TAMPA — As a pregame ritual, Bucs tackle Anthony Collins quietly walks from one end zone to the other, finding inspiration and peace in thoughts of friends he has lost, including former Bengals teammate Chris Henry.
"My people that are in heaven that I've lost, I basically talk to them," Collins said this week. " 'I'm still here. I'm still doing it for y'all.' "
Nearly five years have passed since Henry's death at age 26, but he is still very much with Collins.
At most practices and games, under his pads and jersey, Collins wears a white T-shirt with a picture of his friend. Another photograph is taped above his locker, a constant reminder that everything he has, in football and in life, can disappear.
"When I say I want to give thanks for being here on this earth, what I'm basically saying is 'Thank you, Lord, for letting me meet somebody like Chris, to show me who I need to be like,' " said Collins, a teammate of Henry's from 2007-09 who joined the Bucs this season and faces his old team Sunday.
Collins and Henry were an unlikely pair, the 315-pound offensive lineman and the 6-foot-4 receiver friends called "Slim." They found their connections — their Southern roots, their love of soul food, the same concerts and sense of humor.
"He came in one day, saw me sitting by myself and came and hollered at me," he said. "We just hit it off, clicked tight. I knew his family, he knew my family. .… We lost a good person. I was happy to know him."
Henry, a 2005 third-round pick out of West Virginia, had gone on injured reserve with a broken arm late in the 2009 season and was in an argument with his fiance when he fatally fell from the back of a moving pickup truck she was driving, his head hitting the ground. Henry had well-documented problems with several off-field arrests and suspensions, but Collins said that wasn't the friend he knew.
"What I've seen in all my life, you don't have too many people that you come across who are always 100 percent with you, always telling you the truth," he said. "Chris (was) the same person when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night, every day of the week."
Collins, now 29, came to Tampa Bay with a five-year, $30 million contract, and he has started nine games, more than in any of his six seasons with the Bengals, who selected him in the 2008 fourth round out of Kansas. He's a key part of an offensive line that — like the team as a whole — has fallen short of expectations.
Collins had dealt with tragedy and loss before Henry. Childhood friends are in prison for life, and he has a tattoo on his back of Michael Mitchell, a close friend who in 2008 was reportedly shot and killed by police during a drug sting in their hometown of Beaumont, Texas.
"They're gone. And they loved football, had a passion for football," Collins said. "Me having a bad game, the offensive line having a bad game, we'll see you next Sunday."
Stay updated on the Buccaneers
Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
So while this first season in Tampa has been difficult and frustrating, Collins has perspective on what he's struggling with. With any sack, with any penalty, with even a loss on the scoreboard, he has a chance to redeem himself in another game.
"You always have a second chance here," he said. "I make sure I wake up every day and thank the Lord that I'm still here and doing it for them. Even with the losing streak we have, I always can go back to the mirror, look at that shirt and say this is why I do it."
Bucs defensive end Michael Johnson, a Bengals teammate of Collins for five years and of Henry for one, remembers the way tragedy bonded a young Bengals team. Two months before Henry died, then-defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife of 27 years, Vikki, died suddenly.
"It made us a lot closer. That was a close group of guys up there," said Johnson, whose Bengals would make the playoffs in 2009 and four times in the next five years. "(Henry) was a great guy. I think he had really turned the corner, as a professional, as a man. It was so unfortunate when that happened."
Collins remembers that Henry would arrive at the Bengals facility at 7 a.m. each day, and you could tell his disposition by his ball cap: If the brim was up, the jokes would be flying right away. "If his brim's lower than his eyebrows, better wait till 9:30."
Collins has tried to be like Henry in the locker room, to find a teammate he doesn't know well and say something positive, to reach out like his friend did for him.
"I'm new here, just like them," he said. "I try to catch all of them, even the older guys and let them know, 'Hey, you get down on yourself, there's always another day for you.' "
Collins wants the Bucs to come together like the players in Cincinnati, to find the chemistry that helped the Bengals find consistent playoff appearances. He said there are still days when he comes to work with his hat low, when it's a few hours before he wants to talk to teammates and coaches, but not often.
"My brim is up," he said. "I'm very thankful to be here."
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.