HOMINY — The date is tattooed on Haley Collins’ brain, like a loved one’s birthday or a significant anniversary: July 22, 2016.
“I’ll never forget that day,” she said. “It changed our lives.”
In a matter of hours, her son’s path would go a different direction — one that would allow him to live out his dream of playing college football after nearly giving up on it altogether.
More than four years later, Zaven Collins is the unassuming star of the University of Tulsa football team during a surprise turnaround season, a big-bodied linebacker from a small town in line for national recognition and on the verge of an NFL career.
“I’m just grateful to be here,” Collins said. “If not, I would probably still be in Hominy working in the oilfield or doing something along those means. I’m pretty thankful to be where I’m at.”
Hominy, located in Osage County about 45 minutes northwest of Tulsa, has a footprint of about 2 square miles. It’s known for a tradition-rich football history that includes the Hominy Indians, a professional team that defeated the New York Giants in 1927, and a high school program that has claimed five state championships — most recently in 2016, when Collins was a senior who quarterbacked the Bucks to the Class A gold ball.
The population of Hominy is estimated at 3,500, but close to a third of that comes from the prison on the north side of town. Most of the residents have lived in the town their whole lives, including Zaven’s mother and his entire family.
Haley Collins was 21 when she got pregnant, not exactly something that was planned. She was inspired to get her life on track, going back to school and working as a bailiff while she finished her degree.
“I knew I needed a job to raise my child the way I wanted to raise him,” she said.
After Zaven was born at Saint Francis in Tulsa, he was nameless for three days because the rest of the family wasn’t sold on the name, which his mom came across while working as a secretary at an interior design company. Eventually everyone else came around on it, and his big smile lit up their lives.
“He was a good kid,” Haley Collins said. “He always wanted to make people laugh, ever since he was a baby.”
Zaven grew up without a father but didn’t let it affect him. His dad, also a Hominy native, has never been in the picture.
“There are always challenges (to being a single mom),” Haley Collins said. “You have to be Mom and Dad both. ... It wasn’t always easy, but you just keep moving forward.”
Collins also took in her nephew, Peyton, who is 18 months younger than Zaven, and she raised the two together. She loved her boys, but she was hard on them.
“She was tough,” Collins said. “I never had to get whuppings or anything because I knew better. If it got to that point, it was going to be bad.”
When it came to sports, Haley Collins had one rule: If you start it, you finish it. Zaven started — and finished — just about every sport there was.
Zaven was 5 during the 2004 Olympics, and he became obsessed with gymnastics. That led to three years of carting him back and forth on Highway 20 to Skiatook for classes and traveling throughout the area for competitions.
One particular gymnastics event was in McAlester, a memorable trip because Zaven had a stomach bug and his mom wouldn’t let him out of it.
“I was dog sick,” Collins said. “I was vomiting and running a fever and she was like, ‘We’re going.’ My grandmother sat with me in the backseat while my mom drove two hours and I was throwing up in a trashcan.”
Before moving on to other sports, Zaven was doing back handsprings and competing on the still rings.
“He was the size of some 11-year-olds,” Haley Collins said. “He was strong and he could hold himself up.”
Zaven played baseball and basketball in high school and also did track, placing sixth at the state meet in the shot put as a senior. As a kid, he and a buddy would show up at USA Track and Field events during the summer with minimal training and leave with a handful of medals.
“Anything we could do — because we were bored — we would do,” Collins said. “We’d just go out there and go.”
Because he was bigger than the other kids, Collins was used at fullback or receiver in addition to safety on defense when he started playing football in the second grade. It became his goal to play at the next level, idolizing in-state college players like Adrian Peterson and Justin Blackmon.
“He’s always loved that sport and he’s just got a passion for it,” his mom said.
When he got to high school, coaches had to figure out what to do with his size and athleticism. Quarterback was the best option, even though he didn’t have any experience at the position.
“I knew he would work at it,” said Scott Harmon, Collins' high school coach. “I knew he had good leadership. I knew the kids trusted him and I knew he would be unselfish. He’s a smart kid. I think once he started trying to be a quarterback, he learned how to work hard.”
In advance of his sophomore season, when he was listed at 6-2 and 175 pounds, Collins devoted himself to becoming the best quarterback possible, working on his mechanics with famed quarterback doctor Larry Miller in Tulsa.
He went on to account for 50 touchdowns as a senior, when he also was an all-state defensive back with close to 100 tackles. Hominy was undefeated that year, and Collins won a state championship with the same kids he had been playing with his entire life.
“He was very unselfish,” Harmon said. “He could have been one of those kids who wanted the ball every down, but he was surrounded by a bunch of really good athletes. I think that helped him growing up in and around that bunch.
“When I went to Hominy, I think they were in the third grade. I remember going to watch them in their little championship game and I knew right then if we could keep that bunch together in Class A, we were going to be hard to handle. That’s exactly what ended up happening.”
'I tried to tell everybody'
Every Sunday during his junior year, Collins would wait for calls from college coaches, but the phone never rang. Playing quarterback in a small town wasn’t enough to land any recruiting, so Harmon started lobbying on Collins' behalf.
