John Clay: Ex-Cat Collins — 'full-time biker' and granddad — smooth as ever

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 26, 2012 

SIMPSONVILLE — He was, back in the day, perhaps the most exciting and stylish running back in the history of Kentucky football.

Sonny Collins still looks good. He'll be 60 years old come January — hard to believe — but he still looks thin and athletic, with stylish black glasses, a pierced earring and his bald head.

"I have become a full-fledged Harley-Davidson full-time biker," said Collins at the annual UK-U of L football luncheon at the Cardinal Club to preview the Sept. 2 game at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

The former UK star was honored along with former U of L star defensive back Dwayne Woodruff.

But back to the bikes.

"Unfortunately, I do have more than one," Collins said. "I do try to ride as often as I possibly can."

He often rides with a group of fellow 50-and-over bikers near his residence near Fayetteville, Ga., a little town called Peachtree City.

"There are a bunch of us who like to do a little traveling," said Collins, who is retired from Delta Airlines. "As a matter of fact, I've even taken a little trip to Sturgis, Ky., where they have Little Sturgis. That was an experience and fun. You know, the biker thing."

Little Sturgis is the annual motorcycle rally held there.

Back in the day, however, Alfred "Sonny" Collins burst on the scene out of Madisonville High School, an explosive running back with a ton of moves. He could dart and dash, give the defense the hip then take it away, redirect on a dime.

He was recruited to Kentucky by John Ray, who sold Collins on his vision of building a winner at UK.

But then Ray was let go and in came Fran Curci, the mercurial Miamian who installed the veer offense that played to Collins' strength, getting the ball on the edge and go, go, go.

Lettering from 1972-75, Collins rushed for a school-record 3,835 yards. He produced 18 games of rushing for 100 or more yards and scored 26 career touchdowns. This was at a time when the program, with a new stadium and new competitiveness, began to explode in popularity under Curci.

This was the 1970s, and Collins fit the rock-star image of the era. He sported a large Afro that people later realized was a wig. He wore fur coats and fancy shoes.

Unfortunately, Collins' legacy was diminished somewhat by the scandals that put the 1976 and 1977 UK football teams on probation.

But Collins says what you saw on the field — a natural talent — was unlike what was happening on the practice field.

"I really wasn't a talented athlete, but I did work extremely hard off-season and that was the key," Collins said, adding that he had to be prepared given the intensity and talent at practices.

"We had athletes who you could see were All-Americans literally before they became All-Americans," he said. "(Coach Curci) was bringing in athletes that were phenomenal. It was like a miniature NFL team. After my senior year, that's when they started going 9-3 and 10-1."

Collins played just one season in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. Once he left football, he left football. He said he followed Kentucky basketball — "My dream was to be a basketball player," he said — but didn't really get back involved in football until he welcomed grandchildren, four of whom are boys who are athletic and interested in the sport.

"When I finished playing football, I was done," he said. "But just here in the last two or three years, when I'm invited to come back home and be a part of any event or anything where I can participate for the university or the state, I welcome it with open arms.

"The grandkids will say, 'Granddad, I didn't know you played ball' because they don't see any of that stuff around the house. They just see motorcycles and Harley-Davidson magazines.

"But I turn 60 in January and I'm enjoying every moment of it."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Blog: Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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