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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Richard Collier's(notes) left leg is gone and his right one is paralyzed. He's confined to a wheelchair, his once-promising NFL career gone in the time it took six bullets to pierce his body nearly 15 months ago.
Since that life-threatening and life-altering moment, Collier has had 15 surgeries, taken upward of 20 medications a day for several months, went through kidney dialysis when his body shut down and fought off a bout with pneumonia. Yet the former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle smiles and jokes to approximately 200 people while at the 10th annual World Congress and Expo on Disabilities at the Jacksonville Convention Center on Friday. The friendly gestures aren't light and only for a moment. They're constant, sincere and, well, infectious.
Collier talks to coach Jack Del Rio during a Jaguars home game last December.
(Phil Coale/AP Photo)
Because, as Collier said, things could be worse. He's not just mimicking a cliché he heard from a coach. Literally, he's facing some obvious evidence, roughly 20 feet away.
Kenton Bell, 44, is front and center in the audience. Just like Collier, Bell is in a wheelchair. Unlike Collier, he has spent most of his life there.
Bell was born with no arms and no legs, yet has learned to live on his own. The closest he has ever gotten to playing football is running the scoreboard at the University of North Florida.
Just like Collier, who last week was awarded the Jaguars' annual Ed Block Courage Award, Bell appears to harbor no anger, no indignation, no obvious negative approach to his plight. It took Bell longer to get here, achieving some inner peace with his lot in life when he was 16, but he let it go and accepted his reality, turning his limitations into an opening line.
"I was tired of being angry about it. It's like drug addicts when they say 'I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.' I accepted me for what I am. … I tell people, 'It's OK, you can talk to me, your arms and legs won't fall off,' " Bell said, getting the laugh he sought. "People do just what you did, they laugh and then we can talk."
Likewise, Collier can talk openly, honestly and at length. He tells his story in a folksy, engaging and detailed way: from the time he was a top high school athlete in Louisiana to how he ended up stocking shelves in Wal-Mart for two years before finally going to junior college.
He discusses how he ended up at Valdosta State (Ga.), made the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2006 and even signed a contract extension worth $5 million in the 2008 offseason. He even gives details about how he remembers being driven in an ambulance in the wee hours of Sept. 2, 2008.
"I just remember hearing the paramedics counting and then they'd roll me over and keep counting and I'm like, 'What are they counting?' " Collier said. "As I come to think about it, they were counting all the bullet wounds in my body."
Again, there is no melancholy in Collier's voice. He even chuckles with wonder at the memory. He's not trying to draw people to him for pity. Instead, he's sharing as a way of inspiring those in the crowd and others who are close to him.
"How he handled it helped everybody be at peace with it," said Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), who has been to Collier's house on occasion to play dominoes. "At first, we were all angry, sad; all the emotions you feel with it. But he has kind of accepted it, embraced it and understood that his role now is to talk to kids coming into the draft, talk to people about life in general and how football is just a piece of life. It's not your whole life and your life is how you make it."
From that perspective, Collier's tale is remarkable. For years, he worked his once 6-foot-7, 340-pound body so that he could play a game and so that tens of thousands of people could stare at him as he butted heads with other huge men. Now, he gets the stares from a different perspective.
"Yeah, you can see people are uncomfortable sometimes, they don't know what to say or they can't look at me because of my leg," said Collier, who got engaged to college sweetheart Chanda Baker and will be married on July 3. "It's hard to go through that at first, but I want them to know that I'm OK with what happened to me. I'm at peace, I'm going on with my life."
To Bell, that attitude is important – critical really. He believes so many people with disabilities, particularly people who have lost something by way of accident, go around angry. For Bell, that hurts deeply. That way of thinking indirectly suggests there is something wrong with him and others who are disabled, rather than affirming that while life isn't always easy, it is nonetheless life.
And it should be enjoyed.
"Really, he's my hero, the way he's handled this," said Baker, an elementary school special education teacher. "I lean on him more than he leans on me."
“ I told myself one day, you better start facing this thing head on or it's going to destroy you. People are dealt bad hands all the time, but it's how you overcome them, how you deal with them.”
– Richard Collier
Not that Collier hasn't had his down moments. He finally got some sense of closure about the crime earlier this month when accused assailant Tyrone Hartsfield was convicted of attempted murder. Although Hartsfield denied to the end that he shot Collier, he was convicted after evidence indicated he was seeking revenge.
In April 2008, Collier knocked out Hartsfield at a nightclub after he said Hartsfield pushed him. Instead of suing Collier, Hartsfield, who had six previous convictions, amped up the violence.
"I shouldn't have hit him, it was a stupid thing to do and I would have admitted that [if Hartsfield had sued him], just like I admitted it at the trial," Collier said. He looks up and shrugs his shoulders, almost nonchalant about how senseless it seems for Hartsfield to have shot him as he sat in a parked SUV outside of an apartment building.
Then again, what good would it do to discuss it? Will it heal his body? Will it change anything? Will it erase the hardship?
Last year, after Collier spent weeks unconscious recovering from his wounds, he woke up groggy one day with his mother, one of his sisters and other family members in the hospital room.
He told his sister Rendi he wanted to get up, unaware of the amputation and the paralysis.
"I'm like, 'Help me get up so I can walk around, I'm tired of laying in this bed,' " Collier recalls. "She said, 'There's no need for that right now.' I'm getting upset with her, I'm like, 'Help me get up, I want to get up, I'm tired of laying here.' She starts crying. I'm like, 'What are you crying for?' "
That's when his sister broke the news to Collier. He quickly ordered his family out of the room and asked a nurse to come in and go over everything that had happened. After what seemed like 30 minutes of the nurse talking, the full scope of the devastation hit him.
"I was like, 'Football is over.' That was the first thing I thought of. Just when I had gotten to a point I could take care of my family, my mom, buy her a big house, all the things I worked hard to do," said Collier, who has since retrofitted the house he lives in. "I was so devastated. Since I was 10 years old, I've always played football. So I was lost. And where I was in the hospital, I couldn't have visitors overnight. So every night I spent alone and it was just devastating.
"That first night, I just cried. I sat there and it was hard, very, very hard. Not playing was just the small part of it because I was still so very sick."
Collier takes a breather during his first training camp with the Jags.
(Phil Coale/AP Photo)
Collier didn't eat, losing close to 65 pounds in the process. Depressed, he didn't take his medication. He wanted to be left alone.
"I went for awhile in the hospital where I didn't want to be bothered and I hated how I felt because it wasn't me," Collier said. "I told myself one day, you better start facing this thing head on or it's going to destroy you. People are dealt bad hands all the time, but it's how you overcome them, how you deal with them. So I just started reading my Bible a lot and started praying. I had always read my Bible, but this time I really started seeking the Lord. I started talking to my team chaplain. Started enjoying my family, taking in all the little stuff. I started eating, started feeling better, started focusing on the positive.
"A lot of you say, 'Hey, what's positive about being shot [six] times?' Well, the biggest thing is I'm still alive. You have to experience a near-death situation to really understand life."
While life may not be perfect, it's still life and it's still to be enjoyed in whatever way possible.
"I'm the type of person who hates to be sad," Collier said. "I hate feeling low and all the low points in my life, they didn't compare to this one. This is the hardest thing, but I always remember my coach once told me, there's always somebody out there worse off than you are and you got to understand that it could be a lot worse. I think about that that when I wake up every morning … and just tell myself you got to face the day. I love going out and speaking to people and having people say to me, 'You're an inspiration.' I didn't understand being disabled, being paralyzed, until it happened to me. It happened to me to a level where I can see people and say, 'I understand, I feel your pain.' "