- Roosevelt Rosie Collins with Nixon, whom he once treated for a neck problem. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Tutt Library, Colorado College, Colorado Springs
Even now, almost 24 years after his death, whenever Colorado College athletic alumni convene, invariably someone invokes the name of Roosevelt "Rosie" Collins. And so begins another round of stories about the man who became a fixture in his 35 years as athletic trainer at CC -- a man who has since achieved legendary status.
Besides being the first African American employed in a staff position at CC, Collins was a pioneer in the field of sports medicine. He was one of the first to eschew heat for cold in the treatment of sprains and strains. He was also one of the founders of the National Athletic Trainers Association.
He accomplished all this with extreme near-sightedness (his coke-bottle glasses and fedora were his trademark); in fact, many believe his impaired vision may have actually helped him earn such renown as a physical therapist. In the days before CAT scans, magnetic resonance imaging and ultra-sound, touch was often the best method of diagnosis.
"He could just put his hands on you, and he could pretty much tell you what was wrong," says Steve Sabol, who played football at CC from 1960 to 1966 and is currently president of NFL Films. From Collins' first days in 1935 to his retirement in 1970, players and coaches developed an affection for his considerable powers as a healer.
"You had to get along with [Rosie], because if you ever got hurt, you knew that you would be needing his help," said Bob Justice, who played football at CC from '63 to '67.
Collins also extended his helping hand beyond the walls of the training room. He took in several CC athletes as boarders. He found part-time jobs around town for athletes on partial scholarships or employed them in his part-time catering company.
And each year, because of Collins' poor eyesight, he chose an athlete to drive him home at night. Sabol was chosen in his senior year. "That meant as much to me as being elected captain [of the football team]," Sabol said.
But along with winning affection, Mr. Collins -- as the athletes referred to him -- also demanded respect; treatment could be brutal for unwilling or insufficiently respectful patients.
"Collins had fingers made of spring steel," one former CC athlete claimed. Another said that Collins would turn the heat in the whirlpool up "'til it was like a cauldron of molten steel."
"It was a rite of passage at CC football," Sabol said. "Rosie would take your measure [for pain] in the training room. The veterans on the team would want to see how the new kids would deal with Rosie."
Change -- and growth -- was inevitable. Former CC football coach Jerry Carle remembered Lefty Grisham, a football player from Texas who came to CC in the late 1940s. "He was really indignant that he not be touched by a black man," Carle said. In the end though, Collins' tough love won out, and the two became close friends.
Because of Collins' lauded work with CC's athletes, his reputation as a healer also spread through the community. Prominent downtown businessmen came to Collins to have kinks massaged out of their backs, and in 1952, he treated the sore neck of then-vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon. The two formed a lifelong relationship.
Despite having ministered to such prestigious patients, Collins was not exempt from the racial short-sightedness of the times. In several incidents in Hays, Kansas in the late 1940s, Pocatello, Idaho in the 1950s, and southern Missouri in 1960, Collins was refused room and board at hotels. But the players and coaches did not hesitate to take his side and threatened to pack up and go home if innkeepers did not serve him.
A leader though he was, Collins himself was not known for his outspokenness. He was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1902, and although he far from condoned or kowtowed to racism, he understood that bigots were still the norm in some places. Throughout his career at CC, Collins also sat on the board of the Rocky Mountain Rehabilitation Center, and was also active in the Elks Lodge, St. John's Baptist Church and Republican Party in El Paso County. He received many lucrative offers to be a trainer for organizations such as the Air Force Academy, Brooklyn Dodgers and Denver Broncos, but declined them all, opting to stay in the community that had he had so warmly adopted as his own.
Right up until Collins' death in March 1978, CC alumni came back to visit him regularly, often staying with him and his wife, Amanda. "He left a lasting impression on everyone he came into contact with," Justice said. "And he never forgot a name -- never stumbled for a name."
"I have a million dollars in friends," Collins once said. "Even though there have been some long and hard times, I wouldn't leave these people for all the money in the world."
-- Robert Wallace