When you think of UK football history, you probably would mention former players/coaches like Paul “Bear” Bryant, Tim Couch, George Blanda, Jerry Claiborne, Randall Cobb, and Sonny Collins, to name a handful.
And it is Collins (pictured) who has been getting some attention lately. The 1973 SEC Player of the Year, Collins is currently the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,835 yards but his career mark is about to be broken. Current UK star running back Benny Snell Jr. only needs 107 yards against Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day to get the coveted record.
Collins says that’s fine in a recent e-mail interview with this columnist. “Records are meant to be broken,” explained Collins, a two-time All-American during the early 1970s under coaches John Ray (one year) and Fran Curci (three years). “I would be honored if Benny broke the record.”
Earlier this fall, Collins -- who now lives in Fayetteville, Georgia (near Atlanta) -- returned to his home state and visited UK campus when he was named the honorary captain for the Kentucky-Mississippi State game at Kroger Field.
Collins said he told Snell to “stay focused on team goals and hopefully, you will set a new record.”
When Collins – a three-time first team All-SEC selection -- left UK, he finished his collegiate career as the SEC’s all-time rushing leader which since has been broken. Entering the 2018 campaign, Collins is still among the leaders, ranking No. 12 on the all-time rushing list with Georgia’s Herschel Walker at No. 1 with 5,259 yards.
A native of Madisonville, Ky., where he was a star at Madisonville-North Hopkins High School in becoming one of the state’s leading rushers, Collins was asked about his favorite football memory or best game at Kentucky. It took place at Jackson, Miss., during his sophomore year in 1973 as the Wildcats rolled over the Bulldogs in a 42-14 win.
“I ran 200-plus yards and four TDs at the end of three quarters,” he recalled. “I was national player of the week. I was done for the night. We won the game.”
In the 1976 NFL Draft, Collins was chosen by the Atlanta Falcons as the No. 8 selection of the second round. He only played one year with the Falcons before a knee injury ended his NFL tenure.
But even before he played college football, Collins was concerned about his future after he had injured his ankle in the second game of his high school senior year, missing the remaining games. As pointed out in Russell Rice’s 1975 book, “The Wildcats: A Story of Kentucky Football,” the injury took him a long time to recover.
“I had to have an ankle operation, and a lot of people thought I could come back from the operation and play, but the doctor told me just to relax and not worry about trying to come back,” Collins was quoted as saying in Rice’s book. “Well, I started getting phone calls. Rumors began spreading about, and my daddy worried that I wasn’t going to get into college with that kind of stuff going around. I could see myself in the coal mines. I worked one summer there. Both of my grandfathers, or at least one of them, died of black lung. I’d always heard about it, but I didn’t know how it actually was until I was old enough to go down. Man, it’s spooky. You go about two miles down and then you level off for a while. Then you go through a 36- or 42-inch high hole for maybe a half-mile more. There’s no way you can stand straight up. You either bend or crawl.
“Probably the best thing you can find down there are rats. I mean big rats. Bigger than basketball shoes. There’s a lot of natural gas around coal, and if you see them you know the air is pretty safe to breathe. But if you see them start running or going in one direction, then you’d better start running behind them because something is going to blow.
“With all that worrying, it wasn’t too long before I lost all my hair. I wear a ‘fro’ off the field now, and I am a different person on and off the field.”
The author also reported Collins, after his outstanding performance against Mississippi State in 1973, gave his Afro wig to his offensive linemen.
What does Collins think about college football’s current four-team playoff?
“My thought is they need to expand to eight teams because this would allow eight best teams throughout the country to compete for the championship,” said Collins, a member of UK Athletics Hall of Fame.
Collins, who has retired from Delta Airlines, also loves watching the Atlanta Falcons play. “I enjoy being a part of the Falcons organization,” he said. “The Falcons invite my family to games each season. I’m very appreciative of such an honor.”
Collins says he plans to stay home to watch the No. 16 Wildcats (9-3) battle No. 12 Penn State (9-3) in Orlando. “It should be a good game,” he said.
The bowl matchup will be televised by ABC network, beginning at 1 p.m. ET, and the TV broadcasters will be Dave Flemming, Brock Huard and Laura Rutledge.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo of Sonny Collins by UK Athletics Photo