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A star is born: Nico Collins
His rise mirrors the rise of the Houston Texans. Go Long sits down with the wide receiver who's here to stay.
HOUSTON — He didn’t have hot water for days on end. His family boiled water to bathe.
He received hardly any gifts on Christmas morning. His parents were pinching nickels and dimes.
Life growing up in Pinson, Ala., 17 miles north of Birmingham, was extremely difficult. But Nico Collins never purges those images from his memory. Certainly not as his NFL career rockets as a wide receiver for these Houston Texans. He’s an ascending player on an ascending team, the No. 1 wide receiver for a rookie quarterback — in C.J. Stroud — who looks more and more like the real deal with each perfect spiral.
Others describe Collins as a quiet person. That’s partly true. He’d much rather take his Rottweiler out for a walk or play a round of Call of Duty during his down time than party. He exudes a gentile demeanor with dark eyes, a full beard, a welcoming smile and an innocent tendency to repeat “Facts… facts… facts…” in conversation. But no athlete gets from Point A to Point B by existing purely in a docile state.
Collins pinpoints the moment his inner-driver reached a different level.
His high school, Clay-Chalkville, was dominant: 15-0 state champs his sophomore year, 14-1 state runner-ups his junior year. And right when the best of the best in the SEC took notice, right when a life in football became real that 11th grade year, his mindset sharpened. He remembers the thoughts that set in then. The same thoughts that loop this fall.
“I want to be the best to do it,” Collins says. “I want to make my parents proud. That’s all I really care about. Making them happy. Something they can brag about.”
The way he grew up, he knows that if he gets too full of himself — at any point — he could vanish. “Like that,” he says snapping his fingers. But he doesn’t coat self-belief in filibustering drivel.
Nico Collins wants to be the best wide receiver the sport has ever seen.
Given an opportunity to clarify, he cuts in. Doubles down.
This is how a team erased from our consciousness can shock the world. By not giving a damn if anybody outside these walls finds such rhetoric insane. Central to this team’s return to relevancy is this 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver. His rise mirrors the team’s rise. His childhood was tough but adulthood felt even worse because a slew of injuries threatened to extinguish this raw confidence for good.
Last season, Collins seriously wondered if football was for him.
Now, he’s the weapon fueling the Texans’ offense.
He prides himself on catching everything. Concentration fortified by the reality that football could end any moment. Players at this size are not supposed to be this flexible. His position coach loves to say Collins has “Gumby traits.” YAC became his No. 1 focus into 2023 because YAC, yards after catch, is what lights the “best ever” flame during the course of a game. When the ball’s in his hands — and he has space — Collins tries to transform into the all-time competitors tacked in his locker.
Next to the picture of Michael Jordan fist-pumping in celebration is a quote from author Jon Gordon: “Love the process and you’ll love what the process produces.”
Next to the picture of Kobe Bryant’s unforgettably piercing death stare is a quote from motivational speaker Tony Robbins: “Where your focus goes, your energy flows.”
Collins always loved Kobe. He played as the Los Angeles Lakers legend on NBA 2K.
“His mindset. He doesn’t want to be scored on,” Collins says. “He doesn’t want you to score. His mindset is legit kill. Every time. When it’s time to turn it on, he turns it on. That’s the mindset I’ve got to have. When it’s time, it’s time. And you’ll know when it’s time.”
This is the healthiest Collins has ever been. He’s torching cornerbacks he grew up watching as a kid.
His time is now.
“Now,” he says, “I have a different mindset.”
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He can still picture the large black pot in their kitchen, the one with two handles. Nico Collins was the youngest of three kids. And, yes, the entire family could go without hot water for a week. Maybe a week and a half. When Mom and Dad couldn’t pay the bills, they’d simply fill this pot up with cold water and boil it over the stove.
Voila. Hot water.
Then, they’d take turns washing up. Nobody complained. Everybody adapted.
“It wasn’t always smooth,” Collins says, “and I feel that’s what made me.”
