Landon Collins was 11 years old when he learned to drive.

This was in September 2005, just weeks after Hurricane Katrina had roared through New Orleans, ripping his father’s house in half and flooding the streets around his mother’s. His mother, April Justin, had packed him and his younger brother and sister into a mint green 2004 Nissan Altima the day before the storm and driven them several hours north to her brother-in-law’s house in Sicily Island, La., where seven adults and 13 children filled a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house.

It would be almost three months before the water would recede and they could return. In the meantime, Justin needed her oldest child to be something more than a little boy with a football dream.

“He had to take a role of being my sidekick,” she says.

Another hurricane was coming, and nothing seemed certain anymore. So she put Landon behind the wheel at a circle at the end of her brother-in-law’s subdivision. If something bad happened, she said, he was to take his brother and sister and drive them away. She showed him the ignition, the pedals and the gears. He seemed brave, she thought, always the little man, older than his age.

Years later, Collins, now a star safety for the Washington Redskins, quietly shakes his head.

“I would not have been made to be an adult like that without Katrina,” he says. “But that storm happened, and everything changed in my life, and we had to figure stuff out.”

When Washington’s players talk about why this year will be different, how their defense is stronger and closer and more cohesive, the biggest reason, they say, is Collins. Many around the NFL were surprised when the Redskins signed him to a six-year, $84 million contract on the first day of free agency, wondering whether it was too much for a safety, despite the fact he had been to three Pro Bowls in four seasons with the New York Giants. But in Washington’s locker room, Collins is seen as the unifier, the player who grew up in Louisiana wanting nothing more than to play for the team of his favorite player, Sean Taylor.

“He makes a difference,” Redskins cornerback Josh Norman recently said about Collins. “Everybody says it. He makes a difference.”

We need a leader, the Redskins coaches and executives had told Collins, the way he had always seemed the strongest and wisest one on his college team at Alabama and then for those years with the Giants.

But to Collins, leadership is not yelling at teammates in the locker room or screaming in pregame huddles. It’s something deeper, Collins believes, earned through quiet conversations and bringing divergent groups of teammates together. It’s not something invented. It’s learned. And for Collins, it was learned in Sicily Island and in the months and years after they all came home in the mint green Altima, and he had to be bused down the Mississippi River to Belle Chasse for middle school and finally live during the week in high school with his father, Thomas, in Dutchtown by Baton Rouge.

Leadership comes from the broken moments when an 11-year-old boy learns to drive a car — just in case — and has to make it all seem as if it’s something normal.

“A lot of times I had to take over for my sister and my brother,” Collins says. “At that age, I was a man.”

Following his dream

Deep down, Justin always had hoped Collins would grow up to become a movie star. She worked as a costumer on movie and television sets, and Collins and his brother and sister would run around the dressing rooms, wrestling in the actors’ trailers. Sometimes, they appeared in the background of movies, such as in “Big Momma’s House 2,” in which they were among the children in the seats of a scene in a school auditorium.

One day, she confided her hopes for her son in actor Jason Lee as the two stood in a downtown New Orleans alley made up to look like a murder on a Memphis sidewalk for the series “Memphis Beat.” Fake blood was everywhere. Collins, who had dropped by the set, walked up to say hello, his arms already rippling through his T-shirt. Lee glanced at Collins and predicted a different career path.

“I think he’s going to play in the NFL,” Lee said.

Justin remembers looking at her oldest child that day and realizing that Lee might just be right. By then Collins already had a dream and a favorite player, and he knew exactly who he wanted to be.

When he was in middle school, Collins sat at his mother’s kitchen counter one day, watching on her laptop video clips of the player he loved most at the time: Redskins running back Clinton Portis. That’s when he became transfixed by one of Portis’s teammates. He had never heard of Taylor, nor had he ever seen someone hit so hard.

Collins sat for four hours that day, hunting for videos of Taylor on his mother’s laptop. He read how Taylor was from Miami, went to the University of Miami, was the fifth pick in the 2004 NFL draft and was starting to be considered one of the league’s best safeties.

Collins’s high school teammate and best friend, Shaquille Lewis, remembers Collins taping his fingers before games just like Taylor, who never wore gloves on the field. Collins taped his helmet, too, copying the way Taylor taped his. He even cut his towel to match Taylor’s.

And when Taylor was shot in his South Florida home in 2007 and died a day later, Collins wept. Later, he would say it was the first time he had cried for someone who wasn’t his own family member.

“As a kid you are so emotional, like you don’t know how to control it,” Collins says. “You don’t know how to understand it because even though I had never met him, I [thought] he’s my friend. I think he’s someone close to me. It touched me in that way that my favorite player had died.”

