Diary of a Draftee's Mom: April Justin on Her Baby, Landon Collins

DJ Dunson@https://twitter.com/cerebralsportexSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 27, 2015

B/R via YouTube

The tough love and patience of parents are at the heels of most fledgling draft prospects dropping anchors on the NFL’s shore. The NFL draft is only a snapshot taken at the most jubilant moment in a prospect's life. Landon Collins’ mother, April Justin, became a polarizing figure three years ago for her blunt disagreement with her son’s nationally televised decision to hop across LSU’s state borders to play for rival Alabama. Justin spoke to Bleacher Report to set the record straight and offer a candid first-person account (edited for clarity and length) about the upcoming NFL draft from a football mom’s perspective.

The road to the NFL draft isn't smooth asphalt that you can drive on cruise control. Sometimes, it's like one of those winding cliffside roads. You have to fight adversity that pulls your car off-terrain. Nearly 10 years ago, Hurricane Katrina was like a fork in Landon’s road. 

Katrina submerged New Orleans under water, uprooted communities and scattered families. Fortunately, our home in the Westbank was initially spared in comparison to other disaster areas, but it eventually affected us in other ways. The migration of families away from New Orleans and the sluggish recovery made it difficult to find sports for Landon and his younger brother, Gerald (Willis III), to play.

Back then, they were still chubby kids, and to keep them active, I had to drive out of the way to find activities for them.

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I work in the movie business as a costume designer and stylist, so that sometimes meant having them tag along with me to sets, where I got them a few cameo roles. They didn’t get any speaking parts, but they were in Deja Vu, Big Momma's House 2 and The Locusts.

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Gerald hated it because of the early hours. Landon loved it, which may be why he majored in broadcast communications.

As high school approached, though, New Orleans’ school system was still decimated. That’s why I made the difficult decision to have Landon live with his father in Geismar, Louisiana.

It was only supposed to be temporary, but, unfortunately, Louisiana high school athletics enforces a rule that would have required Landon to sit out a year if he transferred back to a school in New Orleans. It would have killed him if he lost a precious year of eligibility sitting out, so he lived with his father for all four years, and I made the sacrifice of resisting the urge to pull Landon out of Dutchtown High School.

Before every season, we tossed a coin to determine which season opener I’d attend first—between Landon and Gerald—and we alternated from there. But I didn’t want to repeat that experience with them in college.

By his senior year, Landon was already a 6'0", 210-pound teenager rated as the nation’s top high school recruit at his safety position.

I didn't get actively involved until he narrowed his choices down to LSU, Alabama and Miami. LSU had Landon’s friends and teammates on its roster, so it seemed natural that he'd be more receptive to playing his home games in Death Valley. Leonard Fournette played on the same youth football team as Landon, and Greg Reid was his mentor at Dutchtown.

Those factors were irrelevant, though, in comparison to seeing Landon reunite with Gerald on the football field for the first time since before high school. It was an added bonus that Baton Rouge was only a half-hour drive further from New Orleans than Geismar.

Bill Haber/Associated Press

Landon and I had already charted out a three-and-out plan.

At LSU, I was convinced he could play immediately, wind up a Freshman All-American and build the momentum to be a first-rounder after his junior season.

At ‘Bama, I was worried he’d be buried on Nick Saban’s notoriously deep depth charts.

Miami was a long shot, but at least he had a better chance of playing as a freshman. He used to fawn over Sean Taylor highlights on YouTube before every game in high school (and ended up wearing Taylor’s number, No. 26, at Alabama), but Miami was ACC, and the SEC was where he belonged. The culture, the physicality and the competition would better prepare him for the next level.

When Landon called the night before the 2012 Under Armour All-America Game to tell me that he was rolling with Alabama, I almost decided not to catch my flight to St. Petersburg.

I begrudgingly made the trek for Landon, but things went downhill the moment I landed. I expected family and Landon’s coaches to be there, but I arrived at the facility late after missing my shuttle to unexpectedly find his girlfriend’s family as well.

I ended up having an argument with her family, which upset me even more and put me in a terrible state of mind when Landon sat down to announce his decision.

When the words “Roll Tide” rolled off his tongue, I was more crestfallen than angry. My reaction was misinterpreted by people who didn’t see the big picture. I also didn’t truly understand how serious college football was until that interview went viral.