“I tried to tell everybody, but nobody really wanted to listen,” said Harmon, who played defensive back at OSU. “I think the quarterback situation helped him in a lot of ways, but recruiting-wise it hurt him. I knew he wasn’t going to be a college quarterback, but I knew he was going to be something.”
One of the schools Harmon contacted was TU, and then-defensive coordinator Bill Young went to one of the Bucks’ spring practices. Collins didn’t have his best day, and seemingly nothing came of it.
A few weeks later, Hurricane coach Philip Montgomery was at a 7-on-7 tournament in Glenpool to watch his son, Cannon. Collins' team played Cannon’s team, and Collins' performance on defense piqued Montgomery’s interest.
That summer before his senior year, Collins went to a dozen camps put on by FBS programs. His mom drove him all over the region, just looking for an opportunity that would lead to a scholarship offer.
“We did everything we could,” Haley Collins said. “I remember one week when we started off in Kansas at a camp. I drove on Thursday and all day Friday to two Texas camps, came back to Oklahoma on Saturday. I did everything just trying to get him recognized.”
Collins had an offer from Central Oklahoma, a Division II school in Edmond, for a partial scholarship that could have been combined with an academic one. He was a high school valedictorian, graduating at the top of his 47-member senior class with a 4.0 GPA.
“I didn’t have a college fund set aside for him,” Haley Collins said. “I couldn’t rely on (him getting) an athletic scholarship, so I held my thumb down (with his academics). … His grades were more important and he knew that if his grades dropped then he wouldn’t play ball. That was a rule that I had his whole life.”
After traipsing all over and not getting noticed — despite offering to work out at any position — Collins was ready to hang up the cleats. A seven-hour trip to Memphis was fruitless when he got sick from heat exhaustion, making the drive home feel even longer.
“The coaches knew I was expendable, that I was going to those camps just for exposure and not for instruction,” Collins said. “They were basically throwing me bones by saying, ‘Come to our camp.’ … It was exhausting.”
When the day of TU’s camp finally arrived — July 22 — time was running out on Collins' chances of playing college football. Not helping matters was a miscommunication that caused him to show up half an hour late, and he awkwardly ran onto the field without changing into the issued shirt.
What Collins didn’t know: TU coaches wanted him there. Unlike the other camps, this wasn’t a waste of time.
“We brought him into camp with the mindset of, ‘I know you’re a quarterback and I know you’re a free safety, but we just want to look at you at a couple other spots while you’re here at camp and put you through some drills,’” Montgomery said.
Montgomery and linebackers coach Joseph Gillespie chatted during breaks about Collins, and they were in agreement: They didn’t know what he would be, but he was definitely something they wanted.
It was a hot day, and Zaven’s mom, wearing an Oklahoma softball shirt, was sweating in the stands. At one point, she looked up from her phone and was confused by what she saw.
“I kept thinking: Why do they have him at linebacker? He’s never played linebacker. This kid’s played ball since second grade and has never played (that position),” she said.
At the conclusion, Collins motioned at her to come down to the field to talk to the coaches — something that didn’t happen at the other 11 camps. What Montgomery told them changed everything: TU was offering Zaven a scholarship.
His mom broke down in tears and everyone else got emotional, too.
“It was big,” Haley Collins said. “I couldn’t breathe. I knew what that meant. I will never forget that day. That was our day. … Coach Monty and Coach G, I can’t thank them enough. I owe my life to them. They gave him a chance when nobody else would.”
The reaction showed how much it meant to them — the opportunity for Zaven to fulfill his dream and to receive a college education. He was so taken aback by it that he later asked whether it was a full ride, not knowing that’s what all FBS offers were.
“It’s one of the joys that we don’t really get to talk about as much,” Montgomery said. “Hopefully you’re giving a young man and his family an opportunity to change everything, just by coming to school and getting an unbelievable degree and the doors that that’s going to open. No matter what happens with football, that part’s going to change.”
While Collins called his grandparents on the way home to share the news, that’s all his mom was focused on.
“This is one of the best educations you’re going to get,” she said. “I wasn’t even thinking football. Mama’s always thinking education. I want him to have his degree.”
A couple of weeks later, Collins visited campus again and attended a preseason practice. Within a matter of days, he was all in, calling Gillespie to deliver the news of his commitment.
“We knew that he was a huge get,” said Gillespie, who is now defensive coordinator. “He just had some intangibles. He has things that you can’t coach — the size and the gifts that he’s been blessed with.”
'It’s kind of like (second) nature for me'
When he arrived at TU the next summer, Collins wasn’t content to simply be there. His competitiveness kicked in, and he wanted to be an impact player.
Because he was playing linebacker for the first time, the coaches opted to give him a season to learn the position. He spent part of that year on the scout team as a tight end, a good use of his 6-4 frame.
“I think the redshirt year helped him get into the flow,” Harmon said. “After a month in camp … he sent me a text and told me it was starting to slow down. I knew once things kind of slowed down for him a little bit he would have a chance to let his athleticism shine.”
Collins' opportunity came in the second game in 2018, when starter Robert Revels III went down against Texas with what wound up being a season-ending injury. It was Collins' first real introduction to college football, playing in front of more than 90,000 people.
