Projected to be a first-round pick, he went undrafted after Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police asked to question him about a murder case just days before the draft.
Collins knew the woman who was killed, but he was never officially a person of interest. Still, with even a whisper of any sort of connection to such a crime, teams steered completely away from drafting him. After he was questioned by police and cleared of any wrongdoing or involvement, at least 25 teams called with interest in signing him.
He eventually agreed to a fully guaranteed three-year, $1.65 million deal with the Dallas Cowboys. In terms of guaranteed money, that's roughly equivalent to a late second-rounder, and the signing bonus of $21,000 is less than any drafted player, according to Spotrac.
Collins talked with Bleacher Report during the NFL Rookie Symposium in June.
Bleacher Report: You had perhaps the strangest draft experience I have ever seen in my 20-something years of covering the NFL. I have to think that there was a moment when you thought you might not even be here.
La'el Collins: I'm trying not to focus on that, but I'm just so happy to be here, be around kids, be around my teammates, see these guys who have been drafted and be around them. I'm kind of living my dream through everybody else.
B/R: Did you have to delay some of your dreams, like the idea of buying your mother a house? I know you talked about that along the way in the draft process.
Collins: My mom works security at the casino. I was definitely going to get her away from there and find her something where she could just rest 'cause she don't like working [in] the casino with all the smoke.
Me, I just wanted to get her out of that environment and put her in a place where she could just choose where she wanted to work. I was hoping it could have gone that way, but we're on a different path now, and I feel like, personally, I'll be able to do that for her in the future.
B/R: When you faced that moment when you knew you weren't going to be a first-round pick anymore, what's it like to have that dream taken away when you're so close to it?
Collins: That was the hardest part, the hardest thing I have ever been through in my life, because it's like anything you do: You dream about something your whole life, you dreamed of that moment being completely different. I mean, I went back to school for my senior year because I wanted to make sure I solidified myself to the first round. I did all those things and I feel like I did everything I could do to put myself in position to be drafted there.
When that opportunity came, when I got to Chicago for the draft, that day I got there and the news broke, I just couldn't bear it. I couldn't understand why, I didn't know why, it was just the worst time of my life. It brought me down to my lowest, man, I've ever been in my life.
It also helped me to see things differently.
When you have been to the lowest part of your life, you have no choice but to sit back and just think about things. You just pay attention to so much more. It's so deep, man. It's not even something I can just talk about because it's deeper than this. For me, it was my dream, it was something I had worked for my whole life. To have that taken away, I don't know too many people who could have went through what I went through.
When I went home [from Chicago], I was sitting in my living room watching the draft, I couldn't take it no more. I didn't want to talk about football, I didn't want to be around football. I didn't want to know what was going on. It was hard to be happy for a long time, a long time. The rest of that week, I just sat in that dark room. I lost weight. I couldn't eat.
B/R: How much did you lose?
Collins: I lost like 10 pounds in just a couple of days. I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping. I was just sitting in darkness, like literally. I didn't want to be around anybody, I didn't want to talk to anybody. It was just something I had to deal with on my own. It was that big an impact on my life.
B/R: Are we talking tears?
Collins: Tears? I ran out of tears, man. It literally brought me to my knees. I couldn't understand why. Why did it have to be me? It could have happened to anybody, but it was just an unfortunate situation all the way around.
I never once questioned God and the plan he has for my life. I just looked at it a lot of different ways. Maybe the city I was about to get drafted to, the team I was supposed to be drafted to, maybe I wasn't supposed to be there for whatever reasons.
You don't know. I do know that now I'm in a great situation, I have great teammates and I'm around great people, and I really feel like my career is going to be big. The way that they view it, there are big things to come. I'm excited. I haven't been around a group like I'm around now. Those guys work extremely hard, harder than any group of guys I have ever been around. I just know it's going to make me a better player; it already has made me a better player.
I'm extremely humbled, I'm happy and I'm blessed, because at the end of the day, I'm still doing what I love to do. I'm still able to impact kids' lives, I'm still able to give back and I will impact so many kids' lives because I feel like that moment taught me that no matter where you are in life, no matter what you may want in life [you keep going].
As a kid, you may not understand things not going your way. I had my dream basically taken away from me, but what do you do? How do you stand up in the moment? I could have turned so many different ways with it, but I just had to keep a strong mind, keep my faith and understand God's plan for my life.
So far, everything has been working out great for me.
B/R: So you made what other people would say were all the right choices. You went back to school. Did you get your degree?
Collins: I have one semester left.
B/R: So you're close. There's also the story about you and Jeremy Hill, the running back from Cincinnati and LSU. He wanted to go out late one night. You told him not to. He did anyway and ended up getting into a fight while you went home. So when bad things happen to people who make the right choices, I would assume that has to hurt worse.
Collins: It does. That was the biggest question for me, but I thought that maybe God is using me. Something that has never happened before, maybe it's just going to be so much greater later. I know it's going to be greater later.
I strongly believe that and the way I keep preparing myself mentally and physically. But also the way that I can be a role model and a vessel for kids to show them that, hey, when you are at your lowest in life, no matter where you're at, you have to keep on going. You can't quit. You can't let it break you. You have to keep going on because life keeps going on and you have to keep going if you want to be the person you want to be.
My dream still came true. It came true in a different way, but it still came true.
B/R: When former NFL running back Warrick Dunn spoke to the rookies about seeking counseling to deal with the early stresses of his career, did that resonate with you?
Collins: I'm definitely open to the idea, and I'll probably seek that at some point, because I definitely have a lot built up from going through what I went through. I know I will have to do that at some point, 'cause it's something that I don't wish on nobody and something that nobody should have to go through.