I just want to make this clear: I’m not an LSU fan. But I stick to my guns that he could have accomplished more individually at LSU. Landon wanted to accomplish some goals that he didn’t achieve because he didn’t play as a freshman, and that’s what I looked at.

I considered not signing his national letter of intent, but as much as I loved the idea of him at LSU, my children come first.

Alabama won a national championship in Landon’s freshman year, but he played special teams and backed up a junior on defense. If the starter (Vinnie Sunseri) hadn’t suffered a season-ending knee injury in Landon’s sophomore season, he would have sat that season as well, and who knows if he’d be entering the draft this year.

Landon’s recruiting process compelled me to educate myself on recruiting for Gerald and advise other parents about how to navigate the recruitment of student-athletes through my Momma Knows Best Recruiting Summits.

When Gerald committed to the Florida Gators after Landon’s sophomore season, I began making nine-hour road trips to Gainesville on the Saturdays that I wasn't driving over four hours to Tuscaloosa for Landon. For those logistical reasons alone, I was relieved when Landon decided to go pro after this past season ended.

Landon Collins at the NFL Combine
Landon Collins at the NFL CombineDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

Each day is a countdown to the draft these days, and this process has still been stressful.

Especially, the NFL combine and his pro day.

I was actually surprised that Landon checked in at 228 on the combine scales.

Landon’s been training with Wyatt Harris at the Sonic Boom facility in New Orleans for over a year now. Wyatt’s trained guys like Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Marques Colston, Tracy Porter and Robert Meachem, who’s taken Landon under his wing.

I didn’t know Landon had gotten that big, though. I called Wyatt and told him Landon needed to knock off five to 10 pounds.

His trainer said he was 217 when he left for the combine. Landon said he was drinking too much water and ate before the competition, but I don’t think water weight was the culprit there. Landon is a sweets eater.

Overall, though, I’ve taken a more hands-off approach to his draft prep than I did his college recruitment. I don't pay attention to it or understand how it's done. I just know the big guys—D-linemen and O-linemen—go first. Landon will be the first safety off the board, but I don't know where Landon falls at.

Every few days, Landon is visiting with some other team. I’ve been staying busy helping Gerald start over and acclimate at the University of Miami.

Landon signed with David Mulugheta of Athletes First, so his agent handles the football aspect independently. I won’t go into detail, but I have my personal issues with the agent. I covet family values more than David does, so I’ve kept my distance from the football matters.

Personally, the best-case scenario would be for Landon to wind up with the Dolphins. I always planned to live in Florida once my baby girl, Gerrah, graduated high school. But when Gerald went to Florida, I moved to Orlando in September to be near him and so that Gerrah could pursue better volleyball opportunities because it’s played year-round here because of the weather.

Landon’s ideal team is the Redskins because he wants to follow in Taylor’s footsteps, but I also know he doesn’t want to play in cold weather. Despite my preferences—or the people who hit me up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram saying that they need him in Chicago, Pittsburgh or the Giants and Jets—we have no control over this.

It’s too bad the draft isn’t in New York, though. We always watched it on TV when it was in New York, and as a kid he was so excited about it. Two years ago, we planned on having this grand New York experience when he was drafted. Landon is a chill person. He’d probably rather be at home with his friends and family and get a phone call, but he’s going to Chicago to experience it anyways.

My reaction to Landon’s next destination in his football career won’t be going viral again because I don’t plan on attending the NFL draft in Chicago.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

My babies are trying to convince me, but it depends on whom Landon decides to bring along. Landon and I are cordial, but we’re not where we were because we haven’t sat down and had a conversation about this process. He knows I’m pissed about who runs with him in his circle, so he’s avoiding me.

Regardless, I just want him to enjoy it and be stress-free because I know I’ll go through it again with my younger son, but Landon will never experience this again.

I’m proud of Landon. When he walks across the stage to get his degree, I’ll definitely be there. This is a football thing, though. When he gets drafted I’ll probably be on a Florida beach looking at a different tide. All that matters is Landon living the dream he’s been focused on since childhood.

He can handle himself. Still, although he’s leaving a big-boy’s league and entering a grown-man league, he’ll always be my baby.

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