“I remember thinking: ‘Dang, Rob’s down. Someone’s got to go in,’” he said. “And I was the next guy on the chart. … I get out there and I made a few tackles. That’s kind of when I really started believing in myself.”
He has started every game since then, going on to have a freshman all-America campaign that included 9.5 tackles for lost yardage and following with a sophomore season in which he ranked second on the team with 97 tackles.
While at TU, Collins has benefited from participating in a strength-and-conditioning program. He went from being 220 pounds when he signed to 260 pounds heading into this season as a fourth-year junior.
“I haven’t had too many 250-, 255-pound linebackers, especially in the game that we play today,” Gillespie said. “Teams are going to spread you sideline to sideline and you’ve got to have guys that can run and cover a lot of territory and be extremely physical in the run-game aspect.”
While becoming bigger and stronger, Collins also got smarter. He used the same studying tactics that applied to schoolwork and started analyzing film more, helping him predict what opposing offenses are going to do and how he can stop it.
“For me, the game has slowed down tremendously,” he said. “Now it feels like all of those steps I was thinking about in my mind are being skipped now. It’s kind of like (second) nature for me. That’s where I think I have progressed, just letting the game slow down for me, playing more instinctual, always putting myself in a great position.”
He’s producing an all-America season with stats that are staggering for six games, what equates to half a year: 48 tackles including 10.5 for lost yardage and four sacks; four interceptions with two pick-sixes; a forced fumble and a safety.
The Hurricane’s last two games were dramatic comeback victories in which Collins sealed the win with a late interception, most recently delivering a walk-off 96-yard interception return in double overtime against Tulane. The plays have added to his resume as a candidate for national defensive player of the year and even prompted his inclusion as a Heisman Trophy darkhorse.
“Unbelievable kid, unbelievable teammate, great leader,” Montgomery said. “(He) makes plays at big times. I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Why is that guy not in the running for the Heisman?
“Tell me someone that has affected more games than that guy. If we want to talk about the best players in college football, in my opinion, he’s there. He’s a part of it.”
Collins is always quick to mention his teammates’ roles in his big plays — like fellow linebacker Justin Wright pressuring the Tulane quarterback to cause the interception — and he is unfazed by publicity.
“Whenever you talk about the Heisman, the first person you think of is not a WILL linebacker from Tulsa, Oklahoma,” he said. “You think of a quarterback at a Power 5 school. That is probably the road that will be more traveled.”
'He will get his degree'
Before he ever played in a game at TU, program insiders were whispering: “He’s going to play in the NFL.” Those familiar with his work ethic and skillset knew Collins was a special player, long before he starting showing up in mock drafts.
Collins is projected to be taken as high as the first round in the 2021 draft – and that’s if he leaves after his junior season. He has three classes left for his exercise and sports science degree and is on track to graduate in May.
“I’ll support him regardless,” Haley Collins said. “If that’s what he wants to do, because that’s his ultimate goal, we will definitely support him.
“But he will get his degree, whether it’s in May or whether it’s five years from now.”
NFL teams have begun inquiring about Collins, trying to determine how to use his wide range of abilities. Their question is the same as what TU wondered when he was in high school: What is he?
“Honestly, my response has started becoming, ‘What is he not?’” Gillespie said. “We’ve done so many things with him. … He just continues to progress and produce and flourish.”
Back when he was not being recruited in high school, Collins didn’t dream about playing in the NFL. He always planned to be a doctor, not a professional athlete.
“It’s very exciting,” he said. “I remember thinking, I’ve got to make it to college. Now we’re talking about the 1% of the 1% going (to that level). … Just getting to go out and play the game that I love and do it as a career, I couldn’t even imagine, whether I’m there for a year or eight.”
'He’s got a lot of country in him'
On Monday morning, TU sports information director Don Tomkalski received a call from Collins, who said he might be late to scheduled media availability conducted via Zoom. He was still in Hominy, finishing up a hunting expedition and taking advantage of a day off from classes.
It was the second day of rifle season, and Collins arrived to the interview session in camo after bagging an 8-point buck with a basket rack.
“I had done that to kind of take a break from (everything),” Collins said. “I turned the phone off and went out into the woods for four or five hours and got away.”
Collins spends his down time hunting or fishing or golfing, usually with teammates or relatives.
“He’s got a lot of country in him, just a good ol’ American kid that loves to have a good time,” Gillespie said. “The guys in the locker room respect him extremely, not just because of what he does on the field but also because of his character, his demeanor, his attitude toward everything as a human being. They have a tremendous amount of respect for that.”
While kids back in Hominy are among his biggest fans, Collins' family will always be his most loyal supporters. Once a week, his grandparents deliver a home-cooked meal to him and his housemates (quarterbacks Zach Smith and Seth Boomer, safety Bryson Powers and receiver Cannon Montgomery).
Before every game, going back to high school and continuing in college, Collins receives a good-luck text from his mom. The end of each message concludes the same way: “Stay your path” — a reminder that with determination and focus things tend to work out for the best.
“He’s where he should be,” Haley Collins said. “He landed exactly where he should be.”