Both parents poured their lives into earning every dollar they could. Mom worked in human resources. Dad was a surgical tech. Dad also worked the night shift, which meant Nico would only see him on his way to school in the A.M. Once Thanksgiving Day passed, the three kids would usually know if a rough Christmas was imminent. One present here. One present there. If that. His parents tried their best — and Nico was always grateful. But over a four-year stretch, he admits: “I didn’t really have Christmas.” Certainly not in the sense everyone else did.
Again, he always understood. Even as a kid, he refused to ask why the foot of his friends’ trees were full of gifts while his own was barren.
Hardship only made the entire family “tighter,” he says. Seeing how much Mom and Dad sacrificed to inch through life, day to day, planted a feeling inside of him. A “level up” surge every time he ran the point in basketball or played running back on his youth football team.
“Being the youngest, you see a lot,” Collins says. “And I feel that was my main thing. Just sitting back and seeing life. Seeing how my parents tried to provide for us. That put a little chip — not a chip on my shoulder — but like an edge. Like, ‘Alright, I want to take care of my family.’ I knew our upbringing wasn’t as smooth as everybody else. But we made it look like it was.”
So, this became his No. 1 motivator: Take care of his family.
Rugged upbringings matter inside of NFL front offices, too. Scouts and coaches are not obsessed with film — and film alone — when constructing a roster. Former Saints scout and Bears director of personnel, Josh Lucas, said as much on a recent episode of the Go Long Show. Teams do everything in their power to find out what type of adversity prospects have overcome to know whether or not they’re calloused for NFL life. This is precisely how the Detroit Lions sought to go from worst-to-first under Dan Campbell, too. Hard times in the NFL are inevitable. Chances are, you’ll be crushed mentally. When your drop costs your team a win — in front of millions — and complete strangers are spamming your life with threats and toxicity, how will you respond? When an injury renders you helpless on the sideline and, suddenly, a horde of players are out to steal your job, what’s racing through your mind? Pressure reveals character.
Once a 21-year-old has millions flooding his bank account, is the natural instinct complacency or drive? Money changes people.
All teams obsess over these questions. They investigate and interrogate and deploy written tests.
You’re not only investing in the player on a screen. You’re investing in that player’s mental wiring. So if someone has faced turmoil to some degree — and can explain how they got to the other side — that’s revealing.
Build an entire team of players with this DNA and you’ve got a chance at something special.
Basketball was Collins’ first love, and it shows. He glows thinking back to his relationship with the sport. The court felt like a blank canvas for his own life. Everything was in his hands — Nico was in control. He’d train every Sunday during the football season because he knew basketball season was around the corner and he couldn’t be rusty. Collins ran the point but could also swing over to the three. Unlike 99 percent of NFL players, he’s not bloviating about his game. Not concocting an urban legend. He played in elite AAU tournaments such as Nike EYBL’s “Peach Jam” in Atlanta and drew interest from several schools, including TCU and N.C. State. Collins compares his playing style to Kevin Durant.
He loved dribbling left before violently crossing over to his right and getting to the rim. Loved hovering on the wing and hesitating a split-second before slashing down the baseline, scoring and getting to the free-throw line.
Yet after his 10th grade year, Collins had no choice but to divorce basketball. Powerhouses Alabama and Auburn offered him football scholarships and the dam broke. A tidal wave of offers filled his mailbox. And, of course, essentially all top recruits in the state of Alabama waste no time signing that dotted line to play for Bama. Or Auburn. Collins? He cringes at the memory of meeting ex-Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and assures Saban was not for him, either.
He chose the only northern school that piqued his interest: Michigan.
“And the reason that it stood out to me,” Collins says, “was it was different. Everybody didn't go to Michigan to play. Everybody stayed at home. If you get offered by Bama, you go to Bama. If you get offered by Auburn, you go to Auburn. For me, I felt like there was more out there.
“I couldn’t see myself at Bama.”
Everyone thought he was crazy to turn down Saban. He heard it all.
