Anyone who has not been keeping up with the NFL for at least a few decades may only recognize Cris Collinsworth for his current fame as a sports broadcaster.
Before Collinsworth picked up a microphone and started announcing games, though, he was one of the most lethal wide receivers in the NFL, playing for the Cincinnati Bengals for eight years.
Thanks to his impressive height and deceptive speed, there weren’t many cornerbacks in the league at the time who had both the size and speed to lock him up on a consistent basis.
Unfortunately, in addition to all the great things that he accomplished in the NFL, Collinsworth’s career is also marked by a devastating mistake that likely cost the Cincinnati Bengals their first Superbowl in franchise history.
Nevertheless, Cris Collinsworth’s career has been defined by success from his days as a high school football player all the way to his present-day job as a sport’s broadcaster, and fans of the Bengals aren’t likely to soon forget the player who is arguably the most recognizable personality to ever don the orange and black.
— SI Vault (@si_vault) December 14, 2016
A Standout Athlete for the Astronaut War Eagles
Born in 1959, Cris Collinsworth attended Astronaut High School in Titusville, Florida from 1972-1976 where he emerged as a multi-sport star.
It was no small surprise that Collinsworth excelled at athletics given his heritage; Cris Collinsworth’s father Abraham Lincoln Collinsworth (who actually shared a birthday with the famous President of the same name) played basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats and was part of the “Fiddling Five” team that won the national championship in 1958.
Cris’s father also happened to serve as the principal at Astronaut High where both Cris and his younger brother attended.
While basketball may have been his father’s sport of choice, Collinsworth quickly emerged as a star on both the football field and track.
During his senior year, he won the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Class 3A 100-yard-dash state championship with an impressive time of ten seconds flat.
Cris Collinsworth’s speed and athleticism also translated to an incredible amount of success on the football field as well.
But, it may come as a surprise to some to learn that the position Collinsworth played in high school was not the same as the position he played throughout both his NFL and college career.
Despite playing wide receiver for the vast majority of his time in college and professional football, Cris Collinsworth was actually a quarterback in high school.
In fact, he was named a high school All-American quarterback his senior year and had intentions of playing the position throughout his college days as well.
By the time Collinsworth was nearing graduation, there was no shortage of programs interested in having him put on their jersey, and soon he was getting scholarship offers from schools all over the South.
He went on to accept an athletic scholarship from coach Doug Dickey and agreed to play college football for the Florida Gators.
From Struggling Quarterback to Star Wide Receiver
At the time that Cris Collinsworth was recruited by coach Dickey to play for the Florida Gators, he was meant to function as a run-first quarterback in Florida’s run-heavy, option system.
This was the position that Collinsworth played his freshman season with the Gators, and in his first game Cris Collinsworth set an NCAA record for the longest touchdown pass that still stands today after he tossed a 99-yard pass to teammate Derrick Gaffney in a contest against the Rice Owls.
Aside from a few bright spots such as this, though, Florida’s offense struggled to move the ball in Collinsworth’s freshman season.
So in 1978, coach Dickey decided to transition from an option offense to a pro set offense that featured a greater balance between run and pass plays.
As part of this transition, Cris Collinsworth was moved from quarterback to wide receiver.
And thus began the making of a legend.
With Florida great and future College Hall of Fame coach Steve Spurrier helping guide him as his new position coach, Collinsworth flourished in his role as wide receiver in spite of the fact that the Florida Gators continued to struggle as a team.
He went on to become an All-SEC selection all three years that he played the position and was named as a first-team All-American his senior year in 1980.
Cris Collinsworth’s senior year also marked a major turnaround for the struggling Gators.
After posting an abysmal record of 0-10 in 1979, Cris – now a team captain as a senior and playing for first-year head coach Charlie Pell – helped lead Florida to a respectable regular season record of 7-4 in 1980.
This record was good enough to earn the Gators an invite to the 1980 Tangerine Bowl, where Cris Collinsworth was named the game’s MVP after helping Florida defeat the Maryland Terrapins by a score of 35-20.
Finishing at 8-4 on the year, the 1980 Florida Gators were able to pull off what was at the time the biggest single-season turnaround in NCAA Division I football history.
With his senior season now finished, Collinsworth boasted collegiate numbers that certainly caught the eye of pro scouts.
Over the course of his three years playing wide receiver, Collinsworth hauled in 120 passes for a total of 1,937 yards.
In addition to these receiving yards, Collinsworth also stacked on an extra 726 yards on kickoff returns, averaging 24.2 yards per return on 30 total returns.
He scored twenty touchdowns during his college career: fourteen receiving touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns, and one kickoff return touchdown.
In 1981, Collinsworth graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
He was inducted into the University of Florida Student Hall of Fame that same year, and in 1991 was inducted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame.
In 2006, The Gainseville Sun listed Collinsworth at number twelve on a list of the all-time greatest Florida football players.
His time as a college football player was now over, but Cris Collinsworth wasn’t anywhere near done with the sport.
