ARCADIA, Fla. — Today began like the previous 4,710 days for Cecil Collins. He woke alone and made coffee. He washed his face and read from the Bible (Ephesians, this morning). He put some sports radio station on headphones and swept some rooms.
The sweeping is new. He started this job six, eight, maybe 10 months ago. It serves no purpose to count time in prison, and so Collins isn't exactly sure when he became a "House Man,'' as the position is called.
For years, he worked on "inside grounds," cutting grass. Then he worked in the kitchen, mainly in the butcher shop distributing pre-cut meat.
"Now that I've got some seniority in here, I get the easy job of a House Man,'' he says. "Dec. 16, 1999 is when it all began. That's some seniority. It'll be 12 years soon."
Thirteen years, actually, he's told.
"Thirteen?" he says.
He looks in the air, counting. For the previous hour in an interview room at the DeSoto Annex Correctional Institution, Collins alternately has sounded upbeat, grim, mature, forced, defiant, resigned, optimistic — surely the sum of any inmate's moods.
Now he laughs.
"Thirteen years,'' he says.
He shakes his head and exhales loudly, his cheeks puffing up. And for a moment as he smiles, just a moment, there's the glimpse of the Dolphins' rookie who flashed such personality and promise, way back when, that people thought he was hope falling out of the sky, rather than just another star shooting too fast across it.
But when that face falls, what's left is a middle-aged man in prison blues, asking the question anyone who hears his story does in some form.
"Can you believe I'm still in here?" he says.
Here are some things Collins gained in the past 13 years: A daughter, Zakayla, who was born from his former girlfriend a month into his sentence and wears his No. 34 at her youth softball games; a wife, Elena, whom he met when she and a friend visited another inmate; a 10-inch scar on his belly after a chicken bone ruptured his esophagus and nearly killed him; a tattoo on his left forearm that reads, "Only God Can Judge Me;" and the nickname "LSU,'' for the school he roots for and once played football.
LSU replaced "Cecil The Diesel." That was the first piece of his past he shed.
"I think 'The Diesel' is the guy that got me in trouble,'' he says. "The Diesel ran in clubs, ran with the wrong people. The Diesel didn't know how to handle all the money or celebrity coming in."
The Diesel spent, what, $8,000 on a good party night in the fall of 1999? Maybe $9,000? Even for a fifth-round draft pick, the money and temptation was more than he could handle.
So when he was convicted of burglary for sneaking through the back window of his neighbor's Davie apartment, Collins got a 15-year sentence, in part for being on probation with a similar charge. That's when he said The Diesel had to die.
"At that point, I started to find out who Cecil really was,'' he says. "And what I found is Cecil was a good guy."
It took a while to get there. But time is something Collins had plenty of. He lost his grandmother. He nearly died from the esophagus rupture, realizing in the prison hospital, "I didn't want to die here."
Over the last 13 years, he lost contact with everyone but family. He follows sports. He reads the Bible. He plays fantasy football. He moved between four prisons and now in lives in this rural Florida prison with 1,500 inmates that includes murderers, child molesters, armed robbers and drug dealers.
Collins returned to court three times, and once won a re-sentencing hearing. But the new judge looked over the same evidence and gave him the same 15 years.
"I had to accept it,'' he says.
In 2006, he wore his prison blues and Elena a wedding dress as they married. The reception consisted of bread and cranberry juice. He phones Elena, who lives in Broward, several times a day. She visits on weekends.
"All I get is one embrace and one kiss when she visits,'' he says. "You hold too long, you hear, 'That's enough.' That's all — for six years! Just imagine the sparks we'll have when I get out!"
Collins is due to be released next summer. He hopes to make it sooner through petitions and good behavior, though what happens next is uncertain. He wants to coach ("Think I'd be allowed?" he asks.). He wants to be a good husband ("I'm going to work at that,'' he says.).
There's a bit of Tom Hanks in "Castaway" to his talk, a man out of society so long he isn't sure exactly how it works anymore. Email? He's never done it. A phone that can take pictures? He doesn't understand it.
He shakes his head. "I've got some catching up to do."
But there's an unusual sense of gratitude to his past 13 years, too. As if they were the only way The Diesel could be gone.
"I have no regrets, no grudges, none of that,'' he says. "What happened to me in that time saved my life. I believe if I was left out there with that same mindset, I'd be dead or my life would be totally in shambles.
"It made me grow so much and showed me how to be a man and to live and walk in life. These 15 years they gave me, it seemed bad at first. But I met the most beautiful woman in the world in prison. I found God in prison. I've come out of it much better than when I came in."
Sometimes he'll be jolted back to better days. He was listening on radio to the Louisiana high school playoffs last year when the announcer mentioned Collins ran for the third-most yards in the state.
"I could run, I had a chance to do something,'' he says.
"I tossed the football to the ref, which is the way I was taught,'' he says. "[Guard] Mark Dixon got it from the ref and gave it to me. He said, 'You'll want to keep this.' "
That's how we want to relate our sports names. A good run. A sweet memory. But the football sits in his mom's home in Louisiana now with the only other one Collins got in his short career.
His belongings these past 13 years are kept in a small crate. A Bible. The radio. Letters and photos.
"I'll walk out of here with the Bible,'' he says.
There's a knock on the door of the interview room. Time's up. A prison guard is called to give Collins a strip search, per prison rules. He sighs and runs a hand over his face.
"Thirteen years of this,'' he says.
He stands up. He waits for the guard. He has to sweep next, and then will call his wife. Or listen to talk radio. There is no great moral to his story as Day 4,711 ticks down, though he wants to underline one thing, just to be sure as the guard enters the room.
"Make sure you let people know The Diesel isn't around anymore,'' he says. "If you get to know Cecil, he's a good person."