WINNIPEG — It was tentative and more of a rough outline than an absolute script.
Still, rewind to May and the opening of Canadian Football League training camp with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Zach Collaros had an idea or two about how he hoped his 2019 season would unfold.
And this – taking two snaps to date this year and now being with his third team in five months after being traded from the Riders to the Toronto Argonauts and then to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last week – well, this most certainly is off-script.
Today, Collaros is in an office in the Bombers’ football operations department and taking a momentary break from a crash course on the terminology on his third offensive playbook since the season started.
He’s also got more than a few balls he’s attempting to juggle, from trying to fit in – again – with a new squad while wondering aloud about his short and long-term future in the game.
He’s on a team that acquired him for insurance from another team that has publicly stated they’d like to have him back. He’s also living out of a hotel here in Winnipeg while trying to get his bearings at his new address – as temporary as it may be – his wife is back at their home in Aurora, Ontario.
All that is a lot for anyone to unpack. But as you’ll see in an extensive 20-minute chat he conducted with bluebombers.com, the veteran quarterback reveals an impressive ability to roll with the punches…
Q: Let’s start with the trade from Toronto to here. It had been rumoured for a few days, but when did you have a feeling something might actually come down?
ZC: I was in the same loop as everyone else. I didn’t hear a ton from Toronto and obviously couldn’t speak to Winnipeg. But my agent didn’t know a lot, either. I found out that everything was real about 5:10-5:15 (ET) on the afternoon of trade deadline day.
But I had caught some wind three-four days before that something might be going down and with (Argos GM) Jim Popp being fired, things changed and it got a little more serious. And here I am.
Q: This has got to be a weird transition for you, with your wife staying back east. Sometimes I think we forget that part…
ZC: It was definitely hard for her because she’s a teacher in the York District out there. People often don’t see the human element of it. But, on the positive side this will be – hopefully – a six-seven week thing. It will be hard for her to make it out here, but she’s happy for the opportunity for me.
I told her from working with Osh (Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea) in the past and watching this organization from afar there couldn’t have been a better place for me if something like this were to have happened.
Q: You mentioned Coach O’Shea… how much did that previous relationship make this transition easier, knowing a little bit about the man in charge?
ZC: That made it definitely easier. Walking into a situation where you didn’t know anybody would have been a lot tougher. But being around Coach O’Shea those two years in Toronto and seeing how he conducted meetings, he was like an extension of Scott Milanovich (then the Argos head coach) with how he ran his special-teams meetings. I always thought that when he got his chance to be a head coach he would be a great one. Hearing from guys around the league who played for him only confirmed that. He just does things the right way and you can tell the guys love him and will rally around him. You can tell he cares about his guys and that’s something that is important to players.
Q: It was interesting the day after the trade talking to some of the guys in the Bombers locker room, from your former teammates like Justin Medlock and Willie Jefferson to other veteran guys who know your football resumé. You really do seem to be walking into a situation where there is a lot of respect for your game. Maybe you could offer your sense of what your first reactions were when you got here?
ZC: That means a lot to hear that, especially from veteran guys you played against in the past. At this point in the season any time somebody is brought in to try and help the team it’s a good thing. I just want to do what I can to help in any way that I can, whatever Coach O’Shea and LaPo (offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice) want me to do to contribute, I’m ready.
I’m just excited for the opportunity. It’s a great locker room. I know that’s cliché to say, but it was a very warm welcome with a lot of familiar faces, whether it was old teammates or guys I’ve played against in the past. It’s cool to be around those guys and there’s a really great vibe in there. High expectations are a good thing and exciting for me to be a part of that.
Q: We hear that all the time and you’re right when you say it’s cliché to say it’s a ‘good locker room.’ What’s your evidence of that when you walk in there?
ZC: It’s hard to say, but some places you go to you get a good vibe, some places you don’t. That’s not to say it wasn’t in Toronto, because I have a lot of good friends there. But I’ll just say you can feel the excitement of the playoffs nearing. You can definitely tell there’s a sense of urgency in there and these guys have been through this a lot.
For me to be able to walk into a situation like that with a guy like Adam Bighill, or Stanley Bryant or Paddy Neufeld it’s a good thing. Or a guy like Willie Jefferson… there are a lot of guys I’m leaving out who have played in big games. There’s Andrew Harris. Those guys all know that to be a championship team it starts with the locker room.
I was with Chad Rempel in Toronto in 2012… that was probably one of the best locker rooms I’ve ever been a part of. It wasn’t the most talented locker room, but those guys loved each other and played hard for each other and won the Grey Cup. I was with Meddy (Justin Medlock) in Hamilton in ’14 and ’15, and that was just another amazing locker room.
