COMMENTARY | It's never been a question of ability with Austin Collie. It's been a question of health.
An Indianapolis Colts fourth-round draft pick out of BYU in 2009, Collie amassed 60 receptions for 676 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie. In the process, the 6'0", 204-pound wide receiver secured the trust of then-Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. He was third in line behind fellow wideout Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark, and even played himself ahead of talented Mount Union product Pierre Garcon.
Collie's second NFL campaign picked up with his initial one left off. Through the first six contests of 2010, the Hamilton, Ontario native snared 44 passes for 503 yards and six scores. He was flourishing in the absence of the injured Clark, and found a home in the slot.
But on Nov. 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Collie's momentum was halted. As Manning tossed the ball his way on a post route over the middle, Collie found his helmet sandwiched between the hits of two Eagles defensive backs.
The ball fell out.
Collie was out as well.
No. 17 lied on the field, motionless. With his back to the ground and his arms extended, Collie's frightening scene lasted roughly 10 minutes, and it ended with him being taken off on a stretcher.
Collie diagnosed with a concussion.
Just two weeks later, with a clean bill of a health, Collie returned to play versus the New England Patriots. Yet after snagging five passes for 60 yards in the opening quarter, he left the contest.
His concussion-like symptoms had returned.
Collie would not play another snap until Week 14 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Though, at that juncture, it happened again. Manning rifled a pass into tight coverage, eyeing Collie on a skinny post route. The route-runner was met head on by then-Jaguars star linebacker Daryl Smith. He sat there, shoulders hunched with his facemask resting on the turf.
There was no visible movement in his limbs. He was out cold. It was Collie's second concussion in six weeks. And with that, his season was over. The Colts placed the promising young pass-catcher on injured reserve three days later.
Despite the serious risks surrounding concussions -- fears of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE, memory loss or depression, to name a few -- Collie was not deterred from pursuing the sport. He battled back into the fold for 2011 and was fit to log playing time in all 16 games. In doing so, he finished with 54 receptions for 514 yards and one TD.
He was back.
Yet during a 2012 preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Collie suffered the third concussion of his career. Lined up at the "X," Collie broke off the line and ran a dig route. He reeled in a pass from QB Andrew Luck and was wrapped up by Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor.
Pittsburgh linebacker Larry Foote soon followed. Collie left for the tunnel and did not return.
He played in one tilt that regular season, versus Jacksonville in Week 3. In which, he caught one pass for six yards before rupturing the patellar tendon in his right knee.
His year was done. Indianapolis released Collie on Feb. 15, 2013.
And after four seasons, 173 catches, 1,845 receiving yards, 16 scores, three concussions and a knee injury, few believed the 27-year-old would get another opportunity in the NFL.
He refused to believe the same. Collie took it upon himself to excuse any team that signed him from legal repercussions if he suffered another concussion.
"I'll sign a waiver, all right?" Collie told USA Today last spring. "They're not going to have to worry about me suing. I'll hold myself to be accountable."
He was determined to make his next comeback count. Collie worked out with former Patriots and Seattle Seahawks receiver Deion Branch over the summer. Then he began visiting organizations like New England and the Tennessee Titans for workouts.
He officially signed with the San Francisco 49ers on Aug. 2. That stint ended 29 days later, however, as Collie was released during the final roster cuts.
But after over a month of waiting, he got another chance when the Patriots inked him to a deal on Oct. 3. He was inactive for Week 5. Yet in Week 6 against the New Orleans Saints, Collie played in his first regular-season game in over a calendar year.
He played one snap up until New England's final offensive drive. But with Danny Amendola unable return following a concussion, Collie was called upon late. He was called upon when the Patriots offense needed a spark most, down 23-27.
From the 1:13 mark in the fourth quarter on, Collie played eight snaps in the no-huddle attack. He caught two passes -- a 15-yard first-down catch across the middle and then a nine-yard 4th-and-14 grab on a comeback route.
He kept the game alive for New England. Seconds later, quarterback Tom Brady found rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins in the back of the end zone. It was the game-winner.
The Patriots defeated New Orleans, 30-27, and Collie was a critical part in why. His reliability in the final moments was second only to his outlook.
"I kind of had the mentality that, 'Hey, you know, you're going to be a starter in this game,'" Collie told MassLive.com's Nick Underhill afterwards. "Knowing that I wasn't but still preparing that like I was."
Now ultimately, Collie's future in Foxborough, Mass., is anything but certain. He could be a free agent in a matter of days, or he could carve a consistent role in the passing offense through winter.
But regardless of what is next for Collie, he's living in the moment. And in the moment, he's grateful to be playing football.
Oliver Thomas is a Yahoo contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for NEPatriotsDraft.com. His work has been featured on BleacherReport.com, TheFootballEducator.com, USAToday.com, Patriots.com, Boston.com and NESN.com.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.
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