Pope John Paul II’s Michael Collins is Times Herald Wrestler of the Year

UPPER PROVIDENCE — From the time Michael Collins first stepped onto a wrestling mat at the age of “four or five,’ he recognized that the sport was as much a mental test as it was a physical one.

“I was a little chubby kid,’ he recalled, “and I thought I was going to be in the WWE.

“It was an eye-opening experience as far as how different it was from what I had expected.’

He was far from a prodigy, and the results of his early days as a wrestler were mixed.

“There were times I wanted to quit,’ he said.

But there was one thought that always appeared when Collins had ideas of cashing in his wrestling chips.

“Giving up didn’t sit well with me,’ he said. “It was like learning to walk. You’re going to fall a lot, but you have to pick yourself up and keep trying.

“I took it day by day, and I could count the times on both hands that I wanted to quit. I had that feeling every time I stepped on a mat. It was a mental battle, and I finally won the mental battle.’

But it would be far from the only mental and physical challenge Collins would face en route to his almost magical rise this season, a rise that would climax with the Pope John Paul II senior fulfilling a dream on Pa. scholastic wrestling’s biggest stage.

That realized dream was earning a state medal after finishing fourth at 182 pounds at the PIAA Class AA Championships at Hershey’s Giant Center.

The Cinderella tale was fraught with stops and starts and a major medical problem that could have sentenced Collins to the sidelines permanently.

But through it all, Collins remained committed to the refusal to quit and winning that mental battle.

His inspiring journey made him an easy choice as the Nelson Stratton Memorial Times Herald Wrestler of the Year.

Through Collins’ early days in sports, his choice was football, and contact was the norm. Wrestling was part of his life, but certainly not a big part.

But as he grew, Collins found himself continually drawn back to the mats. And by middle school, football was in the rearview mirror.

With wrestling his primary athletic sidelight, Collins got better and better.

But wrestling has its physical challenges too, a fact Collins found out all too well in an off-season match against a Delaware state champ.

“I had been in Virginia Beach, and when I got back I was wrestling this kid from Delaware,’ Collins said. “We were going out of bounds, and we collided heads.

“I wound up finishing the match, but both of us were pretty rattled. I didn’t wrestle the same the rest of that match. That’s when it started.’

The “it’ was the beginnings of concussion-like symptoms that would plague Collins for years to come.

“I went right from that tournament to Bryn Mawr Hospital,’ Collins recalled. “The doctor said it was a mild concussion.

“I even went to school the next day.’

But it turned out to be a concussion that wouldn’t let go of the young man’s life.

The symptoms would return in a big way, triggered by physical activity and even mental strain.

“It would hit me when I was trying to solve a math problem, it would hit me when I was involved in any kind of physical activity.

“In my freshman year, I missed a whole marking period of school because of the concussion,’ Collins said. “My academics were affected. And to this day, I feel there are parts of me that I lost. I’m a student before I’m an athlete.’

To this day, Collins has occasional negative reactions.

“Right now, it is what it is,’ he said. “It just takes a little more studying. It’s been devastating at times, but it just means I have to work a little harder.’

At the time, however, Collins was in the dark. A slight jolt to the jaw could trigger the symptoms.

Prior to his junior year, Collins transferred from the Spring-Ford school district to Pope John Paul.

PJP’s head coach Jared Every, said he knew Collins mostly by reputation when he showed up for wrestling practice, but soon found out the young man had a non-stop motor.

“I think it was a good cultural fit,’ Every said of Collins’ early days in the PJP practice room. “He gelled with his teammates and he gelled with the coaches. And he was relentless with the way he worked.’

Collins said he knew of no other way to approach the sport.

“I’ve never been a quitter,’ he said. “To me it’s always been one of my pet peeves. I’m letting someone else win when I quit, and I don’t like losing.’

Unfortunately, when the concussion symptoms returned just eight matches (all wins) into his junior year, Collins was shut down for the season.

“I missed a good part of the season, and it was frustrating,’ Collins said. “But in time, I looked at it as a chance to better myself.’

In his own words, Collins was “never a big workout guy,’ but he went to the gym, and for all intents and purposes, stayed there.

When he didn’t want to go to the gym, his good friend, Spring-Ford wrestler Ryan Hayes, was there to drag him along.

“He was a huge factor in my work ethic throughout the past season,’ Collins said. “There were times he’d come over and ask if I wanted to go to the gym. If I said no, he’d make sure I changed my mind.’