Don’t you want to win!? Don’t you want to get to the NFL!?
However, to chase his lofty goal — to be the greatest — Collins believed he sincerely needed to be different.
Jim Harbaugh didn’t even recruit Collins until later. His offer landed after that defining 11th grade year, when Collins caught 60 passes for 1,103 yards and 16 touchdowns. The recruit who could only dream of Nike gear as a kid loved that Michigan went full Jordan Brand in 2016. (“I want to look good!”) And he quickly realized that this coach in the khakis was also different. The way Harbaugh kicked his shoes off in the living room — “really chilling” — felt authentic. They sat back. Watched TV together. Harbaugh was a straight shooter. Oh, Harbaugh proved to be strict. A “real-life football guy,” Collins assures, who implemented rules that didn’t always make sense. But he sensed a genuine personality.
“Way more than Nick Saban,” he adds. “I didn’t get that feeling from Nick. I did not get that feeling from Nick.”
Speaking to Saban felt more like going to the principal’s office.
Granted, his collegiate career did not go according to plan. As a sophomore, Collins discovered that he was playing with not one, not two, but three hernias. Maybe the two coaches’ personalities differed, but certainly not their practice habits. Harbaugh’s spring practices could last up to four hours, which took a toll on Collins’ groin. Finally, he had the mesh surgery administered with three incisions in all.
“I couldn’t move,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything.”
Except for watch TV in bed… eat food… get treatment in numbing succession. Unable to train, he put on too much weight. Collins inflated to at least 230 pounds.
Many days, it hurt to even stand up. To laugh. Which made watching Ridiculousness on MTV a painful endeavor. Any chuckle sent a sharp pain through his core. Back in high school, Collins didn’t even know he had a hernia. He still produced enough to get the attention of NFL scouts. Overweight, Collins still caught 37 passes for 729 yards (19.7 avg.) with six TDs. He was all set to play that senior year, in 2020, but opted out of the Big Ten’s abbreviated Covid season.
And that’s when the Texans, a team in total transition, selected Collins 89th overall in the third round of the 2021 draft. Out was DeAndre Hopkins, out was Deshaun Watson, out was Bill O’Brien.
Nico Collins saw a blank canvas again.
Until it felt like the sport was slipping away.
“Is this for me?”
He wasn’t always this joyful. His first two NFL seasons, life in Houston for Nico Collins felt more like life “in a hole.”
The first play of his second pro game, Collins lined up against the Cleveland Browns with a ton of cushion. He ran a “Bang 8” route, an in-breaker, caught Tyrod Taylor’s dot and raced upfield for 32 yards. Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward caught Collins from behind for a routine tackle, driving his shoulder into the dirt. Right away, the receiver knew something was wrong. Re-enacting the scene here, Collins could barely lift his arm to signal first down. He prayed it was just a stinger, felt pain in his collarbone and stayed on the field.
Collins recalls his right arm helplessly “hanging.” As if it completely malfunctioned.
Ward, across the line, even gave him a funny look.
That next play, Taylor mercifully checked the ball down to a back and Collins glided off to the sideline. He had suffered a Grade 3 AC sprain in his shoulder. The injury sidelined him for a month and proved to be a haunting omen. His first two seasons in the NFL were plagued by injuries. In addition to this shoulder, Collins suffered a throbbing heel bruise (“Now, I can’t walk!”), hip issues, a foot injury and — worst of all — lingering groin pain. His groin would ache… and ache… from OTAs to camp right into the season. Collins played in 24 of 34 games, and wasn’t close to full strength most of those 24.
All while the Texans became even more of a laughingstock with 4-13 and 3-13-1 records.
When the groin pain returned in Year 2, discouragement fed more of a darkness.
“At that point,” he says. “I feel like I'm just searching. … I was in a bad spot.”
Collins openly wondered “Is this for me?” and “Do I really want to do this?” and could not stop worrying about his groin. At its worst, he’d peel over in pain every time he got out of his car. Nobody knows how much they use their groin in everyday life, he says, until it’s injured. But worse than the physical pain was the mental anguish.
