Jim Brown. Otto Graham. Leroy Kelly. Paul Brown.
When you think about the Cleveland Browns, usually the names of these men come to mind. They are the ones usually mentioned as the bedrock of the franchise. The Browns have won eight championships: four in the All-America Football Conference, and four in the National Football League. They have also lost in another five league championship games.
And yet, none of these men ever provided a pass rush, or kicked in a game, or pulled to block on a screen play. Neither ran slant routes, blitzed off the edge or long snapped. The game of football is played with 11 men on both sides of the ball. And with winning so many titles and trophies, these individuals did not do it by themselves. They had help in the ultimate team game - lots of talented help.
Gary Collins was one of those talented players who was a key component to the legacy that is currently the Cleveland Browns.
Taken with the fourth overall pick in the 1962 NFL draft, Collins was a tall rangy kid who had an additional skill of being an excellent punter. Standing 6’5” with a playing weight of 215 pounds, he had a wide wing span and a long stride. His hands were soft and he was a good blocker at the line of scrimmage as well as downfield.
Collins was also taken in the first-round by the Boston Patriots of the American Football League in their 1962 college draft.
Collins played for the Browns from 1962-1971 and was a pivotal part of the 1964 NFL Championship team that upended the mighty Baltimore Colts 27-0, a seven-point favorite. Leading up to the game, oddly enough he told a reporter that the Browns would win by three touchdowns in a game that the most costly ticket was $10.
Before the title game, the Colts’ emphasis was on containing another Browns’ receiver, Paul Warfield. Collins caught three touchdown passes that game, an NFL title game record, and none were easy. He was a fearless receiver who would run the crosses and slants across the middle back in the day where defenders wanted to hit wideouts - and did - and weren’t penalized for it and in fact rewarded. The words “defenseless receiver” was not a term back then, and if it had been, nobody wanted to use it because football is a man’s game in which there are no shortcuts or crybabies.
Each Cleveland player received a winner’s share of $8,300. Collins was named the title game MVP, in which he received a brand new 1965 Corvette. Not QB Frank Ryan who had replaced Otto Graham. Not deep threat Paul Warfield. And not the face of the Browns in Jim Brown.
For his NFL career, Collins had 5,299 receiving yards on 331 receptions, 70 touchdowns with a 16.0 average per catch. He was excellent with yards-after-the-catch, which was not an official stat back then. During his 10-year pro football stint, he had zero fumbles. No, that is not a typo - a wide receiver who never lost a single ball. He dropped only seven passes for his career. He was almost unstoppable in the Red Zone with his sure hands, height and long reach.
Collins was elected to the Pro Bowl in 1965 and 1966. At the end of each decade, voters of the Pro Football Hall of Fame select an “All-Decades Team.” Collins was selected to the 1960s version along with receivers Boyd Dowler, Charley Taylor and Del Shofner. In 1974 he played briefly with the Florida Blazers of the World Football League.
His career punt average was 41.0 yards per kick, a job he enjoyed and was good at but did not add any extra to his paychecks. So, he played wide receiver for money and punted for free.
In 2013, cleveland.com put together a list of the “100 Greatest Browns of All-Time.” Collins was listed at number 15 beating out other receivers such as Paul Warfield, Webster Slaughter, Reggie Langhorne and Reggie Rucker. In 2016, he was elected to the “Hall of Very Good” by the Professional Football Researchers Association. In 1963, he was the NFL receiving touchdown leader with 13.
Today, Collins is retired and living with his wife of 39 years Carole in Hershey, Pennsylvania. After his NFL career was completed, he coached college football a while, did some broadcasting and finally was an insurance agent to provide a living since million dollar contracts weren’t even considered back in his day. Carole worked at the Hershey chocolate factory for years until her retirement.
Dawgs by Nature caught up with Collins at his home to talk about someone with the Cleveland Browns other than Jimmy Brown.
DBN: You were quite a player at Maryland and finished your career with 74 receptions for 1,182 receiving yards in an era that mostly ran the ball. You led Maryland in receptions all three years you started from 1959-1961. You were also a very good punter and the team’s starting punter all three years. How did you get interested in punting?
Collins: I have punted since I was eight years old. Players back then played both ways plus I punted in games in high school. I also played linebacker.
DBN: The Browns drafted you in the first-round of the 1962 NFL college draft and the fourth overall player selected. How did you find out which team had drafted you?
Collins: The PR man from Maryland called and told me. Nobody from the Browns contacted me about being drafted. I guess it was how it was handled back then. Assistant coach Blanton Collier signed me to a two-year contract worth $50,000. They signed me to play receiver and then mentioned I could also punt but not for any more money. At the time, a job at the Hershey Chocolate plant paid $2,500 a year, so playing football paid more.
