On the night Jeremy Hill found trouble in the parking lot of a Baton Rouge bar, La’el Collins just went home.
Todd Black remembers it well. The three had eaten at a restaurant a few hours before Hill sucker-punched a man outside of Reggie’s Bar.
Collins, LSU’s star offensive tackle, warned Hill, then the Tigers’ running back.
“Don’t go out. Go home,” Collins told Hill that night.
Hill chose to go out. Collins chose to go home.
“He made the right choices,” said Black, the offensive coordinator at Redemptorist while Hill and Collins played there. “Kids that make right choices put themselves in these situations.”
Collins’ life is full of good decisions. It’s also full of hardships, hard work and heart.
It’s about a 6-foot-2, 230-pound middle schooler who was mistaken for a high school senior, a lovable teddy bear of a kid who still greets strangers with, “Hi, I’m La’el.”
He’s the son of a previously imprisoned father, a boy raised by a single mother who worked long shifts as a casino security guard. He’s a shy guy who sometimes slips out of the locker room to avoid reporters — even after big wins.
You might know him as a dominant tackle who passed on millions last year, hoping to increase his NFL stock with a final season of eligibility.
Once again, he chose right.
“This year, he’s proven himself to be that much more reliable,” said Rob Rang, a draft analyst for CBSSports.com. “I think it just cemented his status with scouts as one of the more reliable and consistent in the country.”
The 6-foot-5, 320-pounder enters his final regular-season college game — LSU plays at Texas A&M on Thanksgiving — as a projected first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
He’s an athletic, quick-footed tackle whose extra year in college might have made him millions more. His draft projections range from late-first round to mid-first round.
Collins could be just the second offensive lineman drafted in the opening round in LSU history, joining Alan Faneca in 1998. Most analysts have him as one of the top three or four offensive linemen in the draft.
Loyetta Collins won’t need to work security at the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino and Hotel much longer. Her son’s signing bonus this spring is in line to be in the millions.
Tennessee tackle Ja’Wuan James, for instance, was the No. 19 pick in the 2014 draft. His signing bonus was $4.5 million, and he received a four-year contract worth $8.4 million.
Collins is trying not to think of such things late in his senior year.
“I definitely know that in the future I’m going to have to take on everything coming my way. I’m trying to embrace my last couple of weeks here,” he said last week. “You can always make money and do those things but can never make memories. I’m trying to make the best out of what I have here.”
Collins has made the best amid not the most perfect of circumstances.
His father, Theotis, spent more than a decade in prison for his involvement in a bar fight that led to a man’s death. His sentence began when Collins was a toddler, and he was only recently released.
Those close to Collins say Theotis made it to some LSU games this season. The two are slowly building a relationship.
Theotis was absent for much of La’el’s childhood, but he wasn’t ever removed from his son’s mind. When La’el arrived at LSU, the coaching staff asked if he needed anything. He wondered aloud whether they could get his father out of jail.
Loyetta Collins worked multiple jobs and long hours. She raised four children: two daughters and two sons.
Loyetta molded La’el into the man he is today, family friends said. Without her, he’s not in this position, said Jimmy Roy, La’el’s ninth-grade football coach.
“She cracked the whip,” Roy said. “You see it today. He’s a success story. He’s had every reason not to graduate high school, and here he is fixing to graduate (college).”
Collins is just a spring internship away from graduating from LSU, Roy said.
Loyetta didn’t have the luxury of watching many of her son’s high school games. Coaches rarely saw her; she was always working.
Loyetta made it to a playoff game one year only because coaches obtained a doctor’s note so she could skip work. Once, she showed up at practice furious with La’el.
“He had gotten in trouble earlier that day in school,” said Guy Mistretta, the then-Redemptorist coach who’s now leading Livonia. “She came to the field one day to talk about it right then and there. She’s what made him go. His mom is the backbone.”
La’el had a hand in raising his siblings, too — among other children. It started at a young age. During his ninth-grade year, La’el missed multiple Saturday morning practices. Roy wondered why. He brought La’el into his office and began to chide him.
“Coach, you don’t know my situation,” La’el told Roy.
What was his situation?
“He was babysitting his sister’s kids because she had two jobs to pay the bills,” Roy said.
La’el was the biggest player on the ninth-grade team at Redemptorist. He was the biggest player on the offensive line on the high school team a year later, starting as a sophomore alongside four seniors.
La’el won the job that year at left tackle over a senior.
“I remember having a conversation with that player,” Mistretta said. “ ‘Hey, Coach, I understand. He’s going to be a big-time college football player.’ ”
Mistretta used Collins some on defense. He played defensive end; that’s how good his feet were.
At about 280 pounds, Collins could move well enough to chase quarterbacks. He was doing just that when he injured his knee making a cut while scrambling after Ronald Martin, then the quarterback at White Castle High and now an LSU safety.
“That was it for defense,” Mistretta said. “I’ll never forget (Black, the offensive coordinator) staring down the sideline at me.”
Mistretta and Black had Hill running behind Collins for three seasons at Redemptorist. They took advantage of the tandem. Mistretta had a one-liner he often used, Black said: “Anytime you doubt yourself, you run 27 behind 70.”
In a Redemptorist blowout one game, Black ran the same play seven straight times: 27 ran behind 70.
Hill and Collins are still close friends. Collins traveled to New Orleans on Sunday — a day after LSU’s loss at Arkansas — to watch Hill and the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Saints.
Collins visited Hill in Cincinnati during LSU’s first open date, too. They’re close, but not in every way.
Collins makes different choices — like that night before Hill’s bar incident and staying at LSU through his senior season. Hill left after his redshirt sophomore season last year, selected in the second round.
That’s where many thought Collins would be picked had he entered the draft last year. And now? He’s first-round material.
For Collins, it was a no-brainer. He had a $5 million insurance policy for the past two seasons, protecting him if he suffered injury.
Collins has received an invitation to the Senior Bowl and will play in the game, Mistretta said. It’s another shot to show scouts he can be a left tackle in the pros.
That seems to be a point of disagreement among some. Rang envisions Collins at right tackle or one of the guard spots.
Why not left tackle? That’s because Collins blocks with so much force that he occasionally loses his balance, Rang said. NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks said Collins could play left or right tackle and that he could “start pretty soon.”
Collins said he pays no attention to the draft projections, to analyst comments or to lineman rankings.
That’s probably the right decision.
“If you start feeding into the media, they’re pumping your head up and you fall, then nobody’s going to be talking about you anymore,” Collins said. “I’ve got a mindset, and I’ve always been like this: ‘Everybody’s better than me.’ I feel like I’m the underdog.”