He’d call his parents for support. They told him nothing is promised and such “ups and downs” were the nature of the beast. Collins understood this, but Collins had also never dealt with an injury so relentlessly nagging. This was worse than any Christmas morning because something he did possess, something he loved — football — was being taken away. I share the story of another wide receiver in the AFC South. Jacksonville’s Zay Jones entered this same realm when he played for the Buffalo Bills. He’d hole up inside his Orchard Park, NY apartment, alone and depressed and asking “Why?” Collins nods. That’s exactly how he felt. He says he wanted to “prove everybody wrong,” but felt powerless.
Forget being the greatest.
For the first time in his life, Collins was overwhelmed with negativity.
“You’ve got guys trying to replace you,” Collins says. “That’s part of the NFL. You know what comes with it. So when you get hurt and you’re missing games, you’re like, ‘Damn am I about to get cut? Get released? Am I not who they thought I was going to be?’ Little thoughts like that come trickling through your head.”
Texans receivers coach/pass game coordinator Ben McDaniels was actually Collins’ position coach at Michigan, too. He knows him better than anyone in the building and, first, credits vets in the locker room for helping Collins stay level-headed. He remembers ex-Texan Brandin Cooks lending a hand. Maybe he was teetering — asking “Is this for me?” — but McDaniels also knows that, to his core, Collins didn’t have any quit in him.
“He’s very tough,” McDaniels says. “He internalizes plenty of it and sometimes you’ve got to see if you can get it from him. But he’s tough.”
Ending the 2022 season on injured reserve with the foot injury gave Collins a chance to reflect. Back in Birmingham.
One conversation with his sister served as the definitive turning point. Nico was always closer to his sister than his brother and Aliyah told him, straight-up, “You’re built for this.” Told him to get his swagger back. Aliyah could tell Nico was changing as a person, so forget football. Before doing anything in rehab — anything on a field, period — he needed to regain his confidence, to look into the mirror and remember everything he overcame as a kid. So, last offseason, that’s what Collins did.
This one conversation changed everything.
“I needed it,” Collins says. “I needed to go home and not regroup but just reload. You don’t get that many opportunities. When I came back to Houston, I was just like, ‘Let’s go.’ That’s when a switch went off in my body and my mind: Let’s go have fun. The NFL is Not For Long.”
He couldn’t wallow in pity. Truth of the matter was that Collins could take matters into his own hands. Er, uh, groin. He ramped up the physical therapy and incorporated more stretching exercises, more yoga into his offseason. Range and mobility became his primary focus.
In Year 1 and Year 2, Collins admits he did not take care of his body outside of the building.
In Year 3, it became an obsession.
His timing was perfect.
DeMeco Ryans was hired on Jan. 31, 2023 — right around the time Nico and Aliyah had that heart-to-heart — and nothing’s been the same since in H-Town. The Texans aggressively signed veterans on both sides of the ball to send a message that they intend to win now. On draft day, they were ultra-aggressive. Stroud was handpicked as the team’s quarterback No. 2 overall, and then Ryan got his defensive linchpin No. 3 overall in Will Anderson Jr., for a bounty of picks. Little did outsiders know that a new Nico Collins would also reintroduce himself to the world.
Within OC Bobby Slowik’s symphony of a scheme, Collins is the weapon who turns 10-yard gains into 30, 40, 50 yards.
This offense is cutting edge, as wideout Robert Woods detailed. Exactly when Stroud hits his back foot, receivers get out of their breaks. They seek to utilize every square inch of the field and actively stress each defensive player. All 11 have their individual “rules” tested. Too often, however, talking heads act as if mindless robots could execute this McVay-Shanahan-McDaniel-Slowik Offense. That was the mistake people made with Jared Goff — he’s always been a excellent quarterback in own right.