Q: Chris Streveler said last week that you texted him after the trade was announced. Why did you feel the need to do that?
ZC: I just wanted to introduce myself and tell him the same thing I’m tell you now – I’m here to help him in any way I can and help the team in any way I can. This business is a weird business. I’m not saying quarterbacks are special, but a lot falls on your shoulders and when you sometimes hear the outside noise, good or bad, it can be tough. He’s done a really good job and I had been impressed with him watching him handle it from afar.
I just wanted to try and ease my way into that (quarterback) room with LaPo and Buck (Pierce, quarterbacks coach). I just thought it was important to reach out.
Q: I spoke to a Bomber player a few weeks ago about coming off an injury. The analogy he used was that when you’re hurt and can’t play or practice it’s like being a singer or a guitar player in a band that can’t get on stage to do their thing. How hard has it been for you not to be on the field?
ZC: Not playing is tough. But to layer on top of that when you’re the quarterback… when you walk into work every day and you’re walking by the guys putting it on the line in practice and games and you can’t go out there, that’s just so tough. It’s different with the concussion thing as well because if I had a broken foot everybody could see, ‘Hey, he can’t go.’
You almost have a sense of guilt and shame… you shouldn’t feel that way, but it’s a natural human thing if you care about what you’re doing and you care about your teammates. Any time you can’t play It can really wear on you with the whole mental side of it. It’s been tough to deal with, but it makes you a better person going through it… at least, I tell myself that (chuckles).
I had been running and lifting and working out hard for eight-10 weeks, but to get out there felt good. The next step now is to get out there in a semi-live situation like practice where you’re not getting hit, but things move fast and you’re going to have to make a split decision with guys coming at you, to get myself back into that is great.
Q: Let’s talk about that… you were to be tested by the medical staff here last Friday. Have you got clearance to play?
ZC: I’ve been cleared. I feel good. I’m ready to go.
Q: Any trepidation about coming back and that first hit, given what’s happened in the past?
ZC: Leading up to a game you’re always nervous. I care a lot about the game, the team and winning. You’re always thinking about the first shot and then it just happens and it’s done. I’m sure I’ll react just fine.
These last couple of instances I’ve had (a hit from Odell Willis last October for which the B.C. Lions defensive end was fined and another from Simoni Lawrence of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on the second offensive play of the 2019 season that led to a two-game suspension) have been cheap shots that I think a lot of guys would have had to miss time for, too. I’ve never taken a shot and not gotten back up unless it was a dirty one. A narrative has been started about me and it’s hard to change.
Q: About that… you have taken some hellacious hits that have taken you out of action last fall and then this year. Many might wonder if the fire still burns for you…
ZC: I wouldn’t be here if that fire wasn’t still burning. I wouldn’t want to move two times in a season just to then go out there and half-ass it. I’d say the fire is burning hotter than it ever has, especially with what has happened this season. You try not to hear outside things, but you do.
Q: You mentioned this is a ‘good opportunity’ for you. What do you think this opportunity is?
ZC: It’s just to possibly play if I get the opportunity to play. Hopefully, Strev does well and we win the Grey Cup. Honestly, I hope that’s the case.
But if there’s a chance for me to get back out on the field, then there’s an opportunity for me to prove I can still play the game. Unfortunately this season I haven’t been able to play. I thought it was a good situation for me going back to Sask, but unfortunately the way it all played out I find myself here. That part isn’t unfortunate, because the opportunity to work with Osh and LaPo and Buck in itself is an exciting one.
Q: I keep coming back to your resiliency… I mean, you start in Saskatchewan, take two snaps and get injured, get traded and then get traded again… a lot of people might have just said, ‘C’mon… what the hell’s going on here?’ I understand you saying all this made you tougher, but that’s a lot to go through.
ZC: You just deal with it. I mean, you definitely think, ‘C’mon, what the hell?’ I never thought two-three years ago I’d find myself in this situation, but it is what it is. You just deal with the adversity and move forward.
Q: Last one… are you thinking beyond the next few weeks with your situation as a pending free agent this winter, or are you just living in the moment?
ZC: Oh, everyone thinks beyond the moment. Any player thinks of beyond the next day because you just don’t know what day might be your last playing. From my perspective, if I do well I’ll probably have some options. But, I do have to take it a day at a time right now.
I was telling Osh the other day that nobody puts more pressure on themselves than me. I have high expectations for myself in everything I do. This is my job right now and I have high expectations.