With his college education complete, Collinsworth decided to enter his name into the 1981 NFL Draft.
A Bengal From Start to Finish
In the 1981 NFL draft, Cris Collinsworth was picked in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals with the 37th overall pick.
On this date in 1981, second-round wide receiver Cris Collinsworth signed with the Bengals, spurning a larger offer from the Montreal Alouettes. pic.twitter.com/5ZnzG7YvuU
— Quirky Research (@QuirkyResearch) May 22, 2020
This was actually the second pick that Cincinnati spent on a wide receiver in this draft.
In the first round, Cincinnati selected David Verser with the 10th overall pick, a wide receiver who played college football for the Kansas Jayhawks.
Mark Nichols – a wide receiver from San José State – was also drafted before Collinsworth – making Collinsworth the third wide receiver taken in the 1981 NFL draft.
However, it did not take long for Collinsworth to begin proving that he was one of the best prospects in the 1981 class and a steal for the Bengals at 37th overall.
In his freshman season, Collinsworth led all receivers on the team in yards.
He hauled in a total of 67 receptions for 1,009 yards and was able to get the ball into the endzone 8 times his rookie season.
These numbers earned Collinsworth an invitation to the 1981 Pro Bowl – an impressive feat for a rookie wide receiver.
Not stopping there, Collinsworth would go to be named as a Pro Bowl player the next two seasons as well, earning the honor for three straight years from 1981-1983.
#bengals win in Baltimore 20-17 in 1982 to start the season 4-1. Kenny Anderson with 3 TD's, 2 of them to ML Harris. Should of had 4, Cris Collinsworth was in for the TD IMO. What do you think? #CincinnatiFootballHistory pic.twitter.com/QEtU6FYDFK
— Bengal Jim’s BTR (@bengaljims_BTR) July 25, 2020
And in 1983, at the height of his NFL success, Collinsworth was named as a first-team All-Pro player, earning him the designation as one of the most lethal wide receivers in the league.
During this breakout season, Collinsworth racked up 1,130 receiving yards on 66 receptions, scoring 5 touchdowns in the process.
In the 1981 season, Cris Collinsworth helped lead his team all the way to Super Bowl XVI.
It was the first Super Bowl appearance in Cincinnati Bengals history and a chance for Collinsworth to cement his legacy as one of the most impactful players to ever play for the Bengals right from the start in his rookie season.
In Super Bowl XVI, the 12-4 Cincinnati Bengals from the AFC went up against the 13-3 San Francisco 49ers from the NFC.
It was a game where the 49ers were favored by just one point.
However, led by superstar quarterback Joe Montana, the 49ers were able to take a 20-0 lead into halftime.
While Collinsworth was able to catch 5 passes for 107 yards in the game, he was also responsible for a costly second-quarter mistake that ultimately helped seal the Bengals fate and ensure that they would walk away from the game still searching for their first world championship in franchise history.
With the Bengals driving the ball and in a position to cut into San Francisco’s lead, Collinsworth caught a pass and began heading towards the goal line.
Unfortunately, he was met by a hard hit from 49ers defensive back Eric Wright.
Collinsworth lost control of the football and San Francisco recovered it.
The 49ers then immediately went on to drive the ball 92 yards and tack on another touchdown before the half.
In spite of San Francisco’s demoralizing halftime lead, the Bengals were in fact able to come back and make a game of it in the end.
After some impressive scoring drives and key defensive stops, the Bengals were able to cut the deficit to 20-14 with a little over 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
San Francisco slowed the Bengal’s momentum, though, by tacking on a couple of field goals to make the score 26-14.
On their last possession of the game, Cincinnati marched down the field and scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to six.
However, by the time the Bengals were able to punch the ball into the endzone, there were just 16 seconds left on the clock.
After a failed onside kick, the 49ers were able to run out the clock and win the game.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 24, 2019
Seven years later, Cris Collinsworth was given yet another chance to help his team secure its first Super Bowl victory.
Once again, the Bengals were forced to face off against Joe Montana’s 49ers.
In Super Bowl XXIII, Collinsworth led all Bengals receivers in yards, catching 3 passes for 40 yards.
And once again, the final minutes of the game ticked away with the Bengals in a position to actually secure the victory.
After capping off a 10-play 46-yard drive by kicking a field goal, Cincinnati led the game 16-13 with just 3:20 left in the fourth quarter.
On the ensuing drive, though, Joe Montana was able to lead his 49ers offense down the field to score a touchdown with just 39 seconds left in the game.
A 92-yard drive to win Super Bowl XXIII? There's a reason they call @JoeMontana the Comeback Kid. 🙌
— NFL (@NFL) August 13, 2019
On their last two plays of the game, the Bengals threw up two desperation passes – both of which were intended for Cris Collinsworth.
However, neither of the plays ever stood a chance, and the clock would expire with Montana’s 49ers claiming a Super Bowl victory over Collinsworth’s Bengals for the second straight time.
