had to move out of the dorms for winter break. Wright, a native of New Braunfels, Texas, remembers not having anywhere to go.
“I was debating sleeping in my truck,” Wright said. “Everyone already left and I couldn’t find anyone. Then I ran into Grant. He invited me over, let me stay at his family’s house.
“I’m telling you right now, I’ve never had a better host in my life. Seriously, never. He took care of me the whole time. That’s the first time I realized how good of a guy he is.”
Most of his older teammates echo similar thoughts about Collins and his caring nature. He has been willing to share his local roots with teammates that come to Bozeman from far and wide.
Those roots have also put Collins in the spotlight from a young age. Shane Collins, Grant’s father, is one of the finest athletes to ever come out of Bozeman High. He was the first Montanan to ever earn Gatorade Player of the Year honors in two sports when he claimed the prestigious honor in football and track. He went on to an All-American career as a defensive end and national championship shot put thrower at Arizona State before being selected in the second round of the NFL Draft.
Grant Collins first popped on the scene with a first-team all-state sophomore season at Bozeman High. With former Bobcat All-American linebackers Bobby Daly and Roger Cooper as two of his prep coaches, Collins started to attract interest from college recruiters around the state and region. Two more all-state selections and the 2013 Class AA Defensive MVP after leading the Hawks to the state championship increased interest that only faded because of Collins’ first surgery.
Shane and Grant aren’t the only two athletes in the family. Grant’s younger sister, Averie is one of the most successful female soccer players to come out of Montana. The former Gatorade Player of the Year is a senior at Stanford, the reigning NCAA women’s soccer national champions.
Although he’s never coveted stardom, Grant has also never shied away from the spotlight. So many local stars that stay to play for their hometown squads fold under the weight of high expectations. Collins has endured more hardship than almost any player to make it five years with the Bobcats. Yet, despite the exterior factors, Collins has continued grinding for the goal of giving his best.
“It’s more personal pressure,” Collins said. “I always have that competitiveness in me. I always want to be the best. I want to be the guy. That’s my mindset: no matter what it takes, I’m going to go to Montana State and play at a high level.
“With my family, it’s always been motivation for each other. Me and my sister would always compete, try to one-up each other. It’s something that helps you reach a little higher and work a little harder. Once you get away from the family, once you get to a team, you are doing the same things because every one of these guys in your brother.”
Collins said his greatest lesson from this journey has been learning patience. He’s never considered himself the most patient person, but he’s had no choice during a football career filled with scars and surgeries, physical therapy appointments and plenty of ice packs.
He is closing in on his degree in mechanical engineering technology. He has attended a few career fairs and is hopeful he might have some job opportunities soon after graduation. He said when he was a teenager, he dreamed of playing in the NFL but now he thinks he would “have a much nicer life moving on from football.”
Like many of his Bobcat brothers, he says he’ll remember the times with his teammates in the locker room and the weight room as much as he will remember competing on Saturdays.
Montana State has an outside shot at the FCS playoffs if the Bobcats can win in Missoula on Saturday afternoon. If MSU can slide into the postseason field, the story of Collins’ peerless perseverance will continue.
“It’s everything,” Collins said. “I don’t want it to end. I want to see how long this run can last. I want to make it to playoffs and go as far as we can. That’s why I came back one last time.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.