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Vancouver, British Columbia • Even after three concussions left him unwanted in the NFL, Austin Collie refused to believe that his pro football career was over so he headed north.
On Saturday, the former BYU star receiver played his first meaningful game in almost two years as he suited up at slotback for the B.C. Lions in their Canadian Football League season opener against the host Ottawa RedBlacks. He caught five passes for 65 yards and a touchdown.
Earlier in the week, Collie wanted to set the record straight on his football life.
"I wouldn't necessarily say it's so much for the love of the game," said Collie, 29, of his move to Canada from his Salt Lake home. "I just felt like I wasn't done. That feeling of not being done, that's what kept my drive going."
Collie has not played a regular-season game since he toiled in seven of them for the New England Patriots in 2013. His NFL career got off to a hot start as he recorded 118 receptions and 15 touchdowns in his first two seasons, 2009 and 2010, with the Indianapolis Colts. But the team released him after the third concussion led to a subpar 2011 season and he missed most of 2012 with a knee injury.
Before and after playing with New England, he had unsuccessful tryouts with the San Francisco 49ers and Washington. He was out of football in 2014.
"It's a lot of fun being out here and playing football again," Collie said after a recent practice.
Collie's comeback has strong Utah connections, starting with Cognitive FX, a concussion rehabilitation and research clinic based in Provo. Cognitive FX deploys a neuro-cognitive scan, which is a form of MRI technology, and provides a broad range of tests and individualized treatment.
"It's just a place I go every now and then to, basically, rehabilitate the head and make sure the head's right and still functioning properly, the way it should," Collie said. "The brain is a very elaborate muscle. A lot of things need to be done to make sure that it stays sharp and stays strong."
In addition, Collie's brother-in-law Jordan Pendleton runs a personal-fitness business in South Jordan. The former BYU linebacker has supervised a training program designed to help Collie get in game shape and recover from the knee injury. While dealing with his head problems, Collie has rebounded from surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.
Meanwhile, he is learning about life in Canada and the nuances of the CFL game, which utilizes a wider field and 12 players. Second-year Lions backup quarterback and former BYU teammate John Beck is showing Collie the ropes.
"Getting back together with one of your old teammates is fun," Collie said. "I wouldn't have expected playing in the CFL."
Collie signed with the Lions in January after Beck lobbied management on his behalf. Unlike NFL teams, the Lions were eager to get Collie, who was born in Ontario in 1983 while his dad, Scott also a former BYU player was toiling for the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Collie's Canadian citizenship gives the Lions greater roster flexibility under league rules that require an even split of "national" and "international" (usually American) players.
"Obviously, that's a huge advantage for us," said Lions coach Jeff Tedford, who played with Collie's dad in Hamilton. "And, with his experience and knowledge of the game, we felt like it would be great to have him."
Although Collie's concussions were a "serious" concern, the knee problem was most pressing, Tedford said. With both issues resolved, Collie is poised to play a big role with the Lions.
"He'll be a major part of the offense," Tedford said. "He's starting, and he's a guy that we really need to get the ball to."
Lions starting quarterback Travis Lulay said it took a while for Collie to adapt to a game that features multiple receivers in motion with the snap. But Collie settled in as training camp went on and has offered glimpses of his full potential.
"He's got a humble approach coming up here, knowing he's gotta relearn a few things and it's a fresh start for him," Lulay said.
According to Beck, Collie's move to Canada will help him get the most out of the game before he calls it quits.
"You can't replace this locker-room environment, going out with your teammates and practicing, coming off the field after a game, walking with your teammates out to the field through a tunnel," Beck said. "There's nothing else in life that's like that. Once football's done, it's done."
He added that it's hard for most former NFL players who were standouts at previous levels to go to the CFL and "a brand new life" after being released. But the move to Canada will enable Collie who was a full-time BYU economics student before joining the Lions and plans to go into business eventually to retire on his terms.
"I've already experienced all of those feelings that you've gotta go through to be able to walk away from the game," Beck said. "And I'm sure Austin will probably feel the same way."
Collie's CFL debut
R In receiver Austin Collie's first game with the CFL's B.C. Lions on Saturday, he grabbed five passes for 65 yards and a TD in a 27-16 loss to the Ottawa Redblacks.