By: Dan Apple, UF Communications
In 1976, colleges across the country were hot on the recruiting trail after a consensus All-American prep quarterback from Astronaut High in Titusville, Florida. Not only was this recruit a good football player, he also won the state title in the 100-yard-dash as a junior and started for the basketball and baseball teams as a senior.
Cris Collinsworth was an all-around athlete. His father, Abe, played basketball for legendary Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp from 1954-58, winning a national championship in 1958. Cris walked in his father’s footsteps in high school, playing basketball for his dad at Astronaut High. But his skill and athleticism on the football field are what had many schools coveting him.
Head coach Doug Dickey and his coaching staff at the University of Florida landed Collinsworth, and he would wind up being one of the best athletes to come through a school known for producing athletes.
Entering the 1977 season, the quarterback position lacked depth, so the opportunity for a stud freshman to come in and play was a definite possibility. In his first game as a Gator, Collinsworth threw a 99-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Gaffney against Rice, which remains tied for the longest touchdown pass in NCAA history. Collinsworth could already see where his future was headed.
“My freshman year at Florida I threw a 99-yard touchdown pass against Rice, the longest in Florida history,” said Collinsworth. “I had my future planned. I’d be an All-American my junior year, and win the Heisman my senior year. You gotta have goals.”
Unfortunately for Collinsworth and the Gators, that would be his best game as a quarterback in a Florida uniform. Senior Terry LeCount took control of the quarterback position that season, and Collinsworth was forced to find action in any way he could.
Collinsworth’s athleticism allowed him to switch to running back after the first few games, where he carried the ball 14 times as a freshman. He also saw action returning kickoffs, accumulating 193 yards on nine returns, including a 56-yard return, for an average of 21.4 yards. After suffering a broken hand during the season, he came back and played the last three games at defensive back with a cast on his hand.
“The next spring, Coach Dickey went to the I-formation and discovered my true ability as a passing quarterback. A disease called ‘lack of spiral.’ I was nothing-for-about-50 in the spring game. They switched me to wide receiver. I changed my goals.”
That switch to wide receiver was probably the best thing that could have happened to Collinsworth, because his sophomore year as a wide receiver was one to remember. He could throw, run and catch the football, making him one of the most versatile athletes on the team.
“We weren’t certain about our exact offensive looking going into the  season, but Cris Collinsworth will be in there somewhere so we can get him the ball often,” said Coach Dickey.
Collinsworth caught an SEC-leading nine touchdown passes and had 745 yards on 39 catches (19.1 average). He also had 100 yards rushing on his way to first-team All-SEC honors. He was 2-for-2 passing on the season for 46 yards and one score, and returned 15 kickoffs for 394 yards (26.3 average) and one touchdown.
Collinsworth became the team’s big-play guy, having touchdown plays of 33, 43, 44, 47, 52, 58, 63 and 97 yards. For all his accomplishments on the field, Collinsworth earned second-team All-America honors after the 1978 season. However, the team struggled to a 4-7 record and a coaching change brought in new head coach Charley Pell. The teams’ struggles were not over, as things got even worse during the 1979 season.
“My junior year Coach Pell came in, and we didn’t win a game. We were 0-10-1,” said Collinsworth. “Teachers told jokes about us. Students wanted to know why we had scholarships. Until then, I always felt that out of 11 games I could win at least one by myself. It taught me something. About that time I became a Christian. I’m not going to be a minister or anything, but it straightened out my thinking, realizing there’s more to life than winning football games.”
Despite the team’s poor performance, Collinsworth repeated as a first-team All-SEC performer after catching 41 passes for 593 yards and two scores. Luckily for Collinsworth and the Gators, the team bounced back in Pell’s second year and finished 8-4.
A captain for his senior year, Collinsworth used his 4.4 speed and led the SEC in receiving with 40 catches for 599 yards and three touchdowns. He earned first-team All-America honors, his third-straight first-team All-SEC selection and was picked by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of the 1981 NFL Draft.
It’s safe to say that Collinsworth exceeded any expectations that people may have had of him entering his rookie season with the Bengals. He averaged 15.1 yards per catch and accumulated 1,009 yards and eight touchdowns, earning himself the 1981 NFL Rookie of the Year Award.
Collinsworth enjoyed an eight-year NFL career that included four 1,000-yard seasons. He had 36 touchdowns and ranks first on the Bengals’ all-time career receptions list. He was a three-time Pro Bowler and played in Super Bowls XVI and XXIII. Following his last season in 1988, he made a smooth transition into the booth, where he has become an award-winning sports broadcaster.
Holding an accounting degree from Florida, Collinsworth returned to school at the University of Cincinnati Law School, completing a law degree in 1991. He began his broadcasting career as a reporter for HBO’s “Inside the NFL” in 1989. The following year, he joined NBC Sports as a game analyst for the network’s NFL coverage.
In 1997, Collinsworth won his first Emmy Award for his work on the “NFL on NBC” studio show. Since then, he has won a record-total of nine Emmy Awards for Outstanding Sports Studio Analyst. He currently works as a co-host of NBC Sports “Sunday Night Football,” color analyst for NFL Network’s game coverage and a co-host of Showtime’s “Inside the NFL.”