The video clip of Landon Collins went viral almost instantly, not to mention setting the blog- and Twitter-sphere ablaze.
There was the nation's top ranked high school safety announcing his decision to attend the University of Alabama during the Under Armour All-America Game three weeks ago, while his mom, April Justin, looked on with a pained expression on her face, shaking her head in disapproval of his choice.
By now, most of the story of how Landon came to announce that day that he had chosen the Crimson Tide over the L.S.U. Tigers - emphasis on "most" - has been told, including a long article by Christopher Schultz for ESPN The Magazine.
While the "tide" of public opinion (sorry, couldn't resist) has been, as far as I can tell, running against April, much of it portraying her as an over-protective mom unable to let go, my initial, instinctive, reaction upon watching the video, was a bit different. Not surprisingly, as a mom, I viewed it a bit more from her perspective, through the lens of a mom.
I am sure she wasn't thrilled that Landon was going to play his college ball a four and a half hour ride away in Tuscaloosa, Alabama instead of right up the road in Baton Rouge. But that couldn't be it. After all, Landon had played his high school football in Geismar, Louisiana, where his dad, Thomas, and stepmother, Jamie, had built a home after Hurricane Katrina, which was an hour's drive from her home in New Orleans, where April is raising his half-brother, Gerald Willis, III, and half-sister, Gerrah. As April told ESPN The Magazine, she had agreed at the time that the move was in his best interest.
But I knew there had to be much more to the story than that. I have spent years around moms and their athletic kids and have honed a keen sense of awareness of how protective a mother can be of her children, like a Mamma Bear guarding her cubs.
Then yesterday the following Tweet appeared in my timeline:Emily Cohen @gobearsemily Saw this on #ESPNU. The hurt in the kid's eyes was so obvious. Mom, why can't you support him? ow.ly/8DfMx #youthsports
I wanted to know myself, so I got April's number, and gave her call. I started off by telling her that I was the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, the founder of MomsTeam.com, and a fellow sports mom.
No doubt sensing that, given my background, I might lend a more sympathetic ear (she was right), we ended up talking for the next hour. Mostly, I just listened. Some of what she told me has been previously reported, but some of it was new, and it confirmed my mother's intuition that there were reasons she wasn't supporting her son's decision to go to Alabama instead of LSU that the rest of us didn't know about.
April expressed some serious concerns about the college choice her first-born son had made, and not just because of the distance between Tuscaloosa and New Orleans. "Every year we as a family develop short term goals and long term goals," she told me. "His choice doesn't fit into Landon's or the family's long term goals. Landon has met all of his short term goals. I am so proud of him and the way he met those goals, but his choice does not meet his long term goals."
A single mom, and a former athlete herself, April has raised her three children, Landon, Gerald and Gerrah, to put family, education and sports - in that order - at the top of their list of priorities. "I only allow my children to play video games on Saturday and Sunday and never during the school week," she said. She knew that her athletically talented children needed to focus on sports and their academics in order to get a college scholarship.
She said it was really tough not being able to watch all of Landon's games after he moved away to live with his dad and step-mom. "He was playing an hour away, and his games were on Friday night, the same time his younger brother [Gerald] was playing". Factor in the volleyball games that her daughter Gerrah had on Tuesday and Thursday, and I quickly got the sense that April was a mom who has a lot to juggle, and is doing the best she can as a single mom. Not only is it a logistical challenge to get to Landon's games, but it is a financial challenge as well: two hours on the road requires a fair amount of gas in the tank. At close to $4.00 a gallon, the cost adds up fast.
But logistics and expense aside, were there other things that were bothering her? As she had told other reporters, she also told me she was upset about the recruiting process and "the politics that surround it." Most worrisome, April said, was that "At ‘Bama they want to red shirt - or grey shirt - him and they want him playing nickelback instead of safety. He is the top safety in the country and he will never play a game his freshman year. Now, at LSU coach Les Miles is offering to play him as safety during his freshman year. His (Nick Saban's) goals don't meet the criteria of the family; they meet the criteria of Alabama."
What were, then, her goals? "For Landon to win the Heisman Trophy and to be able to play close to home at LSU with his younger brother, Gerald, who is also an outstanding football player who has offers to play at LSU." She said these weren't just her goals; they were shared by his younger siblings.
I got what she was saying. I think all sports moms, especially those with more than one child playing sports, do. From the time they started playing T-ball when they were five until high school, my three sons all played on the same team. There is something magical about watching your children play together, especially on the same sports team. I remember how tough it was when they were on three different teams during high school and I had to decide whose games to attend. Mama April was hoping to see both of her sons play on the same team at LSU.
Was there anything else that didn't sit right with April? As it turned out there was. It had to do with Landon's girlfriend, Victoria. ESPN The Magazine reported about a confrontation between April and Victoria at the All-America Game after Landon's sister had urged her to stand onstage for his big announcement. April wanted only family in front of the camera. Landon's dad, Thomas, ended up having to intercede. When the cameras began rolling, there was Victoria standing directly behind Landon.
What the article didn't mention, however, was the reason April was apparently upset, which may have tipped the scales in Alabama's favor. According to April, Victoria had allegedly been offered a job to work in head coach Nick Saban's office. I
In all fairness to Saban and Alabama, I have been unable to independently confirm April's story on this point (Citing NCAA rules, Doug Walker, Associate Athletics Director, Communications, at the University of Alabama, stated in an email to MomsTeam that the school "would not comment on anything relating to the recruitment of a prospective student-athlete." Asked if Landon's girlfriend had been offered a job, he stated, "I have no information regarding that."). All I know is what April told me.
But suffice it to say, April appears to have reasons for feeling the way she does about her son's decision, and they have less to do with her being an LSU fan and a mom who doesn't want to let go, and more to do with her understanding what was happening behind the scenes, outside camera range, that may have played a role in that decision that didn't square with the way she raised her children.
Take a look at the video clip again. The focus has been on the reaction of Landon's mom to the news. But Landon doesn't look all that thrilled either.
There is a Jewish proverb that says, "A mother understands what a child does not say." Perhaps it explains everything.
It would not surprise me if Landon were to step back to try to understand exactly where his mom is coming from before he formally commits to the Crimson Tide. We'll find out if he does on February 1st.*
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NOTE: For more of my blogs, including reaction to this blog, click here.
Updates (February 2, 2012):
- For a follow-up interview with April Justin on al.com, click here.
- An article on Landon Collins choosing Alabama written just after he made his announcement, click here.
* Landon ended up signing with Alabama as he had announced at the All-America Bowl, with the support of his mother.
Brooke de Lench is Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, and producer and director of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer."