- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
When Mike Poole thinks of Richard Collier, he's as likely to picture the giant handling produce at Wal-Mart as he is to recall the defensive tackle who played for him at Northwood High School in Shreveport, La.
Between high school and junior college, Collier worked a steady job.
"I'd walk into Wal-Mart and see Richard there and I'd tease him, I'd say, 'Richard, I see you're playing for the University of Wal-Mart,'" Poole said. "He'd laugh and say, 'Aw, coach.' He was there about a year before the junior college came through and picked him up."
From Wal-Mart, Collier worked his way to Tyler (Texas) Junior College, then to Valdosta State, then to the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent, then to a three-year, $3.895 million contract with $1.5 million guaranteed.
Now, the 6-foot-7, 345-pound offensive tackle remains in critical condition in Shands Jacksonville Medical Center. It's still not known how many times he was shot early Tuesday morning as he and former teammate Kenny Pettway waited in a car in a Riverside apartment complex parking lot. It's still not known what kind of surgery he's had.
Though he's improved, it's still not known if he'll make it.
As they pray for him and hope he'll be able to hold on, current teammates and former coaches characterize him as a teddy bear, a sweetheart of a guy.
"He's a smart, tough, big, physical, fun-loving guy," Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard said. "He's just one of those guys that everybody in the locker room definitely loves. He has a great personality."
"He had a big old smile on his face the first time I saw him, and the last time I saw him he had one too," Poole said. "He's a big fella who loved life, loved sports. A big ol' jolly fella."
As Collier worked his way up through football, he overcame struggles with grades and came to realize the game could help him.
"He was an immature, young guy and didn't realize what he had and didn't apply himself," said Chris Hatcher, who coached Collier at Valdosta State. "He ended up having to go to junior college and when he got there figured out how he could take advantage of opportunities. We were very fortunate to get him. If you have one knock against him, it's that he's too nice ... He was very appreciative of everything that came his way, and a lot of guys are not like that."
Collier made the Jaguars' opening-day roster in 2006 despite not being drafted, and is part of a proud list the team maintains in its media guide. Over the last six seasons, 11 undrafted rookies have earned their way onto the team.
When former Jags lineman Jeff Lageman first saw Collier at work, he was struck by the giant lineman's footwork.
"I said, 'If somebody told me this was a first-round pick, I'd say, 'Well that's a pretty good pick,'" said Lageman, the color analyst on Jaguars broadcasts who played four of his 10 seasons as a defensive lineman with Jacksonville. "And he was a rookie free agent.
"I just thought all he needed was experience and a little bit of seasoning because he came from a small school. But I certainly thought he had the ability to be a real quality left tackle if he got his weight down a little bit. Because the one thing you can't coach is feet, and Richard's got feet."
As he refined his technique, he also embarrassed the team in 2007. While he maintained his innocence, he pled no contest to a drunken driving charge. Police said they found him drunk and asleep at a McDonald's drive-through. He served a two-game suspension, but obviously did well to re-earn confidence as he got the contract in May.
In a training-camp battle for the starting left tackle spot, Collier quickly lost out to Khalif Barnes. He was set to be the primary backup tackle. Now the Jags' contingency plan will be to move right guard Maurice Williams to tackle and insert Uche Nwaneri at guard.
Weight was part of what held Collier back, Lageman said.
Listed at 345, Collier may have been more like 355.
"I think if he would have shed 10 to 15 pounds, it certainly would have helped his stamina and would have helped his game," Lageman said. "... Jack Del Rio declared Khalif the winner early on, but not because of what Khalif had done so exceptional but more because of Richard not really rising to the occasion."
"I think during the season they were expecting to rotate Richard with Khalif at left tackle much like they did last year. My expectation was, with Khalif being in a contract year and how good they felt about Richard Collier, that eventually he was going to be the starter."
If that promotion arrived this season, Collier would certainly have called his college coach with the news.
Hatcher has moved from Valdosta State to Georgia Southern, but remained in touch with one of his favorite players. Ty Hatcher, his 8-year-old son, is a Jaguars fan purely because of Collier.
Collier regularly visited his old team and coach, inviting the linemen down for a Jaguars game in which he played as a special teamer. When Hatcher brought Ty to a game, "Big Rich" introduced the young boy to many of the Jaguars' stars.
The day Collier was shot, teachers at Bulloch Academy in Statesboro, Ga., tried to give Ty news updates throughout the day.
Chris Hatcher remembers how Collier relayed the news of his contract.
"This summer it really hit me, he called me up on the phone and said, 'Coach, they just signed me to a multimillion dollar deal,'" Hatcher said. "You could tell he had a little shake in his voice. And I basically said, 'You remember what I told you when you left?' And he said, 'Yes sir: When I am in the league, live like I am a poor man because it won't last forever.' That's the advice I give all of my guys that go to the pros ... For him not to forget, to think enough to call me and let me know they just signed him to a multimillion dollar deal, that made me think a lot more about him."
Hatcher told Collier he didn't get to talk to millionaires every day, and took note of how important it was to the tackle to share his good news.
Now it's bad news.
As Hatcher's Georgia Southern team prepares for a game tomorrow against Austin Peay, his offensive line coach, Shawn Bostic, planned to be in Jacksonville to see Collier. Bostic also coached Collier at Valdosta State.
If the situation calls for it, Hatcher will drop everything and be there, too.
"I'd drive 1,000 miles to go help him if he was ever in need," Hatcher said. "Because I know he would do the same thing for me."