BOZEMAN — If this were any other story, the return of the accomplished local product to the Bobcat lineup would be one deemed courageous or heroic.
For Grant Collins, returning from a shoulder injury is basically all he’s ever known. To his head coach, that’s what makes the Bozeman native’s journey to his fifth and final season of college football that much more impressive.
“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.”
Collins’ star began to rise early on in his prep career at Bozeman High School. The physical, instinctual linebacker entrenched himself squarely on the recruiting boards of every school in Montana by the end of a standout sophomore season, his first as a starter. That off-season, he had his first shoulder surgery.
That operation, ironically was a major factor leading to the 6-foot-4, then 215-pounder staying in state. Before that, the son of former Arizona State defensive end and NFL Draft pick Shane Collins received interest from schools in the Pac 12 as well as Idaho, an FBS school at the time. But the initial shoulder injury kept him from going to individual camps around the region, likely costing him the exposure he would need to earn a scholarship offer from a Power 5 school.
Since that initial surgery, Collins has endured four total shoulder surgeries. He had one in the off-season entering his sophomore year when he was supposed to be focusing on putting on weight for his eventual move to Buck end. His most recent surgery stemmed from a painful injury suffered in MSU’s 31-19 loss at Eastern Washington last season.
That operation cost Collins the rest of the 2017 season, his final spring football and slowed him into fall camp. After about a week of practices in August, Collins was relegated to his jersey, workout shorts and a bucket hat, his role shifting from the quarterback of MSU’s defense as the Mike inside linebacker to a mentor and a coach as he tried his best to help sophomore Michael Jobman prepare to fill the position.
On Saturday, Collins will return to the fold for the first time in his final season as the Bobcats host Wagner of the Northeast Conference. Collins was an 11-game starter as a redshirt freshman at middle linebacker in 2015 before becoming an 11-game starter at Buck as a sophomore in Choate’s first season. Last season, he earned five starts between Buck and and Mike before his latest required operation.
“I haven’t felt this good in years,” Collins said early in fall camp before the minor setback that cost him the first two games of 2018 struck. “This is the healthiest I’ve been since being here. There’s an aspect of ‘we should lighten the load a little bit’ but not necessarily slow down. I’m still going to be doing all the contact and stuff even if here and there I take a little break, get off the shoulders a little bit. But not slowing down.”
Ask those who have spent their careers playing in front, next to and behind Collins and they will tell you he has quit literally never slowed down. Collins’ practice habits and the vigor he brings to the field each time he steps between the lines is tone-setting and borderline fanatical all at once. The seemingly unanimous respect he’s earned from his teammates resonates no matter what Bobcat you talk with.
“Grant only has one speed and that’s full speed,” MSU defensive tackle Zach Wright said. “He was scout player of the year our freshmen year, which says it all about the way he practices. That’s all he knows how to do: practice hard, play hard. You might be having a little bit of a rough day, going slow and then Grant flies by you at 110 miles per hour and blows someone’s head off and you know you better pick it up.”
“There’s been times each of the our three seasons here that when I call the defense out, I call out Grant and I tell the guys, ‘The energy and effort Grant brings every single day is the way you should bring it,” added MSU third-year defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak. “Do you understand how refreshing that is as a coach to know that you have a guy on your team that brings his absolute best every single day? That rubs off on all the other players on both sides of the ball.”
The edge Collins brings to the field contrasts his friendly personality and the aptitude that has helped him close in on his mechanical engineering degree. Even when battling pain, Collins has tried to maintain a modicum of discipline in his life, something he credits his parents with instilling in him and his sister, Averie, a standout soccer player at Stanford.
“After my last surgery, it was a lot of work, a lot of PT (physical therapy) and there was a lot of questions of if I would be able to come back,” Collins said. “At that point, I was like, ‘I’m going to do this. There’s no question.’ I have worked has hard as I could, done everything in my power to try to come back this season.
“The physical therapy is brutal. But it’s like everything in life: if you stay dedicated to it and keep pushing, you will keep pushing forward.”
During his time at Bozeman High, Collins earned Class AA first-team all-state honors twice. After teaming with current Seattle Seahawks tight end Will Dissly to lead the Hawks to the 2013 state title, Collins was named the USA Today Montana Defensive Player of the Year. He also earned Class AA Defensive MVP honors.
As a rising prep star, Collins learned under former Bobcat middle linebacker Bobby Daly, a prolific tackler in the mid-2000s who is now the linebackers’ coach at Idaho. Collins also played for head coach Troy Purcell, who is also an assistant at Paul Petrino’s staff for the Vandals now.
Cut from Pac 10 pedigree — Shane Collins was an All-Pac 10 defensive end in 1989 and 1991 while squeezing in an NCAA national championship throwing the shot put in 1990 before being selected No. 47 overall in the 1992 NFL Draft — Grant started receiving communication from Washington and USC as a junior.
But the injuries combined with his deep Montana State ties — his grandfather, Don Collins was a professor at MSU for many years — and his love of his hometown helped Collins choose the Bobcats.
“This class is headlined by Grant Collins,” former Montana State head coach Rob Ash said on National Signing Day in 2014. “He’s a fabulous player, one of the top two or three if not the best player from the state of Montana this year.”
Even with his seemingly constant battle to keep his shoulders in tact, Collins has been productive at a variety of spots. He had 88 tackles and five tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman on a largely otherwise porous MSU defense.
“Grant came in and he was the dude from Montana as far as football goes,” said Wright, who was also a part of the 2014 recruiting class. “He was flying around making plays. Then he hit some bumps.
“He’s had surgery after every single year because of his shoulders. The great thing about him and what I respect so much is even after all that time he’s been struggling with his injuries, he’s never left the team. He’s always been around. He’s always fought to come back to play another year. He’s never stood in the corner and pouted or had a pity party. He’s always bouncing back with the team, pushing us even when he couldn’t go and picking everyone else around him.
“For that, he has my eternal respect. Most people would’ve just hung up their hats after two surgeries but he didn’t quit. He has one of the strongest wills of perseverance that I’ve ever come across.”
In his first year playing Buck, Collins had 48 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Last year, Collins started at Buck end before shifting to middle linebacker for MSU’s Big Sky Conference opener against eventual league champion Weber State. He finished the day with 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and perhaps more importantly, the renewed confidence in the fortification of the middle of the Bobcat defense from Choate and his staff.
Collins suffered his season-ending injury two games later.
“I think we lost something when we lost him,” Choate said. “When you look back at the Weber State game, a team that is a very physical team that is going to try to run the ball between the tackles a lot, we were running a lot of Mike pop. That guy ate up two blocks, knocked the guy into the backfield.
“That element was gone when Grant went down… I thought that physical presence on the interior of our defense, we lost that. It was not good for us after he went down. We are looking forward to having that back.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.