He dreamed of playing for the Redskins, imagining himself wearing the same helmet and uniform as Taylor, launching himself like a human rocket into unsuspecting ballcarriers, knocking them to the ground, relishing the crash of pads against bone. When the Redskins called his agent the first day league rules allowed this past March and said Collins was their top free agent target, Collins was elated.

“Let’s make it work,” he told his agent.

By midafternoon, he had agreed to become a Redskin.

A few days later, he met the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, who presented him with a game-worn Taylor jersey that Taylor had signed.

“I talked Sean Taylor from middle school to college to now,” Collins says. “I still say he’s the best safety, even though he only played four or five years. So when you talk about Ed Reed, you talk about [Troy] Polamalu, Bob Sanders … I don’t care.”

He claps his hands loudly.

“Sean Taylor is the best safety to play the game!”

He claps his hands again.

“There is nobody like him. Nobody can do what he did in the way he did it,” he says. “I really appreciate the guy for who he was on and off the field, and I love and appreciate that he was a good guy. He is a good guy.”

He stops and smiles.

“I’m talking about him as if he’s still alive,” he says.

Something to prove

No Redskins player has lived on like Taylor in the nearly 12 years since he died. A few years ago, Lewis, Collins’s best friend from high school, brought Collins to Baton Rouge to work with his trainer, former Washington defensive back and current ESPN analyst Ryan Clark. Halfway through the first workout, Collins told Clark he was going to train with him regularly. The session, he thought, was that intense.

And yet Clark offered something else. He had been a teammate of Taylor’s, playing in the same defensive backfield, dressing in a nearby locker. He knew Taylor like few others in the NFL did. He had the stories, the experiences, the direct connection.

Collins, Clark says, “wants an opportunity to be viewed in the same way” as Taylor.

But, Clark adds, “They are different people in every way.”

Taylor was intense, stubborn, suspicious and driven. Several family members have said he was devastated when his parents divorced early in his childhood and he came to be distrustful of many people. Collins can be intense and driven, too, but he is friendly and outgoing. He seeks out other players in the locker room, asking to hear about their problems. Taylor was more reclusive — sincere and beloved by those who knew him best but also a hard person for many people to know.

What Clark loves most about Collins signing with the Redskins is that Collins can now feel the hunger Taylor had to be great. Clark can tell the stories of how Taylor went on endless bike rides on Loudoun County trails or ran from his townhouse to the team’s practice facility, and now Collins can actually see just how far Taylor had to run.

Because Clark has a revelation.

“Landon is kind of lazy,” he says.

“I know that’s not what you want to hear me say,” Clark adds. “This is me being honest.”

Collins isn’t obsessed with being a fierce, relentless worker like Taylor or even Clark. But Collins is smart enough to know that he must find a trainer who will push him harder than he wants to go. And that, Clark says, is what will make Collins great.

“I would imagine there are people who are easier to train with than me who will be excited that Landon Collins is there working with them and will let him do whatever he wants,” Clark says. “But he knows he has to push himself.”

There are also the slights. With Collins, they are never too far.

Collins still hates that he fell to the second round in the 2015 draft. It’s not that he thinks he was the best safety available that year. He knows he was. When the Giants finally picked him, he told them he was as angry with them for passing on him in the first round as he was with the other 31 teams.

“All 32 teams are going to feel me,” he vowed, and then he carried that fury into every game he played.

“Even the Redskins,” he adds. “They already felt it the last four years”

Now, Collins says, it will be the Giants’ turn. He has barely disguised his disgust for the team’s general manager, Dave Gettleman, and the roster moves Gettleman has made since the middle of last season. Before the year began, he seemed interested in talking to New York about a new contract when his first expired, but Gettleman didn’t seem to want the team he had inherited and dumped several players, including Collins’s friend and current Redskins teammate Ereck Flowers. Collins was sure he was next. He was led to believe a trade was coming to Kansas City.

“Once that was brought to my attention, I was like, ‘I’m going to be done with the Giants,’” Collins says. “Our season was already down, and they got rid of everyone else, so I was going to do my job and worry about me. That’s what I did.”

The trade never happened, and the Giants decided not to use the franchise tag on Collins, making him a free agent even though he is considered one of the best young safeties in the league. In the end, he realizes, this was all for the best. When they let him go in free agency, the Giants gave him a chance to sign with his favorite team growing up, to dress in the same locker room and run on the same practice fields as the player he respected the most.

He looks around his new kitchen, at the gleaming counter, the stools just right and the giant glass doors that lead to a covered patio with a fireplace and a big-screen television that he loves, and he smiles. He thinks, for a moment, about Sean Taylor again.

“He went out and played ball and did his job, and he went home and he loved his family,” Collins says quietly. “I love that.”

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