Rams Take On Their Toughest Opponent : Collins' Death by Cancer Spurs Johnson and Teammates to Action

Times Staff Writer

Johnnie Johnson can pinpoint the moment his carefree, bachelor's life as a professional athlete started to change.

It was during a Ram practice midway through the 1983 season, and teammate Kirk Collins had just blown a chance for an interception.

"(Vince) Ferragamo threw a ball that went right over Kirk's head, and he didn't even react to it," Johnson said. "We lined up next to each other in the huddle, and I said, 'Hey, man, are you OK?'

"He said, 'Hey, Johnnie, I can't see. I'm having blurred vision.' "

Collins also was spitting up blood, but it took Johnson about 10 minutes to persuade him to tell the trainers. The team doctors were called and Collins was taken to a clinic for tests that night.

"They told him what they suspected," Johnson said, "and the next day the tests confirmed it. They told him what they thought his chances were--that he had about a 30% chance to live. No one who had that type of cancer had ever lived longer than a year."

People in the Ram organization privy to the information were stunned. Collins, who had just become the starting left cornerback, had led the National Football League with five interceptions before tearing a hamstring in the fourth game against the Jets. Then cancer of the esophagus was discovered as he was about to rejoin the lineup. Six months later, he was dead.

"At the time he told only LeRoy (Irvin) and me," Johnson said. "He didn't want any sympathy. He didn't want to blow it out of proportion."

With the Rams, who wore a small No. 42 tribute to Collins on their helmets last season, cancer has become a cause.

Friday night, the Ram basketball team will meet the Raiders at Cal State Fullerton, more or less for fun but with a serious purpose. The gate ($5 admission) will benefit the American Cancer Society, and the players are waiving their usual $100 game fees.

Last season, the team's seven defensive backs and assistant coach Steve Shafer made each of the 17 interceptions worth $800 to the ACS. Placekicker Mike Lansford donated $100 for each of his 25 field goals, and the Parker-Hanifan Corp. of Orange County double-matched that by kicking in $5,000.

The Ram Booster Club's annual golf and tennis tournament also benefits the ACS, and club owner Georgia Frontiere has established a fund to assure a college education for Collins' son, Christopher, who will be 2 next month.

Johnson is on the board of directors of the Orange County chapter of the ACS, and it's not just an honorary position.

"Kirk was the first person close to me to die of cancer. Up to then, I took everything for granted. Being around healthy people all the time, it takes something like this to make you realize we are human.

"Right after I got over the shock, I went down to the office of the American Cancer Society and told 'em I wanted to become a volunteer. It would have been easy just to sit down and write out a check. But if I could donate some time, that's where I want to help."

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