Tony Collins could never forget how he got his job, which is a large part of the reason he lost it .?.?. and nearly his life along with it.

When the former Patriots Pro Bowl running back arrived in New England in 1981 as a second-round draft choice, standing ahead of him was former Sports Illustrated cover boy Vagas Ferguson, a 1979 All-American from Notre Dame only a year removed from being a Pats first-round pick. By the end of Collins' rookie season, Ferguson was Lost Vagas, a player beaten out by a kid from East Carolina.

For most people, security would flow from that. For Tony Collins, only anxiety did.

"Vagas got hurt and I stepped in and started,'' recalled Collins, who 27 years ago was in New Orleans himself on a week just like this one, preparing to lead the Patriots against the Chicago Bears in what would become a fateful Super Bowl XX for him and his team. "They gave me his job. I didn't want to happen to me what happened to him, so I never wanted to miss a game.

"After a couple years, I started taking painkiller shots to stay on the field. It was the fear of losing my job; fear of failing. I was afraid to even miss a practice, but the painkillers I took to do that made me nauseous. One of my teammates told me if I smoked marijuana, it would get rid of the nausea. I tried it. It worked.

"I didn't drink alcohol or do drugs until I got to the league. My dad was a deacon in our church. My mom was everything in our church. I grew up in a perfect little town (Penn Yan, N.Y.). I had a loving mom and dad. I told them since I was 9 I was going to play in the NFL, and there I was.

"All the way through high school, college and my first couple years in the league, I was still all religious. Then it got crazy, man. The marijuana led me to cocaine, and that blew up in my face. Once I did coke, I was off. I was running. I was gone.

"I made those choices. Nobody else made them. Tony made those choices."

Choices, good and bad, are a big part of Tony Collins' life these days. At 53, he's been straight for nearly a decade and tells his story to any kids who will listen. It's a story about choices more than football.

He's written a book that drips with truth, a plain truth sometimes stark and ugly. The title, though, speaks of hope, and that's what's behind "Broken Road: Turning My Mess Into A Message."

Collins' story is not really about painkillers or pro football or being led astray by false friends. His story is about choices, ones he made and ones he'd have been better off if he hadn't because in the end, that's all you have in life. You have the choices you make and what flows from them.

"If you make good choices, good things happen,'' Collins said from his home in Greenville, N.C. "Bad choices, bad things happen. Take it from me."