True Grit: Zach Collaros’ road to back-to-back MOP wins

Thomas Skrlj/

REGINA — Zach Collaros had just exited his media session at the CFL Player Awards on Thursday night with a familiar object — the league’s Most Outstanding Player trophy — in his hands.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback seemed to have let himself enjoy being in the historic moment. The win made him the first player to win back-to-back MOP awards since Anthony Calvillo had done it in 2008 and 2009. Earlier in the day, he told reporters that the ankle injury he incurred in the Western Final five days earlier wouldn’t be enough to keep him out of Sunday’s Grey Cup game, where he and the Bombers will try to check off another historical item. A Blue Bombers win would make them the league’s first to pull off a three-peat in 42 years.

All of that appeared to be compartmentalized and tucked away, at least for the time being.

It provided an unlikely moment for a question that brought Collaros’ career full circle.

Did the player that is currently on top of the CFL world, a two-time MOP and someone on the cusp of a three-peat championship, almost pack it in 10 years ago, when he’d barely set foot on these longer and wider fields?

“Zach, I think at the time, was thinking about leaving,” said Jarious Jackson, Collaros’ teammate with the Toronto Argonauts in 2012.

“It was his first year from Cincinnati, he saw the room that we had. I understood that because I walked into a room like that with Dave Dickenson, Casey Printers and all those guys.”

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Collaros was a mid-June signing in 2012 by then-Argos general manager Jim Barker. He arrived at camp the day before the team’s first pre-season game and saw Ricky Ray, the veteran Jackson backing him up and another rookie in Trevor Harris. He wouldn’t throw an in-game pass until the team’s regular season finale in Week 19.

Having that relayed to him on Thursday night, Collaros didn’t hesitate.

“Oh yeah,” he said. He’d considered going back across the border to explore some collegiate coaching opportunities.

“I broke the little bone in my ankle my senior year (of college) and I started thinking about going in that direction and getting in touch with my network down there,” he said. “I had a few offers to be a graduate assistant or an intern, things like that.

“Being the third or fourth-string guy, the way we practised in Toronto, you get no reps at all. Jarious is like a big brother to me. I confided in him. He told me, ‘You do what you think is best.’ If not for that last game, I think Trevor and I, Jarious played in it (a 43-40 win over Hamilton), I remember after that game I thought, ‘Man that was f—— fun!’ I hadn’t done that in an eternity. After that I decided if I was going to play I was going to put my all into it.”

Zach Collaros saw very little playing time in his first CFL season in 2012, but found his love for the Canadian game when he did get on the field (The Canadian Press)

Jim Barker watched Collaros play at Cincinnati and he could almost feel the burn of the lightbulb that went off over his head.

“When I watched him at the University of Cincinnati and we put him on the (negotiation) list, he was the closest thing to Flutie that I had seen as a college player,” Barker said this week.

“He just did things other guys didn’t do. And he had a cockiness about him that he still has.”

Barker always felt that the best quarterback system a team could have when you were able to get an elite, top-calibre player like Ricky Ray, was to have an established veteran behind him, then to have two young, raw players behind them that were there to learn for that first year. Collaros was right as a rookie in 2012 when he sized up that soon-to-be Grey Cup-winning squad. He’d be lucky to see the field that year.

Jackson reassured Collaros back then that the team was interested in him and that he would move up the team’s depth chart. Jackson retired in 2013 to go into coaching himself and when Ray was injured in 2013, then-head coach Scott Milanovich turned to Collaros, who got to start eight of the 14 games he played in, throwing for 2,316 yards and 16 touchdowns.

“One thing I noticed right away about Zach was he had a grit to him,” Ray said.

“Whatever would happen through the course of a game he would always seem to find a way to make a play. He had that knack of finding a way to get a win. That was very apparent.

“Trevor and I were very similar. Zach’s style of game was a lot different than mine. He’s a lot more mobile, he can extend plays. He could get out of the pocket and have some of those plays where maybe the protection broke down or the defence covered him well, he had that ability to make something happen when something wasn’t there. Or if he’d made a mistake, he had the ability to take a negative play and turn it into something positive. I was always impressed with that.