Explosive playmakers make this scheme special. San Francisco isn’t the same without Deebo Samuel rounding the corner with bad intentions. In Houston, Collins can also elevate the X’s and O’s.
He's 6 foot 4, but doesn’t play like an archetypal 6-4 possession receiver.
“There’s a lot of guys that have my height frame, body frame that can’t bend and run like I can,” Collins says. “It’s a God-given talent. I can really bend. I can drop my hips. And come in and out of brakes. It’s not normal for a guy that’s like 6-4. I'm just saying.”
That’s how he sneaks up on cornerbacks. Collins can see it in their eyes. Most expect him to run a limited number of routes.
Then, he detonates vs. Indianapolis for seven catches, 146 yards and a TD…
Third and 4. He gains the final nine of a 28-yard gain by ramming a shoulder through a DB. The same shoulder he injured as a rookie.
Third and 6. End zone. Stroud throws high — very high — and Collins fully extends to stretch and catch the TD.
Collins roasts veteran Kenny Moore on a deep post. The timing’s perfect. Twenty-four yards.
Another 24-yarder is called back but even more impressive. Somehow, Collins hangs onto the ball while staring down a linebacker who crunches him. The play-by-play man on the broadcast even chuckles in awe.
And, hey, there’s a diving third and 13 catch for good measure.
Then, he detonates again vs. Pittsburgh for seven catches, 168 yards and two scores…
At the 2-yard line, Collins freezes vet Levi Wallace with a stutter step he used so many times on the hardwood. It’s just enough to gain separation on a slant route for a TD.
After one catch, he splits three Steelers defenders to race upfield.
He’s deployed on a wide receiver. Uncommon for receivers his size.
Off-script, he sticks with Stroud for another deep catch.
Third and 7. Houston’s 48. He gets a step on Patrick Peterson, wastes him, cradles the Stroud touch pass over his shoulder for a TD to cap this 30-6 blowout.
Slowik remembered evaluating Collins out of Michigan but knew little else. Once the OC started working with his new receiver, he knew he’d be featuring his “physical specimen.”
“He’s big, fast, strong, great hands and can run routes. Sounds pretty awesome,” Slowik says. “So how do we make use of that? And thankfully, him and Ben have a very good relationship. They’ve been together a long time. So there’s a lot of things Ben knows about him in football and personally that can just help expedite the process of, ‘OK, how do we help him and shorten how far we have to go in this new scheme.”
Stroud has cited Collins as one of the first players to reach out when he was drafted in April. On film, the QB could see that Collins was almost always open. If not? He’d make the contested catch. Once they started working together, Stroud realized he could give his big receiver opportunities in traffic. A trust built. He calls Collins “a superstar.” He also noticed that Collins was “constantly” in the training room.
By pre-habbing, the receiver is hoping to avoid the groin issues that’ve dogged him.
Thus, McDaniels sees a pro who now pours himself into every aspect of the game — meetings, practice, developing a true process off the field. To the point where he’s now dominating defensive backs as both a receiver and a blocker.
“When you’re 6-4 and you run as well as he does and he enjoys the physical part of the game,” McDaniels says, “not every guy enjoys a physical element to playing receiver. That’s OK. There’s a lot of different versions — but he does. He enjoys the physicality of the position and it shows up in his game in all the ways.”
All while still resembling Gumby. McDaniels is the coach who tells Collins he’s got “gumby traits.” He’s loose.
Now speaking at his locker, Collins pretends to do a crossover, pull up for a jumper and says “Slim reaper!” He believes his Durant-like game absolutely translates to wide receiver. Using a hesitation dribble on the hardwood to gain the baseline is no different to him than trying to get a step on a cornerback along the sideline. “Same game,” he adds, “same movements.” Rebounding is no different than high-pointing a football. A long stride helps him cover a ton of ground, similar to KD or Giannis Antetokounmpo getting to the rim in just two or three steps. Now, he’s trying to tap into the “smaller details.” The smart cornerbacks, for example, study his heels and know when he’s about to break.
