Austin Collie is fighting for his professional football life, vying for a spot on a San Francisco 49ers team that many believe will return to the Super Bowl next January.
The former Oak Ridge standout is now 27. He gained a reputation for hard work, dependability and intelligence with the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, a team that rode Peyton Manning’s arm and instincts all the way to the big game. The future hall-of-famer took the undersized rookie with the oversized work ethic under his wing that year. Cameras often found the two hunched over a clipboard on the sideline.
Collie became an integral part of the Colts offense as a “slot” receiver, averaging 613 yards per season from 2009 to 2011.
Four concussions and a career-threatening knee injury later, Collie finds himself on a preseason roster chockablock with receivers — a league-leading 14, most of whom won’t make the team.
Ironically, the 49ers ended Collie’s father’s NFL aspirations 30 preseasons ago, releasing him shortly before the 1983 season. Like his son Austin, Scott Collie was a smallish receiver with a big heart. Back then the quarterback was a soft-spoken guy named Joe Montana.
The 2013 edition is Montana’s opposite in many ways, a flashy kid with quick feet named Colin Kaepernick who took his team to football’s hallowed ground in January.
Collie, a devout Mormon, had his faith tested in 2012, suffering a fourth concussion in the preseason and a torn patella ligament in his first game back.
When the Colts didn’t renew his contract, Collie tried out with several teams before inking a one-year deal with the 49ers, a team riddled with injuries in their receiving corps.
Local media reported the signing as if Collie made the team. But Scott confirmed that Austin was merely invited to training camp, along with several other hopefuls vying for one of six probable receiver spots on the final roster, half of which will likely be occupied by the walking wounded from last season. The team could put Michael Crabtree on injured reserve status, freeing a fourth spot.
The 49ers invited the herd of hungry hands to camp when Crabtree, last year’s leading receiver, tore his Achilles tendon in May. He could miss the entire season.
The injury made 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh’s trade for veteran receiver Anquan Boldin two months earlier look like a stroke of genius. Boldin was instrumental in the Ravens’ Superbowl victory in January.
The two or three remaining roster spots will come from the mix of undrafted players hoping to prove themselves, free agents like Collie who have already done so and a high-draft pick from last year who has not.
Collie has the best résumé of the bunch, but isn’t taking anything for granted. “He’s been really impressed with the talent they brought in,” Scott said. “He says they’re all good, even the new guys.”
The family knows about good receivers, and runs training camps to help create them. See receivertech.com for details.
Scott led the way as a favorite target of Steve Young and Jim McMahon at BYU. After being cut by the 49ers in 1983, he played five seasons in Canada.
His oldest son Zac tore up the BYU gridiron as well, and nearly got on with the Eagles. The youngest, Dylan, is followed Austin’s footsteps, interrupting his college career for a Mormon mission.
More crunch-time catches like the pair Austin snagged in the fourth quarter of the team’s 10-6 loss to Denver in Thursday’s preseason opener will help his chances with the 49ers.
The first ball thrown his way came in fast and low. Austin responded with a diving catch that kept the ball off the turf and the 49ers in the game. On the next play, third-year quarterback Scott Tolzien launched a hot one into a crowd over the middle and somehow caught Collie in stride, an impressive 18-yard strike on fourth down.
CBS commentator Dennis O’Donnell said Austin “has the potential to be an excellent acquisition,” by the team, “An experienced proven veteran receiver….”
“Who played with Peyton Manning,” interrupted color-man Tim Ryan.
Early in his tenure with the Manning, Austin demonstrated he could find holes in coverage over the middle, run the Colts’ complex screen plays and, importantly, make the right decisions on the “hot reads” — mid-play route changes that can make a quarterback look very good or very bad.
In a professional sports era rife with prima donna athletes, doping and philandering, the national sports media couldn’t resist Austin’s wholesomeness. He’d parked his football career for two years to serve on a Mormon mission, and came to the Colts as a rookie with his wife Brooke, who famously helped him learn the team’s massive playbook.
A 2009 Sports Illustrated cover story, ostensibly about Manning, mentioned Austin 37 times, not counting pronouns.
In their Super Bowl loss to New Orleans, Austin caught 6 Manning passes for 66 yards, including a 40-yarder in the fourth quarter. Between 2009 and 2011 he averaged 57 catches, 613 yards and a lofty 10.7 yards per catch each season, statistics which held up in the rebuilding years following Manning’s injury and departure.
In Thursday’s game, Boldin and free agents Marlon Moore and Chad Hall all got good reviews, as did Austin. Free agent Lavelle Hawkins, who arrived with Austin, dropped a third-down pass in the red zone. Last year’s first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, catchless in his rookie season, fumbled his only catch.
The Collie family fields a steady stream of questions about the wisdom of Austin continuing to play football after four concussions.
Scott explains that his son gets the best neurological care available. “When one of his doctors says he shouldn’t play, he’ll stop,” he said. “He’s been through every imaginable test and he’s consistently gotten the green light.”
Shortly after he arrived in San Francisco, Austin told local reporters, “Every doctor I’ve talked to and every test that I’ve taken I’ve passed with flying colors.”
The ruptured tendon is just as threatening to the fifth-year player’s career, according to his father, who called Austin’s recovery from the knee injury “a testament to the doctor and to Austin’s dedication and desire to play again.”
Scott would love to have Austin, Brooke and their two sons in the Bay Area, but wouldn’t conjecture on his son’s chances with the team other than to say, “If not here, then somewhere later in the season, hopefully.”
Why should a team take a chance on Austin Collie?
Scott paused for a moment and replied, “He makes others around him better.
“He’s a student of the game; Peyton taught him that,” he continued. “He’s a smart player … and a hard worker.”
If Thursday night was any indication, he’s also pretty good at catching footballs.