JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Wearing a Jacksonville Jaguars warmup shirt and a huge smile, Richard Collier drove off the field in his new motorized wheelchair Thursday night as fans chanted his name amid a standing ovation.
Collier responded with a thumbs-up, an emotional moment for the player, his teammates, coaches and fans. It also may have offered some closure on a situation the Jaguars never really recovered from this season.
|Jeff Lewis / NFL.com|
|Richard Collier was an honorary Jaguars team captain for the coin toss.|
"I was telling people, 'Believe it or not, this is the happiest I've been my whole life,'" Collier said. "I've learned a lot. I've grown from this situation. I've surprised myself how I've come out of it. I feel really good."
Collier, a 6-foot-7 offensive linemen paralyzed from the waist down following a shooting in early September, returned to the field Thursday night and was recognized during pregame ceremonies. He drove onto the field, sat next to his teammates during the national anthem and then headed to midfield as an honorary team captain for the coin toss.
He answered a few questions afterward, then went to a luxury suite with family members to watch the game between Jacksonville and Indianapolis. He must have liked Jacksonville's fast start. The Jaguars scored touchdowns on their first two possessions and led 14-0 early in the second quarter -- possibly feeding off Collier's emotional return.
"It's a bittersweet moment," Collier said. "I'm here now, but I'm not a player anymore. But it's also great with all the love that's been shown from everybody. ... It was like I'm back at home. Everybody showed me love. It was good."
Collier's left leg was amputated below the knee after he sustained 14 gunshot wounds just days before the season opener. He returned to Jacksonville Municipal Stadium for the first time since the shooting Wednesday and spent time around teammates and in the locker room. He hung out with fellow linemen in the film room and the meeting room. He also spoke to the team after practice.
"I didn't give them a pep talk," he said. "I just talked about how their prayers and support really got me through while I was in the hospital. Just told them ... 'Live your life because it's short. Enjoy life and take it all in.'"
Collier spent more than five weeks in a hospital and spent the past two months at a rehabilitation center in Jacksonville, strengthening his upper body and relearning many simple tasks.
Collier and former teammate Kenneth Pettway were waiting for two women outside an apartment complex early on Sept. 2 when a gunman fired into the vehicle. Collier was shot in his back, left groin, left leg and right buttock. A bullet severed his spinal cord, causing the paralysis, and his lower leg had to be amputated because of blood clots. The player was on a ventilator for two weeks and endured infections, bouts of pneumonia and renal failure.
The Jaguars have paid tribute to Collier all season by keeping his locker intact. But getting him on the field could provide some much-needed closure to a disappointing season.
"Everybody can kind of put it to rest and see his face and see that he's doing well, and now maybe people can stop worrying as much or being as stressed out as they were," said linebacker Clint Ingram, one of Collier's closest friends.
Tyrone Romaro Hartsfield has been charged with attempted murder in Collier's shooting. He pleaded not guilty, but remains jailed without bond. Authorities believe Hartsfield retaliated against Collier for an altercation they had earlier this year at a nightclub.
Collier tries not to think about the case. It surely was far from his mind during his return.
"It was incredible. It was incredible," he said. "It was real amazing. The crowd was going. I got chills. I've still got chills. It's amazing, it really is."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press