Younger Collinsworth making name for himself

Former NFL star's son a star recruit at Highlands

mfields@herald-leader.comSeptember 30, 2009 

Highlands football star Austin Collinsworth says he has always been "ultra-competitive" and confesses that when he was a little kid and would lose to older sister Katie in checkers, he would "flip the table over" in anger.

He laughs about that now.

That doesn't mean Collinsworth's lost his obsession with winning.

"I'm still a high-energy guy," he said. "But now I understand the importance of keeping a calm state of mind, attacking with a purpose."

That purpose is to keep the Bluebirds among the bluebloods of Kentucky high school football.

With Collinsworth playing key roles at different positions, Highlands has won back-to-back Class 5A championships, giving it 18 state titles overall, second only to Trinity's 19.

The unbeaten Bluebirds, fresh off an upset of nationally ranked Cincinnati St. Xavier last week, are favored to three-peat this year. Collinsworth states flatly that if they don't win it all again, he'll consider his high school career a failure.

Collinsworth's talent and accomplishments, which have earned him scholarship offers from Cincinnati, Kentucky, Louisville, Stanford and Vanderbilt, make him an obvious candidate for Mr. Football.

His name doesn't hurt, either.

Austin's dad is Cris Collinsworth, a former star receiver with the University of Florida and the Cincinnati Bengals, and currently an Emmy Award-winning TV analyst. He's in his first season on NBC's Sunday Night Football as the replacement for John Madden.

"Believe me, I'm more his dad than he's my son now," Cris said. "A lot more people come up to me and say, 'Aren't you Austin's dad?' than the other way around."

Asked whether his name has been a burden or a boost, Austin's competitiveness kicks in: "You set your goals to do better and be more successful than your dad," he said. "I know I've got quite a challenge ahead of me."

And Austin never backs down from a challenge.

Highlands Coach Dale Mueller said the 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior is the most competitive player he's ever seen, frenetic to win even practice-ending wind sprints.

Cris Collinsworth has the same take on his son.

"The kid is absolutely all in," he said. "He lives it, breathes it, loves it. He has one of the most intense personalities I've ever been around.

"Even if you didn't want him as a player, you'd want him on your team just to show the other guys how to work.

"That's really who he is."

But what is he?

As a sophomore, Austin started at cornerback and had a big interception in Highlands' state championship victory over Bowling Green.

As a junior, he started at receiver and strong safety. He led the Bluebirds with 46 catches for 840 yards and five touchdowns.

This season, Collinsworth is at safety again, but he's moved to running back on offense. He's used his strength and 4.6 speed to rush for 583 yards and 10 TDs.

"I've always thought of myself as a running back," he said. "That's what I grew up playing. That's where I'm most comfortable."

But that's not necessarily where he'll play in college.

"I'm not going to choose a school based on what position they want me to play," he said. "I'm going to pick the right school and see if I can earn a starting position wherever it is I would play."

Cris isn't sure what position it will be, either.

"Running back is where I put Austin when I coached him (in junior league), and he's really impressed me running the ball this year," Cris said. "But I also thought he was a tremendous cornerback as a sophomore.

"I really think his greatest asset is that he really could play anything."

Austin inherited his dad's football genes, but not his physical build.

When Cris was in high school, he was a lanky 6-foot-4 170-pounder. As a Pro Bowler with the Bengals, he was only 6-4, 190.

Mueller jokes that Austin has more of an NFL body now than his dad did in his glory days.

Cris doesn't argue.

"I understand fully where I am physically compared to this kid right now," he said with a laugh. "I have never, not even when I was in the NFL, been built like him."

Dad no longer challenges son in sports, either.

"The last time he tried to run, he popped his hamstring," Austin said with a smile.

"That was pretty much the end of my athletic career right there," Cris added.

Austin's athletic career, meanwhile, is on the rise. His college recruitment generates speculation across the state.

A solid student, he's tuned in to books as well as football. That's why he plans to visit Harvard in a few weeks when the Crimson play Princeton.

"I want to play where I feel challenged, and I'd like to play at the highest level possible," Austin said. "But I also realize the importance of academics and the future after football."

UK is in the picture, of course, although Austin said his mom, former Cats cheerleader Holly Bankemper, hasn't tried to sway him.

In fact, Cris and his wife are letting their son fly mostly solo in the recruiting process.

"I think it's really important for kids graduating from high school to learn how to make big decisions," Cris said. "Austin has some really great choices. He can play in the SEC or the Pac-10, or go to Harvard, or stay home and go to Cincinnati, which has a great football program."

Over the weekend, Austin and some friends attended the UK-Florida game, a rivalry that should have generated interesting conversation in the Collinsworth household.

But Cris, who played for the Gators, said he has "lived in Kentucky a long time, so I know when to keep my head low here.

"I've got one daughter (Katie) at the University of Florida, and I'll always be a Florida fan.

"But if Austin plays football at the University of Kentucky, trust me, I'll have a whole bunch of blue in my wardrobe."

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