April 20, 2012
By Joe Summins
When Joe Novak took over as Northern Illinois University's head football coach in 1995, he set out to build a program. His first full-recruiting class, consisting of three first-team All-Mid-American Conference selections and two future NFL players, laid the foundation for the success the Huskies have enjoyed the last 10 years. McAllister Collins - that's 2nd Lt. McAllister Collins - was one of those players that as he articulates so well, "changed everything." Collins was a member of the class that included Ryan Diem and Justin McCareins.
"He was always a hard working kid that loved to play," Novak said. "He came in and really helped us to the point where we were turning the program around. He was like Ryan Diem, Kyle Jakubek and Justin McCareins. Those kids were the center post for turning the program around."
"We lucked out a bit to be honest to get a kid like McAllister, to get a kid like Diem, to get a kid like McCareins. Four Big Ten schools jobs were open Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana. Most of those schools didn't fill those jobs till late. We got some real fine players and those kids kind of bonded with a chip on their shoulder. We convinced them that we were trying to make this good."
It was a rough start for the Huskies in those early years. NIU went 0-11 Collins' freshman year and 2-9 in 1998. Those first two years were a learning experience for Collins, who started his career on the defensive line before being moved to the offensive side of the ball.
"I learned that if I wanted to compete on a weekly basis, I'd have to completely commit myself," Collins said. "It was a concept I hadn't grasped up to that point. I always took football and sports in general seriously, but major college football is an entirely different story."
In 1999, the Huskies started seeing some of the fruits of their labor, posting a 5-6 record and tying for second in the MAC West. The following season, Northern Illinois reached a milestone under Novak, posting its first winning record since 1990. Collins, Diem and McCareins garnered first team All-MAC accolades and left the program in better shape.
"I was definitely envious of those players who were a few years younger than myself. The program was turning the corner and everyone knew it," he said. "The stadium starting to get packed again, and a young sophomore running back named Michael Turner, all the pieces were in place to make a legitimate run at a MAC Championship. As we walked out the door at NIU, we knew our replacements would achieve a much higher level of success. I think we all wanted to be a part of that."
After a successful career at NIU and pursuing his dream of playing in the NFL, he went to work for his former agent. Collins, who returned to NIU to earn his degree in Business Management in 2004, started as an intern and worked his way up to vice president when he felt it was time for a change.
"I have always been interested in the military. I have an uncle and a grandfather who both served, so it's kind of in my blood," Collins said. "I felt my window of opportunity was closing. I wanted a new and completely different challenge. I am a strong believer that every citizen should serve their country in some manner during the duration of their lifetime. All those factors considered and I ended up in the Army."
Collins enlisted in July of 2009 and reported to Basic Training on February 10, 2010. After just over a year in the army, Collins and his fellow classmates at Officer Candidate School were presented with an incredible opportunity. A few years ago, some of the top brass in the United States and British armies felt it would be a great idea for our soldiers to train together. An exchange program was created that would send an American to Britain's prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for an 11-month training program.
Those interested in the program had to submit a one-page letter explaining why they would be a good fit for the program, how the U.S. and British armies would both benefit by their attendance and how they would personally benefit from the opportunity. The top 14 applicants were selected for personal interviews with the review board, which consisted of a British major and sergeant major and an American lieutenant colonel and command sergeant major.
The equivalent of West Point, RMAS is where all officers in the British Army are trained and only nine other Americans have ever attended Sandhurst in 200-year history of the school. Collins was the 10th as he was selected for the program. His commissioning course began on May 8, 2011.
The program has been everything Collins had hoped and more.
"I've been able to see things from almost an entirely different perspective," he said. "Being able to realize America's influence on the rest of the world from a military perspective and learn new techniques and training knowledge from the Brits has been incredible.
"I also enjoy the traveling that I've been able to do over our leave weekends and summer recess. That's definitely an added bonus for someone who enjoys traveling as much as I do."
As an American in England, the administrators at RMAS did their best to get him involved with anything close to home. Nothing says America like football--not soccer--but the sport Collins played and loved. This year, the Chicago Heights, Ill. native was in luck. Not only were two NFL teams playing Wembley stadium, but his hometown Chicago Bears were in town to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In a bit of serendipity, the Buccaneers lost one of their running backs to an injury and signed former NIU tailback Chad Spann before leaving for London. What made Spann's signing significant wasn't the mere fact that he was a Huskie, but rather that the two had met years before.
Collins, who was living in Indianapolis at the time, met Spann at an event thrown by a community service organization Collins participated in. The program was a mentorship for high school seniors. As each young man was introduced, they also announced the college, trade school or branch of military service they were planning on going into. When Spann announced his plans to attend NIU, Collins didn't hesitate to meet the young man.
"When Chad announced that he intended to come to Northern, I set out to introduce myself to him and his family," Collins said. "When I spoke with him, he said that he wanted to walk on the football team. That's how we met and I stayed in contact and monitored his progress at NIU. I couldn't have been more proud of his accomplishments as a Huskie."
"He said all the right things about coach Novak," Spann said of his initial conversation with Collins. "One of the things I looked at when choosing what college to go to was I wanted to play for a great coach. McAllister told me coach Novak was that guy. That definitely made my decision a whole lot easier."
Tampa Bay spent the entire week practicing in London and Collins, who was unaware of Spann's signing, was given the opportunity attend practice one day. Collins was talking to Mark Dominik, the Buccaneer's general manager, when Dominik told him that they had recently signed a player from Northern Illinois.
"That was an unbelievable moment," Collins said. "He mentioned that he had recently signed a player from NIU and told me it was Chad. I think Chad and I were both shocked to see each other after a few years in such an obscure environment."
The two former Huskies and old friends reunited after practice and spent a few minutes catching up.
"It was a huge surprise when I saw him in London," Spann said. "I knew he entered the Army, but I didn't know he would be stationed in London. I definitely didn't expect him to be there when we were practicing.
"It was a great experience just to go to London. To catch up with an old friend while I was there was pretty cool."
Collins completed the exchange program and graduated from Sandhurst on April 13, 2011 and was awarded the Commandant's Merit Award, open to all cadets, both British and overseas as well as a US Army Achievement Medal. Collins heads to Field Artillery School at Fort Sill in Oklahoma July 9th.