To entertain themselves when they were younger, David Collins and his older brother Aaron often listened to music.
Sometimes the music got loud. Too loud.
“One night we were playing some really loud music,” said Collins, a senior at Grayslake North High School and the Knights’ starting middle linebacker. “Someone must have called to complain about the noise.”
Eventually, the police arrived. And before David knew it, he and his brother were being taken away from their Round Lake home.
After searching the home and discovering, among other things, that the boys were home alone late at night, the police told them that they needed to be removed for their own good.
Aaron was about 11 years old at the time. David was only 8.
It was the start of a heart-breaking and troubling four-year odyssey for the boys that makes the trials and tribulations of any football season that Collins has been a part of seem trivial in comparison.
“I remember sitting in some office that night for two or three hours just waiting, not knowing what was to come,” Collins said. “I was really afraid. I barely knew what was going on. My brother kept saying, ‘They’re taking us away from Mom. Just stay near me.’
“I was so young and I felt really lost.”
That feeling of isolation and abandonment got worse.
David and his brother went from seeing their mother occasionally for visits at the courthouse in Waukegan to rarely at all. They were also moved from one foster home to another. Eventually, about two years into their nomadic nightmare, they even lost each other as their bickering and fighting forced social workers to separate them.
“The houses I went to were always crowded with a lot of kids and I remember there was always something bad happening, and a lot of times, there was always something that I supposedly did, even if I didn’t do it. I was always getting into trouble,” Collins said. “I bounced around a lot from house to house to house and because I had some anger issues, I kind of shied away a lot. Even in a house with eight to 10 kids, it was easy to feel alone.”
Over his first four years in the system, Collins went through six or seven foster homes in various towns in Lake County.
“I was bouncing around for 4 to 4 ½ years, but it felt like so much longer than that,” Collins said. “There was no sense of stability. I was just here, there and everywhere. I bounced around from town to town. It felt like I was living more than one life. I’d live one life, meet new people, leave that life, go somewhere else, meet other people. It was really weird.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why me? Why was I chosen for this? Why was I this person? It was an idea I really struggled with for a while.”
Finally, social workers told Collins that they had a new approach for him. They wanted to place him in a home in which he would be the only child.
Enter Jay and Jamie Gustafson.
They had been married for about three years when they realized they would probably not be able to have children of their own. They went through foster care classes and applied for the chance to take in a child. They were ready to open not only their home but also their hearts.
“A week (after completing the classes), the phone rings and they’re telling us that they had a good fit for us in someone who could really blossom under a roof in which there wasn’t divided love amongst five or six children,” Jay Gustafson said. “We were told that this child could prosper from more 1-on-1 (attention).”
Soon thereafter, the Gustafsons were being introduced to Collins, a seventh grader at the time.
“I remember walking up to their doorstep with my case worker with my bag in my hand and I was kind of timid,” Collins said. “It was a new start and a new home, but I was kind of thinking, how long will it be before I’m gone from this house?
“But as soon as I walked into their house, I just felt like something good had finally come, like this was something that was meant to be. I felt like maybe finally I was going to be able to get past some of this stuff.”
Collins had a good first day with Jay and Jamie. They spent a lot of time talking and getting to know each other. Then the Gustafsons showed Collins his new room.
“I felt comfortable right away,” Collins said. “Of course, there have been some rough times. There was butting of heads, especially early on. But the thing that was different was that they were really there for me. They stood by me. They knew I was going to have problems and they stayed there and worked with me and guided me and that’s the first time that’s ever been done for me. Before, I was in a house and I was just there. For the first time, I felt like I had true parents.
“Growing up with Jay and Jamie has been amazing to me. It’s very special. The things they’ve done for me, they’ve gone out on limbs for me and done things they probably never thought they would do.”
The Gustafsons were certainly no experts at the youth sports circuit before they met Collins.
But when they discovered that he had a passion for sports, they signed him up for everything that interested him, from baseball to lacrosse to indoor volleyball. In fact, within days of Collins arriving at their Lake Villa home, the Gustafsons found themselves knee-deep in the world of youth tackle football.
“David came to us in July so we jumped right into signing him up for the Lake Villa Timberwolves so that he could play that fall,” Jay Gustafson said. “I knew right away that David was going to be really good because his coach was a friend of mine and he would say to me, ‘Jay, where did you get this kid? He’s amazing.’”
Just like the Gustafsons, football, and sports in general, has turned out to be a salvation for Collins. He loves being part of a team, and he feels empowered by the rush he gets when he plays well, which is often.
Last year, Collins started at running back and was one of the Knights’ leading rushers with more than 450 yards and 4 touchdowns. Now, in a move that was meant to improve the speed of the defense, he’s the team’s leading tackler from the middle linebacker spot. In North’s big win over Jacobs two weeks ago, Collins rolled up a team-high 11 tackles.
“Sports have given me the chance to get away from all that stuff from the past and it’s given me the chance to be who I always wanted to be,” Collins said. “That’s been really good for me.”
Besides excelling at football, Collins is also a standout at lacrosse. He is hoping to play either football or lacrosse in college, which is where his good grades will come in handy.
Since moving in with the Gustafsons, who are now his legal guardians, Collins has seen his grades skyrocket. He gets mostly A’s and B’s and has made multiple honor rolls.
“I think one of the reasons David wanted to do this story is to reach out to all the kids who have been dealt a bad hand just like he was,” Jay Gustafson said. “(The message is) it can get better. And if there is an opportunity for you, don’t be afraid to take it.”
Collins is so glad he was open to trying yet another foster care house. He can’t imagine what his life would be like without the Gustafsons.
“Many times, I’ve told myself that I’ve beaten the odds,” Collins said. “I wanted to speak out because I want to help others who are going through this and let them know that you have to keep fighting. Sooner or later you will find the people in your life who will be there forever.
“I feel like I’ve finally settled down and that I have a sense of calmness. I finally know that I have a home, a place where I can go and always have that feeling of love and that sense of stability. I know that through thick and thin I can always talk to Jay and Jamie. That’s one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had.”
When it comes to the Gustafsons, Collins also feels an overwhelming sense of gratitude, and words barely do it justice.
“All I can say is thank you to Jay and Jamie for what they’ve done, thank you for what they stand for,” Collins said. “There aren’t too many people who would have given the opportunities that they’ve given to me.”
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