O’Leary: Collaros’ long winding road takes him back to Grey Cup
When he brought the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offence onto the field at Mosaic Stadium, the majority of the 33,300 fans in the building booed him.
When you think about it, other than being the visiting quarterback, there wasn’t much reason to boo Zach Collaros.
He had one and a half unspectacular seasons in Regina, quarterbacking a team that if we’re being honest, got to the Western Semi Final a year ago almost in spite of its offence. The oft-injured quarterback’s most recent injury opened the door for his incumbent, Cody Fajardo. They love Fajardo here in Saskatchewan, after a season where the 27-year-old led the league in passing and was gutting out this year’s Western Final appearance with what turned out to be two torn oblique muscles.
Still, when Collaros set foot on that field, 2:18 into the first quarter, the fans at Mosaic let him have it.
By the end of the night, they had reason to boo him.
It wasn’t a monstrous statistical night, but Collaros put his stamp on the Blue Bombers’ 20-13 win, sending his still-new team to its first Grey Cup game since 2011.
“I said it earlier in the week that I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel some extra motivation,” Collaros said, after he made 17-25 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown.
It wasn’t long after he heard those boos that he threw what would be his lone touchdown of the game. He spotted Kenny Lawler bursting up the sideline and fed him with the perfect 26-yard pass to get him into the end zone. The Bombers went up 10-1 and would never trail, despite the Riders getting as close as Winnipeg’s five-yard line in the game’s final seconds.
It’s been a match made in fast-forward, but Collaros has found a way to make things work with the Bombers. Of course, he started the season in Saskatchewan, was injured and dealt to Toronto, then from Toronto to Winnipeg at the Oct. 9 trade deadline.
When he and the Bombers face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw, he’ll have been with the team for 46 days.
Every Grey Cup is woven full of interesting stories, of teams or people or coaches that overcame adversity to get the chance to play for a championship. In a league like the CFL it’s hard to say it’s never happened, but Zach Collaros has charted a very personal and fascinating journey.
In two short weeks, Collaros has taken the Bombers on a personal redemption tour. It started with downing the defending Grey Cup champion Stampeders; a team that denied him a Grey Cup in 2014 when he played for the Tiger-Cats. After returning to Saskatchewan and defeating the Riders, he now gets the chance to win a Grey Cup against the Ticats team that traded him to the Riders in January of 2018.
“As a rookie, I was fortunate enough to be on a team (that Mike O’Shea) was coaching in Toronto. We won the Grey Cup. Two years later I was able to play in one with Hamilton. My first three years you’re thinking, ‘I’ll do this every year, every other year,’” Collaros said.
“Not everyone gets to do that. It’s a precious thing and you’ve really got to cherish it. It’s not easy to do. It’s hard to put it into words but it’s a really exciting feeling. I’m so happy for the guys.”
From the Winnipeg sideline, Nichols watched as the Bombers’ defence held on for the win.
“It felt like we celebrated three or four times,” he said, recounting the near-interceptions, the fumble that was taken back and ruled an incomplete pass. The Riders had so many chances to get that one touchdown in the final three minutes and weren’t able to capitalize, with it culminating in Fajardo’s final pass hitting the crossbar, ending the game. Nichols looked at Collaros through the game and saw a player that had the finish when his team needed it.
“When those three or four big play opportunities presented themselves, Zach put them right on the money and the receivers made great plays. That’s what you’ve got to do in these types of games.”
It’s been a short time together for O’Shea and Collaros, but you can see how they’d bond quickly. Sitting next to each other at the post-game media session they showed the same traits, deferring individual storylines to the team and when that wasn’t possible giving brief answers.
Inevitably, Winnipeg’s 28-year Grey Cup drought came up. Asked what he thought this opportunity meant to the city, O’Shea downplayed it, the same way that Collaros would questions about facing former teams, or sharing the field with Simoni Lawrence again, 24 weeks after Lawrence’s hit sent Collaros on this whirlwind journey.
“I think it means we’re one step closer. I’m pretty sure that they’re not going to be satisfied, nor will we.”