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Inside Giants safety Landon Collins' pre-game hair-braiding ritual

Giants safety and breakout star Landon Collins had his hair braided at his home in North Bergen, New Jersey, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. Collins has his hair braided as a ritual before game day. Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware

Landon Collins grabs the throw pillows off his couch and piles them up on the floor before plopping himself down on them, his back up against the now unfestooned furniture. He takes his phone and starts scrolling through images of other peoples’ hair, looking for a design that not only grabs his attention but is also one he hasn’t done already this year.

While he’s scrolling he plays with the television remote to see what’s on. Not SportsCenter or a college basketball game. Certainly not a football game. He stopped watching those when he was a kid back in Louisiana, when he made a bet with his cousin that the Falcons would beat the Saints and quarterback Aaron Brooks ruined it for him. Ruined watching football. From that point on he didn’t see the point in watching any sporting event in which he himself did not have some fraction of control.

He goes straight to the movie channels and finds one that piques his interest. “Matchstick Men.” That’ll do. He keeps the volume on mute and pops a few Mike & Ike candies.

This is how Landon Collins gets ready for Giants games. It’s how the All-Pro safety prepares, puts on his game face, starts the process of becoming a warrior. In medieval times knights had squires to help them into their suits of armor.

Collins has a stack of pillows, Nicolas Cage on the flat screen, and a hair stylist named Joanna Jimenez who drives in each week from Bushkill, Pennsylvania to undo the braids she put into Collins’ hair the previous week and apply the new ones.

The whole thing takes anywhere between two and three hours. When it’s done, Collins has his look for gameday. While it’s happening, though, he’s enjoying what will be the last block of time he has for himself until the upcoming game ends.

“It’s just real cool and relaxing, being away from football,” Collins said of the process. “Just being yourself and chilling really. Just vibing. It definitely helps me get ready for the game. It clears my mind. It has me laughing. It’s stress-free.”

It started, as most things do these days, on social media. Jimenez saw a photo of Collins and reached out to him suggesting he do something with his hair. At the time he had a Mohawk and didn’t want to cut it because it had taken so long to grow. She suggested braiding it, and he saw a picture of the rapper The Game, and he asked her: Can you do this?

That was six months ago, right at the start of training camp. Red and white were the first colors, but he’s gone with neon green, red, white and blue, and other assorted palettes. All in different shapes, with different designs shaved into the side (barber Terrance Collins, no relation, handles that part later in the process).

“The first time I walked in Odell said: ‘Man, what are you doing?’ He said ‘You gotta stop that!’ ” Collins said. “But ever since I’ve been balling and playing, he’s like: ‘Keep it going!’ ”

His teammates now look forward to what Collins arrives with each Friday.

“Certain players have things that they do, superstitions or traditions,” said fellow Giants safety Darian Thompson, who has been hurt most of the year. “This is one he picked up. It seemed like every time he got it done he played well, so he turned it into an every week thing. It seems like he’s been playing well every week, so I don’t think he’ll stop anytime soon.”

OPPORTUNITY TO BE GREAT

The Giants defense has been the strength of the team this year, propelling them to the playoffs and Sunday’s game against the Packers in the wild card round. In the second half of the season, that defense was especially ferocious. Over their final seven games they allowed 14.2 points per game and just seven offensive touchdowns.

When asked when the defense started to click, defensive tackle Damon Harrison smiled.

“When Landon Collins decided to be a . . . ”

Well, it was a nasty phrase he used. Unprintable. But was it accurate? Collins laughed at the idea, yet when asked when, exactly, he became — that — he stopped laughing.

“Honestly,” he said, “I’ve been that way since the moment I stepped on a field.”

He remembers it vividly. Five years old. Hunter’s Field in New Orleans. He came out for the team and they stuck him at tight end on an offense that couldn’t move the ball, so his father suggested — maybe it was stronger that that — the coaches move Little Landon to running back. Boom. A 60-yard touchdown on his first carry.

“I’ve always been a better running back than a safety,” he said.

He also recognized something else that day.

