A small school finds a big stage

Green Bay Packers safety Nick Collins celebrated as he won his first Super Bowl earlier this month. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

When Green Bay free safety Nick Collins picked off Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger and took it 37 yards into the end zone in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLV, the Packers faithful weren't alone in erupting into celebration.

As the three-time Pro Bowler was very aware, Collins was wearing the green and yellow of the Packers, but also representing the maroon and gold of the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats, and by extension, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the country.

"This is huge coming from a small school," said Collins, who added four solo tackles to his huge pick-six in the Packers' 31-25 win over the Steelers. "People just look at you a little different -- 'Why is this guy here?' But if you have the talent and ability to go out there and just perform each and every week, you know things will work out for you.

"So I'm happy to represent Bethune-Cookman in a big-stage game like this. One thing about it, it hasn't come easy. I hope everybody from Cookman can do the same. It's like a dream come true. We all have goals. I'm really happy for [Atlanta Falcons kick returner] Eric Weems. He made it to his first Pro Bowl."

Collins and his former Wildcats teammate Weems are the first two Bethune-Cookman players to be voted to the Pro Bowl in the same season.

A second-round pick of the Packers in the 2005 NFL draft, Collins had 70 tackles and four interceptions this season, including a late pick of Chicago's Jay Cutler in the regular-season finale that helped the Packers clinch the playoff berth they ultimately rode all the way to the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Collins was the first former Bethune-Cookman star to play in the Super Bowl since Larry Little and Maulty Moore helped the Miami Dolphins to a 24-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl VIII. In all, three HBCU players played in Super Bowl XLV -- Collins, Packers wide receiver Donald Driver (Alcorn State) and Steelers running back Isaac Redman (Bowie State).

One of three Bethune-Cookman alumni currently playing in the NFL, along with Weems and Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis, Collins is ever mindful of his alma mater and its role in his success.

Collins was a terrific player for the Wildcats. In his senior year, he led the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with six INTs. One of three Bethune-Cookman alumni currently playing in the NFL, along with Weems and Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis, Collins is ever mindful of his alma mater and its role in his success.

"All the guys from Cookman who are in the pros have stayed hungry," Collins said. "Once we get the opportunity, we make the best of it. They know what they wanted in life. That's what we're doing. Once this game is over, I would like to get up with those guys and hopefully we can just chill and talk about the success over the years."

Collins' days as a Wildcats star also prepared him in part for the glare of the big-game spotlight against the Steelers. He played in four editions of the Florida Classic against archrival Florida A&M -- the annual clash of the two old-school HBCUs for bragging rights over the state of Florida (Bethune-Cookman is in Daytona Beach).

"When the lights come on, you have to lay everything on the line in between those lines," he says. "It's the Super Bowl for black colleges. I know how it goes. It's a crazy time, but you have to stay focused. The coaches are going to be on you the whole time. They're a little nervous. At the same time, you have to mellow everything out and stay calm as much as possible."

The Wildcats are coming off a great season. Bethune-Cookman (10-2 overall, 7-1 league) took home a share of the MEAC title, along with South Carolina State and Florida A&M. They also played in the FCS playoffs before losing 45-20 to New Hampshire in the second round.

Collins' presence on the biggest football stage of all won't be Bethune-Cookman's only turn in the spotlight in 2011. On Sept. 4, the Wildcats will face Prairie View A&M in the Seventh Annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge Presented by Disney, at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

"That's going to be great," said Collins. "It's about time we had a challenge like that. I know Bethune-Cookman has been waiting to play a team in the SWAC. We play them every once in awhile, but nothing major. I think it's going to be great for both schools. Hopefully, I can get down there to see it. It looks like a great game to go to."

Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. His HBCU Notebook on ESPN.com can be found here. Got a story idea for Hunt? E-mail him at dhunt37261@aol.com.