La’el Collins remembers the green bike.
Collins was sitting in a classroom during elementary school when he and his classmates were told to go outside and pick out a bicycle as a Christmas gift. Growing up in North Baton Rouge, Collins’ mother, Loyetta, couldn’t afford a bike like that for Collins and his siblings.
“I remember that just being the best gift that I got that year,” he said. “It was sweet.”
So when the former LSU and current Dallas Cowboys offensive linemen was considering how he could give back to his community for the holiday, he recalled that green bike and the youthful excitement he felt. He realized other families who attend Jehovah-Jireh Ministries on North Boulevard may appreciate a gift like that but didn’t have the means to acquire one.
Collins hasn’t forgotten about the place that helped make him the man he is today.
With the help of his agent, friends and childhood pastor, Collins organized an event called “71 Days of Christmas” at the small church Tuesday. Inspired by his professional jersey number, Collins donated bikes to 71 Baton Rouge families.
“This is home,” he said. “This where I started. This is where I’m from. I remember just being in these kids' shoes. I remember something I wanted for Christmas. Just being able to know there’s good people here and know that growing up I had good people around me, to come back and be a part of this new generation that’s here, receive the bikes today, it’s huge.”
Collins took numerous pictures and signed autographs, wearing his Cowboys jersey and a bright smile. And it’s not the only community outreach effort Collins is planning. Deryk Gilmore, Collins’ agent, said they have discussed a fishing tournament as well as football camps and clinics.
To David Richardson, Collins’ friend since his playing days at now-closed Redemptorist High, Collins’ generosity and passion for his community isn’t surprising.
“He’s a big guy with a big heart,” Richardson said. “He’s very soft-spoken but, at the end of the day, this is his chance to start giving back to the community of Baton Rouge. He really couldn’t wait to be here. He said this was more of a Christmas for him instead of the kids because this is his chance to give back to Baton Rouge.”
Collins, a second-team All-America tackle for the Tigers in 2014, earned a starting spot at guard during his rookie season with the Cowboys. Collins entered his second year as a starter but was placed on injured reserve after tearing a ligament in his right big toe in Week 3.
Shepherdess Janice Carter, Collins’ pastor, remembered him as a well-mannered child who was never shy about lending a hand in the church. She recalled a time when Collins assisted her with a baptismal ceremony.
“He’s always been that mild-tempered, quiet-like, but always willing to help,” Carter said. “I had him ever since he was a little bitty boy, and I could tell him things to do and he would say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ He’s always been such a wonderful child.”
Collins has been rehabbing his surgically mended toe and plans to be available for the Cowboys’ playoff run. When the former Tiger entered the NFL, Carter couldn’t think of a word to describe her joy.
But when discussing Collins’ community outreach in his hometown, the word that came to mind was “proud.”
“I am just so very, very proud of him because he didn’t forget,” Carter said. “He came back.”