DBN: Do you tell folks that you were drafted in the first-round along with Roman Gabriel, Merlin Olsen, Lance Alworth, John Hadl and Ernie Davis?
Collins: No, I was happy to be picked. Back then there wasn’t any TV coverage of the draft and basically nobody that was drafted received any publicity other than Ernie Davis. I did get to go on the Ed Sullivan Show along with the other All-Americans. That was fun.
DBN: What was your first training camp like as a pro compared to college?
Collins: It was much different than college for sure. The money aspect made the game different right from the start. I don’t remember players having agents and you negotiated your own contract, which was basically what they offered you. I was also drafted by the Boston Patriots so there was a little bit of leverage there. I negotiated a no-cut contract.
DBN: What was Paul Brown like as a head coach?
Collins: At the time I was too young to pass judgement on coaches. I was 22-years old and google-eyed and he was the boss and that’s the way it was. He had lots of rules and I did what I was told to do - and when to do it.
DBN: Coach Brown immediately inserted you as the starting punter and you played sparingly as a wide receiver as a rookie. Did teams place much emphasis on special teams back then?
Collins: Paul Brown had his finger on every aspect of the team. He realized that the kicking game was important and we would be prepared in games. He made all of us conform to what he wanted down to how we dressed coming to games to our haircuts.
DBN: In your rookie season, the Browns began the season 4-3-0 but finished 7-6-1. Did it seem that the season was a big disappointment since Cleveland was used to winning and going to the playoffs it seemed every year?
Collins: I had grown up in Pennsylvania and really did not keep up pro football. So, I wasn’t aware of the success of the Browns until later in life but did know he was an important coach. At the time under Paul Brown, I was too young of a player to be concerned with what was happening in the front office or years past and was more focused on what I needed to do to make the team and help the team each game. I had no daily feed on whether Coach Brown was doing well although we all heard things.
DBN: Where were you when you heard that Coach Brown had been fired, and what was your first reaction?
Collins: I was in my hometown of Williamstown, Pennsylvania when I heard the news. I guess I sorta knew that there were some bad vibes when we would go drink a beer after the game. People would talk and say things, but as a player you didn’t know if those things had any truth behind it or were just others talking out loud their frustrations.
DBN: Before Coach Brown’s firing, was there a lot of tension between him and owner Art Modell over power of the team, play-calling, and personnel decisions?
Collins: I am not the person to ask. I was just a rookie when all that happened. Both Modell and Paul Brown treated me great. Modell was at every practice and would talk to you as a person. Paul Brown was concerned about family and wanted the best for his players.
DBN: Blanton Collier was on the coaching staff your rookie year as an offensive assistant. There were many newspaper articles praising Collier’s coaching style and system. How well did he and Coach Brown work together?
Collins: Paul Brown listened to Blanton and they got along very well. After Paul Brown was fired, Blanton wasn’t sure he could come back and step into those shoes. But he did and we continued on. He changed some things right away such as the practice schedule, but we were basically the same football team.
DBN: Did the players think that owner Art Modell had sabotaged the franchise by firing Coach Brown?
Collins: I don’t think so. But most athletes kept stuff to themselves. You had to watch what you said back then or they would cut your ass in a minute if what you said got back to the wrong people on the wrong day. As a player, you were glad to get a paycheck that was above what you would make in the real business world. But it wasn’t enough to set you up for life, just that year and maybe the year after. I would love to have gotten $3 million a year just to punt.
DBN: At that time period, was Modell a meddling owner, or did he allow his coaches to coach while he took care of the business end of football?
Collins: No comment. I got along with Modell very well. I know he is no longer here, but he was good to me. I know he caused a lot of bad blood in later years and created a lot of enemies, but he treated me well. Apparently, everybody gets sick of a coach that doesn’t win.
DBN: Did Coach Collier begin to use you more as a wide receiver?
Collins: He came over to me one day and said, “I need a good one from you.” I responded with a good game and from that point on I was catching passes in games and continued to punt. I loved the guy. He was innovative and was a good tactician.
DBN: In 1963, the Browns went 10-4-0 and then 10-3-1 in 1964 which placed your team into the NFL Championship Game against the 12-3-0 Baltimore Colts. What was the attitude leading up to that game since the Colts were considered the league’s best team with Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti, Raymond Berry, John Mackey and coached by Don Shula?
Collins: A lot of people said that we didn’t have a chance. It was the lead story in all the newspapers and everywhere you went it seemed people had just written us off. One day I had John Fitzgerald from Channel 8 in the locker room and he was asking me questions about how great the Colts were, and I told him we were going to win by three touchdowns. Five years before (Joe) Namath gives his guarantee, there, I said it. We were not only going to win, but win by a lot. Now Blanton wasn’t pleased because what I predicted really pissed the Colts off and they used that in their game preparations. But I really believed we had the better team.