While was Collins sidelined, Hayes exploded, eventually earning a state medal at the 2014 tournament after finishing seventh at 113 pounds.

Bitten by the workout bug, Collins became, “a gym rat,’ spending two and three hours a day preparing for his senior season.

“I wanted to excel,’ he said. “I wanted to be the best of the best. I found the gym a great place to take out frustrations.’

And when this season rolled around, Collins was ready – with bells on.

“I knew I was going to do great,’ he said. “I wasn’t thinking too far ahead.’

“We knew he had the potential and the skill set,’ Every said, “and we knew what the ultimate goal was. And Michael came in extremely fit.’

To the surprise of no one connected with the PJP program, Collins started the year with nine straight wins.

And when he jumped out to a quick lead on Perkiomen Valley’s Alec DellaDonna in an early-season match, there was confidence all around.

But just as suddenly, DellaDonna hit a chin whip and Collins was on his back, pinned.

“Michael was in control of the match,’ Every said. “It was a tough one.’

“I really couldn’t tell you,’ Collins said when asked what happened in the setback. “I put myself in a bad situation and I had to pay for it.

“I thought I had a little more natural talent, but credit to (DellaDonna), he took advantage of the situation.’

As it turned out, that loss would Collins’ last until the postseason.

“I only lost four matches during the year,’ Collins said. “I wouldn’t consider them losses, I’d consider them learning experiences.’

The Panthers senior rolled through the season, stopping only to admire a victory from teammate Nick Boyce at the Springfield (Montco) Tournament.

“Nick was down, 14-0, and about to lose,’ Collins said. “But he hit a reverse cradle and pinned the kid.

“It just showed me that anything can happen on any given day.’

The senior entered the postseason on a roll, with no fear of a reocurrence of his concussion maladies.

“I took things day by day,’ he said. “Again, it was the mental battle. When you’re out there fighting another person, it can be challenging. You just have to believe in yourself.

“(The concussion symptoms) weren’t even on my mind. And if the situation had come up, I would have found a way to deal with it. I had to go into it with no doubts.’

Collins fought through both districts and regionals, becoming PJP’s first state qualifier.

Riding a wave of confidence, Collins went into his first state match, against Jefferson Morgan’s Bill Bowlen, sky high. But he fell victim to a Bowlen tilt, and lost, 4-3.

“Losing your first match at states, you know that if you lose again you’re going home,’ Collins said. “But I knew I wasn’t done. I wanted to be there.’

Collins proved that by battling all the way back to take fourth.

Along the way, he evened the ledger with Bowlen with a move that neither he nor Every can explain.

“To me that was the defining moment, when he avenged that loss to Bowlen,’ Every said. “Bowlen had a Russian tie on Michael, and he does a full 360 and hit a double (leg takedown) on him to win the match.’

“I was a little shocked at that,’ Collins laughed. “I’ve looked at the tape of the match since, and I still wonder how the hell I did it.’

Collins would lose his final state match to finish fourth, but by then his dream had been realized.

“Michael just stepped up in a big way,’ Every said. “He knew every match was going to be a big match. He was prepared in the mental aspect, and he’s great on his feet. He won the state medal on his feet.

“To celebrate, all he ever wanted to do was eat. So we got him a nice big steak.’

“To be honest, it still hasn’t hit me yet,’ Collins said. “It’s an unreal feeling. I couldn’t be happier with myself.’

But even in his joy, Collins took time to console Hayes, who fell short of earning another state medal.

“I sat with him at states and he was down,’ Collins said. “I reminded him this was just part one for him. He’s going to wrestle at Bloomsburg, and I told him about the impact he’s going to make there.’

But the Collins thank you list wasn’t over.

“I really wanted to thank my parents, who’ve been with me every step of the way, and Mike Baccaro, who was one of my first wrestling coaches when I started wrestling club at Methacton.’

And then there was his brother, Louis.

“We’re nine years apart, but he shaped my life in a way I can’t describe,’ Collins said. “He wasn’t a wrestler, but he took time out of his schedule to be there for me at states.

“I’m so grateful I have people like that in my life.’

As for Collins’ life, it’s still up in the air. He’s going to college, but does not know which one at this time.

“Where I decide to go will ultimately determine whether I wrestle,’ he said.

And if not, there’s still a round, shiny object he makes sure he looks at every day.

“There are no words to describe the feeling,’ Collins said of the medal-winning season. “I walk into my house and it’s the first thing I look at.

“It was a dream come true.’

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