Friday, March 1, 2024

Why late NFL running back Alex Collins will also be missed by the world of Irish dancing – The Boston Globe

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I’m here to tell the world that Collins is also being mourned by another, much less known athletic community, one that has been the backdrop of my life since I first learned to walk, and then dance. Irish step dance, that is, the athletic art form whose humble roots in ancient Ireland have grown to worldwide fame with the onset of the famed Riverdance show, and who found an unlikely ambassador in Collins. His life as measured in time was far too short. But measured in impact, it was indelible, and this full-time sportswriter and part-time licensed Irish dance teacher is here to say, “Thank you.”

As the story goes, Collins grew extremely close with the family of his high school football coach, Doug Gatewood, close enough to consider Gatewood’s daughter, Bryanne, his sister. In true sibling fashion, Collins would often tease Bryanne, a student with the Drake School of Irish Dance, that while football was most certainly a sport, dance was most definitely not. Rather than take the argumentative bait, Bryanne issued a challenge instead. Not a sport? Then come out and try it.

Collins did, and what happened wasn’t simply a story of learning to respect Irish dance, but coming to love it.

“I think he just taught us all to embrace our love for dance and be proud of it,” said Fiona Shanley, a fellow Drake School dancer who met Collins eight years ago, when she was 10. “I especially remember when he helped by talking with a boy who was being bullied about dance and Irish dance being different for boys to do. Alex taught us all to be proud of it.”

Collins attended the national championship in Orlando 2018 to cheer on Bryanne Gatewood and other Drake competitors Keely Thompson and Kaitlyn Jesionowski.Courtesy of Sarah Shanley / Drake School of Irir

Collins was captivated from the first few notes of a reel, determined to distinguish that from a jig, dedicated to mastering both variety of steps as he returned to class after class, building a permanent relationship with the Drake school and the larger Irish dance community beyond.

Amid championship level competitors such as the future world placer Shanley, a close friend of Bryanne’s, under the tutelage of Florida instructor Chrissy Deacy, who would forge a great friendship with the smiling, dreadlocked new student, Collins embraced it all.

“He came in and in just the first five minutes, after our warm-ups, we were fine, barely breaking a sweat, and we look over at him and he was like dripping,” Shanley recalled. “He was done at that point. We hadn’t even gotten started, we were like, ‘We haven’t even taught you steps yet!’ ”

Collins was hooked. Time continued to reveal the depth of his devotion, and his character. Like the time that 10-year-old Shanley, then training for her first world championships that April in Scotland, struggled to handle the pressure. At the same time, Collins was prepping for the NFL Combine as he debated whether to declare for the draft after two excellent years at Arkansas. Having soon realized how much the quick footwork and unique stamina of Irish dance translated from the floor to the football field, he was a regular.

He was also a friend.

“I was at one of my last classes before worlds and I had a little mental breakdown and panic attack,” Shanley recalled. “I had to leave the studio for a second, and I originally went into the waiting room to get my mom. Alex was there, and he brought me outside.”

Said Sarah, Fiona’s mother: “He literally said to me, ‘I’ve got this.’ ”

Fiona: “He sat down with me on a bench outside the studio and talked to me, helped me be able to slow down my breathing, got me to relax, and he told me I was a badass, that I should go out on stage and show I was a badass.”

Sarah: “I’m not sure Fee or the other dancers were truly aware of what Alex was going through at that time. He was on winter break, deciding whether or not to declare for the draft, under a lot of external pressures. Dance was a place where nobody cared about his football, but he was on a similar parallel path feeling his own pressure.

“He just had so much empathy.”

Collins was known to encourage mental and physical strength before performances.Courtesy of Sarah Shanley / Drake School of Irish Dance

In time, Collins’s appearances at major dance events were treated like sightings of a rock star, complete with countless selfies and autographs, and his skills had been honed well enough he used an Irish dance step as his signature end zone celebration after a touchdown.

For those of us in the Irish dance world, from a teacher like me sitting with my own Irish dancing daughter Keira, to the professionals performing with Riverdance around the world, from young boys who’d heard from so many that Irish dance was no place for them to teachers such as Karl Drake, the founder of the school Collins attended, that touchdown dance had us all erupting with joy, delighted to see our chosen SPORT displayed to a whole new audience.

“In the world of football Alex was in the spotlight; in the studio he was determined to learn and an amazing cheerleader for all my dancers,” Deacy wrote on the school’s Facebook page. “Alex made us so proud as he became an ambassador for Irish dance around the world, yet always made time to come back home to support our Irish dance community and his Drake family. He never admitted out loud that Irish dancing is a sport, but his dedication to it showed us his real feelings.”

For those closest to Collins, the pride in him was palpable, reflective of a man who could be playful enough to wage plank contests with his much younger classmates (Shanley only guesses he let them win a few of those), but one serious enough to be willing to ask for help when he needed it. A man wise enough to notice when others struggled (Shanley has since qualified for worlds every subsequent year, won multiple Southern Regional age group titles, placed 15th at the most recent North American Irish Dance Championships in Nashville and 27th at worlds this past April in Montreal) but silly enough to create an alter ego (named “Mitch Finn”) to help adjudicate class competitions.

A man who will be missed. In the football world, and the Irish dance world, too.

Collins poses with Drake School dancers during a World Championship sendoff party.Courtesy of Sarah Shanley / Drake School of Irish Dance

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her @Globe_Tara.

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