Off the line, he’s trying to make every route look the same.
Because, in the next breath, there’s no telling where Collins goes. His route chart is a map of meandering rivers and streams. Which demands flexibility. Which is not typically asked of 6-4 receivers. He’s able to handle it all and, yes, his YAC could potentially take this Texans offense to an elite level.
As Samuel and George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk have done in San Francisco.
As Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle have in Miami.
Like Brock Purdy and Tua Tagovailoa, the quarterback in Houston is accurate enough to pass the baton off to 4x100 sprinters in-stride. Collins insists only two words occupy his brain when he’s running with the ball: “Go score.”
Says Slowik: “Let’s get the ball to guys who can do stuff with the ball in their hands on the move in good positions. And we put a lot of work into getting that done. Nico had shown glimpses through his NFL career, but it wasn’t very consistent as far as yards after catch. And I really think emphasizing that in our offense, he took that and he really ran with it and not just within our building. I think he went to other people outside the building: How do I get better at this? How do I really, really become a great yards after catch receiver? And his mindset just flipped. He wants to score every time he touches the ball now and he believes he can. And I think he's been close many, many, many times already through six weeks.
“That’s been the coolest evolution that I’ve seen. From where he was early and then how much he's just taken to: ‘I want to make sure when I touch the ball I get in the end zone somehow, some way every time.’”
The 31-year-old Woods knows Collins has a chance to be potentially great because he’s bringing everything Slowik preaches to life.
“What he’s doing,” Woods says, “he’s already special.”
That’s what has everyone excited. Collins has only played in this offense six games.
There’s another gear.
OK, so the sport may be Not For Long. If that’s the case? Damn right, Nico Collins will have fun while it lasts.
Dread no longer pollutes his mind. He’s making sure a pure love for the game drives him each day.
“Why not? You only get a certain amount of time,” Collins says. “Everybody wants to be on a roster. Everybody wants a 53 spot and I’m blessed enough to have it.”
That’s why his favorite quote is the one next to Michael Jordan. The one noting to love the “process.” No cliché to a player who’s been doing PT and yoga and everything possible to stay healthy. Knocking on the wood behind him, Collins notes he hasn’t had any soft-tissue issues since last season.
“This shit don’t stop,” he says. “As I go with it, I’m learning.”
Dan Campbell nailed it when he called the NFL season a “freight train.”
DeMeco Ryans understands this, too.
As an Alabama native himself, his connection with Collins was instant. As much as the receiver’s hands stood out to him in camp, Ryans knows toughness is the trait that makes Collins a core piece of this rebuild.
“Anybody who's successful at what they do,” says Ryans, an NFL linebacker himself from 2005- ’16, “they’ve had to go through something. It makes you grind a little bit harder. It makes you strain and really appreciate the opportunities that you have in front of you. And I think Nico is — whatever rough start it may be — you need that to really put you where you need to be when it's time to be successful. Overcoming whatever is going on in the past, overcoming that, it’s made him stronger mentally and physically.
“It’s just grit. And that's what you look for. To play in this league and to make it, you have to have that grit, that mental toughness. And Nico has it.”
Adds McDaniels: “The sky’s the limit at that point.”
This week, the Texans will face the winless Carolina Panthers. More highlights await. More people across the country will learn who he is. Collins is playing his way into a contract he couldn’t have conceived as a child but, mostly? He’s simply grateful.
Grateful for the opportunity to line up against Peterson, an eight-time Pro Bowler. (“I was watching Pat Pete when I was small!”) And facing Jalen Ramsey. (“There’s Jalen Ramsey. F--k, it. Let’s go!”) When Nico Collins steps up to the line of scrimmage, he’s still that 11th grader determined to go down as the best ever.
Four words pass through his mind: “Nobody can stop me.” He catches the ball, scores a touchdown, wins a game and heads right back to this locker room where he’s grateful for one more thing.
A hot shower.
Miss our story on the 2023 rookie quarterbacks? C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young will face off this Sunday.