Oct. 9, 2014
By Todd Burlage
The last practice, the last drill, the last pass, a freak injury, more down time.
Of all the University of Notre Dame football players who didn’t deserve another dose of misfortune, it had to be Irish senior safety Austin Collinsworth, especially only two days before the 2014 season opener against Rice.
Working the same coverage drill Collinsworth had performed countless times during summer workouts and through four weeks of training camp, an awkward collision with a wide receiver and a tweak of his right knee cruelly put the Irish team captain on the sideline for the first four games of his final season at Notre Dame.
“I couldn’t believe it. We weren’t even in full pads,” Collinsworth says. “You make it all the way through the summer, all of the camp practices, and then this happens right before your season is ready to start, and right at the end of practice? It was very disappointing.”
Disappointing, yes, but at least not devastating this time.
The prognosis was a grade 2 MCL knee sprain. The remedy was rest and some light rehabilitation. No surgery was required, and that qualifies as some welcome news.
“It was good to hear it wasn’t overly serious,” Collinsworth says. “The last thing I needed was another long recovery.”
Relief is understandable after all that Collinsworth went through a little more than two years ago.
Before his junior season in 2012, one surgery to repair a herniated disc in his spine and another to fix a torn labrum in his left shoulder kept the Fort Thomas, Kentucky, native off the field for the unforgettable run that saw his Irish make it all the way to the Bowl Championship Series national title game. Collinsworth was in line that season to back up standout safeties Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter, but those injuries relegated him instead to clipboard duty, film study and cheerleader.
“I wondered at times if I ever would play football again,” Collinsworth says. “It proved very tough for me to not be on the field as a player, but it was great to be a part of that experience. I tried to help in any way I could. I wanted to stay involved.”
It’s that desire to always put team goals ahead of personal pursuits that most impresses Irish coaches about Collinsworth.
This story isn’t all about injury and misfortune to an Irish player, even though Collinsworth has faced more than his share of both. Instead, it’s about perseverance, leadership, example and improvement — four characteristics that have defined Collinsworth during his time at Notre Dame and made him one of four team captains elected before the start of the 2014 season.
“This past year, he really impressed me with his want and desire to lead,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly says of the maturity Collinsworth has shown as both a player and a person. “Great student, committed to the University, and committed to this football team.”
Kelly outlined the many qualities that made Collinsworth a great candidate and choice to become a team captain, and the reasons go far beyond tackles and pass defended.
On the field, Collinsworth selflessly accepted a position switch as a freshman from wide receiver to safety. Through smarts and skill, he has demonstrated the steadiest improvement of anyone on the Irish defense after coming to Notre Dame in 2010 as the best offensive high school player in the state of Kentucky.
As a senior at perennial football power Fort Thomas Highlands near Cincinnati, Ohio, Collinsworth rushed for 1,503 yards and 23 touchdowns as a three-year starter on a team that won three straight Kentucky Class 5A state titles.
“I really liked his football intelligence and smarts, and I felt like he could make the transition to defense,” Kelly says of the decision to move Collinsworth to safety. “When he did make the transition, we could see that he had the acumen to do what we wanted and be a great leader out there.”
In the classroom, Collinsworth completed his bachelor’s degree in May 2014 and is currently working on his MBA in finance, a graduate degree that presents one of the most difficult curriculums in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.
“He sticks to his business and gets his work done,” Kelly says of the efficiency with which Collinsworth juggles his responsibilities as a student and an athlete. “He has the respect of all of his teammates because of the way he handles his business.”
Even when there could have been plenty of reasons for Collinsworth to lose his determination and enthusiasm.
Collinsworth admits to being deeply concerned about his future as a football player following those two serious injuries. Wanting to get back on the field as quickly as possible after shoulder surgery, Collinsworth tried to ignore the pain in his back that eventually became “unimaginable.”
“It just kept getting worse,” he says. “You hoped everyday you’d start to feel better. I never did.”
The back pain eventually won out and the subsequent surgery sidelined Collinsworth for the entire 2012 season.
“Film study isn’t the most exciting part of football. There were plenty of days I wished I could have skipped it,” Collinsworth says of taking a year off. “But looking back, I can appreciate how that season made me a much better player. I learned so much about the game and the strategies of football.”
Collinsworth offers a curious laugh when asked if perhaps he somehow was being involuntarily groomed through his recovery to one day become a coach. “Maybe so,” he says with a chuckle.
His Notre Dame teammates don’t disagree after Collinsworth became kind of a player-coach early this season.
“He has coached guys up on the sidelines and made sure everybody knew what they were supposed to do,” says Irish cornerback Cody Riggs. “Having him on the sidelines has been really helpful. He’s a leader.”
The circumstances are obviously different, but the situation Collinsworth faced in 2012 isn’t dramatically different from Everett Golson’s in 2013 when the Irish quarterback used his time away from the game to become better a player upon his return to the game.
“I think where [the time off] helped Austin is the defensive perspective –assignments and just all the things that go along with being a smart defensive player. I think that really helped him,” Kelly says. “It put him two steps ahead. If he’s not a 4.5 [40-yard dash player] he can play a 4.5 because he’s a step ahead.”
A Family Affair
A story on Collinsworth wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the influence and support that came from his parents, Cris and Holly, and his three siblings, older sister Katie, younger sister Ashley and younger brother Jac, a sophomore at Notre Dame.
In a story for the Chicago Sun-Times, Cris – a National Football League Pro Bowl wide receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals from 1981-88 and the color commentator for NBC’s Sunday Night Football — said he had to bite his tongue during the recruiting process and not meddle in his son’s college choice when the final list was narrowed to Notre Dame, Stanford and Oregon.
During a recruiting visit to Notre Dame, father and son were walking through the tunnel and onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium when Austin wanted to know what his father thought of campus.
“And I wanted to say, `What do I think? What, are you nuts?'” the elder Collinsworth recalled. “This is Notre Dame, the greatest college players in the history of the world have walked through this tunnel out onto this field. This is where you should go. This is awesome. But I said, `I don’t know Austin, what do you think?'”
Needless to say, the younger Collinsworth became sold as well.
“It’s easy to fall in love with this place on first sight. The choice became easy once I visited Notre Dame,” Collinsworth says when remembering the time he made his final decision. “The players, the coaches, all the people you meet are what make this place so special. There is nothing easy about going here. But you get out of it what you put into it.”
Perhaps on the inspiration of his father, Austin says his life after football — be it college or professional — will include his passion for sports and video production. Of course, it’s a nice luxury having a finance MBA from Notre Dame “to fall back on,” as Collinsworth says.
With some videography and on-line circulation help from Fighting Irish Digital Media, Austin and Jac created Collinsworth and Co., a sibling broadcast tandem that produces fresh and personal video looks at Notre Dame athletics, including the football team. These five-minute snippets offer behind-the-scenes accounts of the lives of Irish student-athletes that go beyond the normal Q&As about wins and losses.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Austin says. “We are trying to show the personalities of the players, the lighter side, a look that goes beyond the everyday football talk that you can get anywhere.”
Just another example of Austin Collinsworth sticking to his plan, even if things didn’t always go according to plan.