DBN: The game was played at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. What was the media attention like leading up to game day and were you able to go to the grocery store without being mobbed by fans?
Collins: Back then the TV coverage wasn’t like it is today. They didn’t do a bunch of promos and show a lot of players without their helmets, so there were only a few players in both leagues that people recognized. You could walk into places all the time and nobody knew who you were. Some restaurants knew you, especially if you went there a lot. Today, players can have entourages and all these things going on that attract attention to themselves. That type of behavior would not have been tolerated in those days.
DBN: In that 1964 NFL Championship Game, you caught three touchdown passes in the 27-0 win plus punted three times. The first touchdown catch was from 18-yards from QB Frank Ryan. On the second TD catch, Colts cornerback Bobby Boyd fell and you were wide open for a 42-yard TD and a 17-0 lead midway into the third quarter. Your Browns had scored 17 points in just eight minutes. Did the sideline feel like the game had been won at that point?
Collins: There was constant cheering as we built the lead on our sideline - a lot of encouragement. The reason I jumped for the ball was because I thought it was going to hit the crossbar of the goalpost, which was located on the goal line back then.
DBN: The third TD catch was a deep pass with Colts’ cornerback Bobby Boyd hanging all over you who actually had a hand on the ball before you handled the catch and scored. As your momentum made you exit the back of the end zone, you end up in a virtual crowd of fans who were standing there. What went on amongst those people that virtually swamped you after the catch?
Collins: They were all Browns’ fans and congratulated me. Back then they sold standing room only tickets, which meant you stood all game on the sidelines or the end zone. I caught the touchdown and my momentum sent me into those fans. They were all drunk and patted me on the back and eventually I was able to get back onto the field. I was just happy that they were all happy fans.
DBN: You were named the game’s MVP. What did that do for you financially?
Collins: I was presented with a brand new Corvette. It was really fast. The winner’s take for the game was $8,300. And then I did several commercials. I made $5,000 for a Mobil gas commercial and then the same amount for the 1965 World’s Fair.
DBN: The 1964 NFL Championship was the last one for the Browns. Do you think Cleveland could have won more with that roster?
Collins: We really should have. The 1963 team had promise, but the 1965 team was better than in 1964. We just could not beat Dallas in those days. The 1969 team was the best roster I ever played on. We went 10 and 3 with a tie against the (St. Louis) Cardinals. We were killed by the (Minnesota) Vikings during the season and they beat us in the very last NFL Championship Game that sent the winner to play the (Kansas City) Chiefs in Super Bowl 4. Bill Nelsen had a very good year at quarterback and we had Leroy Kelly and the rookie Ron Johnson in the backfield. In 1970, everything folded and Blanton left due to health issues. I played one more year as a player/coach with the Florida Blazers of the World Football League.
DBN: Does the NFL help out former players who have built this league?
Collins: Like most former players, I get a pension. It is not great, but better than most guys on the street. In 2021 it will increase and I will be 82. The NFL does not take care of the older players. From 1970-on they pay those players better and make more fuss about them, but we are pretty much forgotten.
DBN: What were some of your fondest memories while playing for the Browns?
Collins: Probably my teammates. We had some great moments with interaction with guys who became friends for life. Training camp the same guys would be there every year.
DBN: How is your current health?
Collins: My mind is still sharp as is my memory. Your body just wears out eventually. When I played I had various injuries, but no leg injuries. I exercise every morning for 40 minutes. Good heart, two hip operations and prostate problems years ago, but my hearing is very good and I get around without any issues. And I take Omega 3 fish oil. If you are older, you should get on this.
DBN: You were named to the NFL’s “1960s All-Decade Team.” This has to be one of your greatest achievements as a player. Your thoughts?
Collins: Not too many know I am part of that team. In the 1960’s there were a lot of great receivers and to make such a list is quite an accomplishment for me and I am truly honored.
DBN: After football, you coached, did some broadcasting, sold insurance and currently live in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Is it true you can go outside your back door and the air smells like chocolate?
Collins: There are days that I can go out my backyard and the entire air smells like chocolate. It used to be all the time, but they built the new building more further north so it’s not as many days as it used to be.
DBN: Other than money, how is the NFL different than when you played?
Collins: Today things are a lot better for players. The rules are to protect players from injury more. The players are probably better – they certainly are bigger. There are year-round trainers and conditioning. Back then we used training camp to get back into shape. But you mentioned it, the money issue is huge. I don’t live in the past, but we would bust ourselves just to try to get a bump of a few thousand with the next contract. I made $50,000 my final year. Most players had another job in the off-season.