“The other thing was that he never seemed like the moment ever got too big for him. It always seemed like if we were struggling through three quarters or hit a rough patch, the game wasn’t going the way he wanted, it seemed in the fourth quarter he still had that confidence in himself to come through when it mattered.”

Jackson had moved on to the BC Lions’ coaching staff in 2013 but saw Collaros start to build his career out and he knew the sky was the limit for him.

“He was doing all the same things that he does now,” Jackson said.

Teammates in Toronto in 2012 and 2013, Ricky Ray and Zach Collaros stayed close as Collaros' career took him to Hamilton (The Canadian Press)

As Barker puts it, Collaros played well enough in the 2013 season that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats moved on from Henry Burris to pull the young pivot away as a free agent.

Collaros thrived as a starter with the Tiger-Cats, looking like he was on an MOP trajectory in his first three seasons. A torn ACL late in the 2016 season ended up skewing that promising path. He returned from his injury in 2017 but the team was winless and change was eminent. When June Jones assumed head coaching duties from Kent Austin, he went with Jeremiah Masoli as his starter. Collaros was traded to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in January of 2018.

His time in Saskatchewan was marred by injuries and offensive results that didn’t feel the same as what he brought in his playing time with the Argos and his pre-injury tenure with the Ticats. He went down on the first offensive drive of the 2019 season in Hamilton, setting the most tumultuous and rewarding season of his career to that point in motion.

Cody Fajardo blossomed in Collaros’ absence in Saskatchewan, with the Riders eventually trading Collaros back to the Argos on July 31. Still injured, Collaros never got to suit up for the Argos. He recalled on Thursday night that he was ready to sign an extension with the Argos, but was traded a minute before the trade deadline expired to the Bombers. The rest — a 33-4 record as the team’s starter and consecutive Grey Cup wins — is history in the making.

“I was in Hamilton in 2019 and Toronto was shopping him,” Barker said.

“I stood on the table — I wasn’t in Hamilton, I don’t know what went down in those years when he got hurt — I’m not casting any aspersions, I just knew as a player, wow if we could get him there…we had Jeremiah and Dane (Evans) but Jeremiah was hurt so we had just Dane.

“I thought that would give us great depth going into the playoffs. Winnipeg ended up with him. For a lot of guys it’s about getting that opportunity in the right setting with the right coach and the right cast around.”

Ray remembers watching Collaros’ situation and felt terrible for his former teammate. Having gone through his own injuries and the turmoil they can create, he couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to go through it while going through three different organizations in one year.

“For a lot of guys that’s career ending,” Ray said.

“You have some injuries and teams kind of give up on you and you feel like you’re running out of options. He eventually ended up in Winnipeg and he gets an opportunity with and just completely gets his career going again.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he was able to do it, because that’s the style of his game, that’s his personality where no matter what’s happening,” Ray laughed, “he finds a way to make the plays. His story is pretty unique. You don’t see this happen to very many guys.”

While many thought Collaros' career was on the brink, he found and took advantage of the ultimate opportunity in Winnipeg (The Canadian Press)

Jackson saw Collaros’ ability and fit in the CFL basically before anyone not named Jim Barker. Even he wasn’t sure where Collaros’ career would go when he landed with the Bombers.

“I consider him to be a younger brother to me,” Jackson said.

“To see him on the cusp of having the game taken away from you when you know you’ve still got a lot left to give and you want to give it, sometimes your body tells you otherwise. For him to come back…and now lead one of the best dynasties ever in the CFL? That’s a fairytale.

“I was one of those people just like everybody else. I was sitting there waiting, wondering what hit is going to take him out?”

“I love watching Zach now,” Barker said.

“He’s exactly what I thought he would be. He’s just so calm and cool and he just makes plays. That’s how he was at Cincinnati. He was the same way then. He has an innate ability to make everybody around him better. That’s what you need. You need a guy who makes guys around them better.”

Holding his MOP award in his hands on Friday night, Collaros said there’s still a feeling of disbelief when he reflects on his career.

“Self doubt always creeps in and I’m always going to…even today I can’t believe what’s transpired,” he said.

“Especially back then, I was keeping an eye on where this coach was going, or if I got cut was there an arena team that I could make some money with for three weeks before I had to go get a real job.

“That’s what I’ve been telling everybody for 12 years. I don’t have a real job yet. I’m going to keep playing as long as I can.”

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