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For the second time this summer, I’m saying a somber goodbye to a Razorback football icon instead of doing what I really love, which is writing about the sport itself, free of morbidity.
And yet here we are again, on a sleepy and steamy Monday night in Arkansas, smacked yet again with the news of another Hog gone too soon. Former All-SEC tailback and the program’s second all-time rusher, Alex Collins, died at 28 after reportedly perishing in a motorcycle accident, weeks after legendary Hog quarterback Ryan Mallett drowned in the Gulf of Mexico.
Collins had a little better luck professionally than Mallett did, finding some quality time in the Seattle Seahawk and Baltimore Raven backfields. He logged 19 total touchdowns and came up just short of a 1,000-yard season in Baltimore in 2018. After that, he returned to Seattle for a couple of years and had been with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL most recently, determined to carve a path back to the NFL at an age when most backs are being pastured.
Of course, like Mallett, Collins made his biggest mark in Fayetteville. He was highly coveted by the University of Miami and seemingly destined there after a big prep career at South Plantation High. Bret Bielema made the signing of Collins a big priority and the dreadlocked and perpetually smiling tailback notoriously signed with the Hogs despite his mother’s reported snatching of his letter of intent.
Despite the Hogs’ evident issues in Bielema’s inaugural 2013 season, Collins simply was not one of them. He logged 1,026 yards and four scores to win SEC Freshman of the Year, pairing with Jonathan Williams to form an explosive duo that eventually helped the Hogs to a seven-win 2014 campaign and a Texas Bowl ring. Both surpassed the thousand-yard mark, and Collins tripled his TD total as a freshman with 12.
Things got even better for Collins in 2015, though in fairness, it was in part due to not having to split touches with an injured Williams. As a result, the junior blew past several on the career rushing list with 1,577 yards, a robust 5.8 yards per carry, and a school-record 20 touchdowns on the ground. Most memorably, he scooped up Hunter Henry’s desperation 4th-and-25 lateral at Ole Miss and ran a half-mile to save the Hogs in an epic at Oxford. As an encore, he broke loose for a career-best 80-yard score at LSU in a rout of the Top-10 Tigers.
Collins’ final game as a Hog, the 2016 Liberty Bowl, was the last Razorback bowl game I attended. He was electric on a sunny day in Memphis, slipping through creases and using that famously Irish dance-inspired footwork to elude tacklers. After his 185-yard, three-score day, everyone knew he’d forgo his senior year.
He didn’t have a spectacular workout, though, and fell to the Seahawks in the fifth round. Nevertheless, Collins was persistent and occasionally found himself in a lead back role in his pro career.
Enough of the career recap, though.
While in Fayetteville, nobody exuded more love for the program and the Hog community than Collins. He regularly appeared in public, at games, and signed countless balls and jerseys for young fans. As a broader fan base learned later when he made his NFL splash, Collins didn’t just do shuttle runs or cones to develop his shiftiness: he took Irish dancing courses and parlayed that into a nifty touchdown celebration.
He didn’t get to use it often, but any Collins highlight reel is a treat, if now one tinged with sadness. Not blessed with the breakaway speed of Darren McFadden (the only Hog ahead of him on the career rushing charts), Collins was selective and patient. For those warhorse fans that like to chide tailbacks who “dance around in the backfield,” Collins was a breath of fresh air, with great vision and ability to find running room in the midst of traffic in the trenches.
Collins spent the 2017 season on the Ravens with Mallett winding down his short career as a backup. They posed together then, having no idea that their respective paths would cross again but for all the worst reasons. Their deaths this summer, nearly seven weeks apart, have created a pall that is a bit reminiscent of the one that preceded the 2006 season when beloved broadcaster Paul Eells was killed in a car wreck shortly before the season began.
As for the latest Hog great to depart prematurely, “Budda” Collins was pure, exuberant Razorback energy, and wore the cardinal and white with pride, and a wide, contagious grin. His presence in a small state was large, and so, fittingly, will be his absence.