After long journey to NFL, Collie arrives on its grandest stage

If you didn't know who Austin Collie was before last weekend's AFC Championship Game, you probably do now.

Before his seven-catch, 123-yard performance in the Indianapolis Colts' 30-17 victory over the New York Jets -- easily the best game of his rookie season -- Collie was just another in a long line of receivers who Peyton Manning had taken from relative obscurity and sporadically used to his advantage throughout the 2009 campaign.

That all changed last Sunday, when Collie teamed up with second-year pro Pierre Garcon to total 18 catches for 274 yards and two touchdowns.

Collie's breakout performance was part of a long journey that began in El Dorado Hills, Calif., took a detour to South America and finally made its way to the NFL via the fourth round of the 2009 draft. If the 6-foot, 200-pound Collie, the 17th receiver taken last year, was on anyone's radar last summer, it was only because he was the latest member of the esteemed group of receivers lucky enough to be in Manning's arsenal.

Collie's professional football career began later than most -- he turned 24 in November -- thanks to two years spent away from the game while on a Mormon mission in Argentina. His time there didn't involve watching any football games, let alone picking up a football.

"I really didn't have any access to watching anything about the NFL or football in general," Collie said Tuesday.

Collie only learned the results of Super Bowls XXXIX and XL through letters from friends and family.

After two years away from football, Collie's ability to get back into game shape and play at an elite level for three years at BYU (he led the nation in receiving his junior year) is a testament to his work ethic.

"Being away from football for two years and not practicing is obviously going to be very difficult," Collie said. "You're going to come back out of shape. You're going to come back thinking that you can do something, but your body really doesn't let you. It's something I had to get used to and something I had to be patient with."

All part of the journey. Collie said what he temporarily lost physically, he gained back two-fold mentally. His two-year experience in Argentina helped him mature in ways that wouldn't otherwise have been possible.

"It makes you grateful for what you have and being able to understand yourself and the people around you," Collie said. "I learned about my place in the world."

Collie certainly is grateful to have found his place in the NFL, his transition into the league made smoother by Manning. The personal qualities that Collie developed on his mission make the Colts just as thankful that they were able to obtain him. Collie's selflessness and work ethic embody the qualities that have become the team's calling card.

When Collie arrived at Colts camp last summer, he was presented with a playbook that would rival most. Learning the Colts' vast array of offensive plays, formations and audibles was akin to learning a new language.

Again, Collie was able to apply his mission experiences to his professional life.

Collie didn't know a word of Spanish upon arriving in Argentina. Five years later, he demonstrated a proficiency that most native-speaking high school seniors wouldn't have been able to pull off, bouncing back and forth with local reporters and Spanish-speaking media with ease during the Colts' Super Bowl Media Day session.

Like he did so many times before, Collie mastered his latest challenge to the tune of 60 receptions, seven touchdowns (leading all rookie receivers in both categories) and 676 yards.

It's all just a testament to how hard Collie worked after stepping away from the game for two years. But to Collie, the journey is nowhere near complete. When asked at what point he felt he was all the way back into playing shape, Collie quipped, "Just last week."

The journey continues. After all, he has only just arrived.

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