B/R: A major part of this story is that a woman you knew was murdered. How hard is it to find empathy for her and her family when you're dealing with what you're dealing with?
Collins: Honestly, in so many ways, it's almost like being numb to it. For a long time, it was: How are you supposed to feel? How are you supposed to feel about the whole situation, completely? There is so much more detail to it, but you just have to deal with it. That's the part that I probably have to talk to somebody about, because how do I deal with it? But I'm fine and I'm completely good.
I'm just happy to have guys in the locker room, guys in the rookie class who embrace me and I embrace them. Honestly, I can't think about anything else but playing ball and being around these guys. As soon as I got to Dallas, I got right into it and never looked back.
B/R: You are joining an offensive line that is extremely talented. That was your intention. You want to play around good people. That helps you look good as a player. But that adds pressure for you to play to their level.
Collins: Definitely. For me, either way that it would have went, I was expecting to play at a high level. So it only helps me that I'm around better players. When I go to work with Pro Bowlers, guys who have played a long time, who are extremely smart and have had success at a high level, it only makes me better.
These guys have already shown me things that have elevated me. It's great for me. I'm in a great situation because I know what kind of player I want to be, I know where I'm going to be, and I know what I have to do to get there and I'm around the right guys. I'm around guys, people who know how to work and prepare themselves and put themselves in the right position year in and year out.
Every day I go out to work it inspires me to be around great guys who don't just go through the motions. They go to practice every day with the intention of getting better and work every day. I couldn't have asked for anything better.
B/R: Tyron Smith has the kind of work ethic you're talking about.
Collins: Tyron is a beast. He's the best, and I asked him the question: "How long did it take for you to get to this point?" It takes time and it takes repetition, and that's all I need to know. If I put the time in and put the reps in, I know that at some point I will be the best I can be.
He's the best at what he does, and he continues to work at it every day. You stack the days on top of one another, and that's how you get better at this game. That's what makes me want to be great. It fuels me.
B/R: Your reputation is that you were that type of player at LSU.
Collins: It's crazy, because I have always been a leader on my team. I have always been a guy that held player-only meetings. I'm the type of guy that stood up and said something. I know how to lead.
I know how to do those things, and that's why I think I was used in a way that now, after sharing my story with a lot of kids, maybe I can help kids. Not just because of what I went through, but because I can relate to kids from bad areas that feel like everything is against them.
When you feel like some people will turn their back on you, judge you so much, you just have to keep going and you can keep going with your life. There are so many things that you can touch on really. Right now, I ask God every day to give me the words to tell the kids. That's my mentality, and that's what I'm intending to do.
I've always been that way. I've always spoke at schools, spoke here, spoke there, like the Boys & Girls Clubs. So now—to bring something different to the table, I wasn't drafted in the first round—now, I'm bringing you that guy that had to sit there and take it from a completely different aspect. Two days before the draft, I had it all changed and taken away.
B/R: You're sitting in Chicago as this is happening.
Collins: I'm on the plane to Chicago. Before I got on the plane, I got a call that this story was getting out in the media and that this is about to happen and this may affect your whole life.
You're getting on a plane to go to the draft and you get off the plane, you turn your phone on and you got your whole life, everything you worked for just disappearing. I was on the flight the whole time, just feeling numb. I know when I get off the plane and I turn my phone on. Then I walk through the airport and I see myself on ESPN and I've got people looking at me.
B/R: Were they really looking at you, or did you think they were looking at you?
Collins: No, I know they were looking at me. I get off the plane and I'm walking through the Chicago airport, and I'm on the screen on ESPN as I'm walking through. People are looking at the screen, then they're looking at me and realizing, "That's you."
B/R: And they think you might have killed somebody.
Collins: Whatever they're thinking, I don't know. They're just looking at you like, "Whoa." It was strange. How are you supposed to deal with that when you know that you've done everything you're supposed to do to put yourself in position to be where you are?
B/R: This is exactly what I'm trying to say. This has to be one of the most bizarre experiences ever.
Collins: I was talking to my agent and he's saying, "I think it's best if you go home." Then he checks on this and that, says, "I'll check on Play 60, but I think you should go home." Go home? You want me to go home? I worked my whole life for this. This is all I ever dreamed of. You want me to go home?
It wasn't that the league wanted me to go home. Not that Roger Goodell wanted me to go home. They wanted me to stay. But my agents thought it was best to meet with [the police] before the draft, but then we met after the draft. It wasn't nothing that I had anything to do with. It was just that [the police] wanted to talk.
B/R: So now you have to go home and then you have to tell teams that you won't play if they draft you. Your whole goal from a contract standpoint at the time was you had to be undrafted. That had to be strange. That had to be against everything in your nature.
Collins: Anybody who knows me knows I'm passionate about this game. I gave this game everything I had. In college, that's what I looked to do. Everything, man. Everything for so long, and all you hear growing up is that hard work pays off, hard work pays off, hard work pays off.
OK, but then there you are sitting in a dark room, this thing hanging over your head and wondering, "What do people really think of me?" They don't really know you. They met you. They like you. They talked to you, but they don't really know you. Will they take a chance? But then this is how they perceive you and this is your image, your brand.
I worked so hard for years to have the right image. In college, I never got in trouble, never did anything. I was always a leader. I was two years on the Unity Council.
B/R: What's Unity Council?
Collins: It's a group that the coaches and the players choose. They pick a guy at each position to represent that position on the council to [LSU] Coach [Les] Miles. If there are issues on the team he wants to talk about to the whole team, he goes to the Unity Council first. It's a leadership group.
I was a captain for two years, done everything you can do. I went to the Senior Bowl when other guys didn't go to the Senior Bowl. You did everything. You went to the combine. You did every single thing up to that point and then have it be gone, just leave.
Jason Cole covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.