“Ever since I was five years old I knew that the opportunity to be great was in me,” he said. “The sky was the limit. Ever since then I kept going with it.”

He was still a hard-hitting running back in middle school when he wanted to know who was the most physical player in the NFL. Someone told him to check out Sean Taylor of Washington and he pulled up some video and saw the late safety deliver a devastating hit on a Cowboys player and force a fumble. That’s when he became a disciple of Taylor’s, so much so that when he was drafted by the Giants last year he insisted on wearing Taylor’s number 21. He has a painting in his home that shows Taylor, shot and killed during a 2007 break-in in his home, hovering with wings while an image of Collins in a Giants uniform plays in front of him.

Lately, though, Collins has switched who he wants to be like. After this season, in which he became the first player in NFL history to record 100 or more solo tackles, two or more sacks, five or more interceptions and 12 or more passes defensed in a season, he’s raised the Taylor bar.

Now, he tells people, he wants to be “Lawrence Taylor great.”

Let that sink in. The greatest player in franchise history, perhaps the greatest defensive player of all time. And Collins wants to surpass him.

“When you think about the Giants, he’s one of the first guys who comes up,” Collins said. “Trying to be greater than him, those are some big shoes to fill. But when you have that opportunity, you try to do so.”

Instead of rolling their eyes at that lofty goal, the Giants seem to believe it’s possible. Collins is only 22 years old — he turns 23 this week — which is the same age Taylor was when he was drafted by the Giants in 1981. He plays a position where he can make an impact in both the running and passing games. And he could very well be named this year’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Is LC the next LT? Not yet, by why not think that way?

“I’m glad that that’s his goal,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “I’m glad that his aspirations are to be better than what he is . . . Reach for the sky and see what you catch along the way.”

That’s Collins’ mindset.

“In this world, everything is possible,” Collins said. “You just have to have the mindset and work your tail off to get there. And when you get there you can say you made it.”

Some might say he made it this season, and Collins will say it is ahead of schedule. He didn’t expect to be this good, this productive, for another two or three years. After his rookie year in which he looked out of place — he was playing out of position due to personnel deficiencies — and was thrust into a role of leadership and decision-making for which he was unprepared, few thought he would have such a breakout season.

Yet here he is, leading the Giants into the playoffs. And beyond.

FEELING IT

Back in his living room on Thursday evening, the first order of business is to picks the colors.

This week it was a no-brainer. Crimson and white for Alabama, his alma mater, which is playing for a national championship on Monday night. Then Jimenez goes to work removing last week’s braids, snipping the edges off and untangling them one by one, piling up the frayed ribbons next to her on the couch while Collins sits on those pillows in front of her. Collins winces every once in a while when she pulls too hard. Mostly, though, he relaxes.

As much as he can.

In less than three days he’ll be at Lambeau Field facing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, something that has been on his mind all week.

“It’s going to be a game for history,” Collins said. “I was talking to DRC (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), Leon (Hall), Odell, all of them, I was like ‘Do you feel it?’ Because every time I stepped on the field this week there was a type of excitement. Other teams are not practicing right now, other teams are not playing another game.”

It’s a feeling Collins said reminded him of college, when he was at Alabama, getting ready for bowl games. It was a feeling he missed last year when the Giants were 6-10 and the defense was ranked last in the NFL.

“That humbles you,” Collins said. “It brings a different flame out of you.”

By the time Jimenez and Collins the Barber are done, Landon Collins is happy with the results. The red is not exactly the ’Bama crimson he wanted because that would not have shown up as well in his black hair. And there was a shortage of pure white, so it’s more of a cream. But this is the ’do that Collins will take with him into the playoffs. It’s what he’ll look like when he takes the biggest stage of his NFL career.

“To have that excitement in me, to showcase my ability and showcase the defense, the tenacity we have as a whole, it’s going to be phenomenal,” Collins said. “I’m worried about the next game, the next opportunity to be great. That’s my mindset.”

And next week, if the Giants win, he’ll pile up the pillows and do it all over again.

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