Following the game, Cris Collinsworth announced his retirement from professional football.
It was the last game he would play in the NFL.
Over a decade later, Collinsworth stated that he still thinks about those two times when he and his team came just short of becoming world champions.
“You’d like to take one more shot. I even thought that one day at the end of my broadcasting, when it didn’t matter so much, the money or whatever, just go back into coaching,” Collinsworth said. “Just be a wide receivers coach and try and take one more shot at one of those rings.”
Collinsworth went on to say “Honestly, there used to be there wasn’t an hour that went by that I didn’t think about it. Then there was probably not a day that went by I didn’t think about losing those two. Now it’s probably not a week that goes by that I don’t think about it…You always think about it.”
In spite of those two games that continue to haunt him, there’s no denying that Collinsworth had a very successful career in the NFL.
While his tenure with the Cincinnati Bengals only lasted eight seasons, Collinsworth was still able to put up some impressive numbers during that time and help the Bengals enjoy a level of success that has since evaded the franchise.
After retiring following the conclusion of Super Bowl XXIII, Collinsworth finished his NFL career with 417 receptions, 36 receiving touchdowns, and a total of 6,698 receiving yards.
— 𝙳𝚊𝚕𝚝𝚘𝚗™ (@DaltonSignature) May 12, 2021
These stats were good for Collinsworth to finish fifth on the list of all-time Bengals wide receivers with the most receiving yards in spite of the fact that Collinsworth played fewer games than all but one of the players ahead of him.
Thanks both to the level of success that Collinsworth enjoyed as a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, the heights that he was able to take the franchise to, and his future fame as a sports broadcaster, Cris Collinsworth has certainly earned his designation as one of the most memorable players to ever put on a Bengals uniform.
While his time catching passes in the NFL came to a conclusion following his heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl XXIII, Collinsworth’s passion and dedication to the sport that he has loved since high school continues to this day.
A Successful Transition to Sports Broadcasting
While most NFL players fade into the sunset following their retirement from the league, a select few decide to transition into careers such as coaching or broadcasting.
For Collinsworth, this transition took place right away after his retirement.
After accepting a position as a sports radio talk show host on Cincinnati station WLW, Cris soon landed a more high-profile gig in 1989 as a reporter for HBO’s Inside the NFL.
A year later in 1990, Collinsworth began broadcasting NFL games for NBC and was involved in broadcasting some college games for the network as well.
From there, his career as a sports broadcaster began to pick up steam.
He was assigned to the NFL on Fox team in 1998.
After several years working as a color commentator for Fox and hosting Fox’s Fox NFL Sunday pregame show, Collinsworth eventually teamed up with Troy Aikman and Joe Buck to form the network’s lead broadcasting crew.
By 2006, Collinsworth could be seen appearing on three different networks: co-hosting HBO’s Inside the NFL, appearing on NBC as a studio analyst, and doing color commentary for the NFL Network.
Following John Madden’s retirement in 2009, Collinsworth was tapped to take up his role as a color commentator for NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
This position, arguably the most high-profile position in all of sports broadcasting, is one that Collinsworth continues to hold to this day.
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) November 23, 2018
In addition to these career highlights, there are a number of other notable events and achievements throughout Collinsworth’s sports broadcasting career.
Collinsworth’s commentary is featured in four video games in the Madden NFL franchise, from Madden NFL 09 through Madden NFL 12.
Collinsworth was also given the chance to work on Fox’s Super Bowl XXXIV telecast and was later a color commentator for Super Bowl LII.
In an interview with the Star Tribune that focused on his career as a sports broadcaster, Collinsworth is quoted saying, “I had no idea what I was doing when I started. But one thing I recognized early on was that there were 10 guys who sounded like John Madden. And I didn’t understand why. John Madden is arguably the greatest broadcaster of all time, but I don’t want to be John Madden. You have to be who you are. People can see through a phony. If what I’m doing is good enough, great. And if not, that’s OK, too. It’s been good enough for 28 years, so I think I’ll stick with it.”
In the same interview, Fred Gaudelli – the executive producer of NBC’s NFL telecasts – and Drew Esocoff – the executive director of the same program – both offered high praise for Collinsworth.
“He’s not an ex-football player doing television,’’ Gaudelli said. “He’s a television broadcaster who happens to be an ex-football player. He made it a point to really study, understand and become proficient in the job of broadcasting. And not every ex-pro athlete is able to do that.’’
“His preparation is insane,’’ Esocoff said. “Between the film study and the coaches’ meetings and the note-taking and the statistical review, he comes into a game so well-prepared that if he said on the air 5 percent of what’s in that brain of his, it would still be sensational.’’
Today, Cris Collinsworth lives in Fort Thomas, Kentucky with his wife Holly.
He is the father of four children, including his son Austin Collinsworth who is a former football player and team captain for the University of Notre Dame.
He continues to work as a broadcaster for NBC’s Sunday Night Football where he remains one of the most recognizable names and voices in all of sports media.