By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
HAMILTON — Zach Collaros is on a roll.
The veteran quarterback is 15-2 since becoming Winnipeg’s starter in 2019. He helped the Blue Bombers end a dismal Grey Cup drought that year and has them on the cusp of becoming the CFL’s first back-to-back champion since 2010.
And on Friday night, Collaros is expected to be named the league’s top performer. Heady stuff for a player whose career had been plagued by injuries and questions before being dealt to the Bombers in October 2019.
“When he walked in the building, he got right into the meeting,” Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea said. “He knew how to approach his teammates in the meeting, he listened a lot as you knew he would.
“I’ll say I don’t think there was another guy that could come in and do that … I’m not sure there was another guy that could fit in that seamlessly and get it done.”
The six-foot, 219-pound Collaros was sent to Winnipeg by the Toronto Argonauts in October 2019 ahead of the CFL trade deadline. The Bombers became Collaros’s third team that year.
The 33-year-old Ohio native began the year with Saskatchewan but suffered a concussion in the season-opening loss to Hamilton. The Riders put Collaros on the six-game injured list but, with the emergence of backup Cody Fajardo, traded Collaros to Toronto on July 31.
Collaros, who played collegiately at Cincinnati, never played a down with Toronto despite having been cleared to play.
Collaros threw two TDs in his Winnipeg debut, a 29-28 win over Calgary in the team’s regular-season finale. He then led the Bombers (11-7) to road playoff wins over the Stampeders (35-14) and Saskatchewan (20-13) and a Grey Cup showdown with the favoured Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who went 15-3-0 during the regular season.
Winnipeg dispatched Hamilton 33-12 for its first Grey Cup title since 1990. Collaros was 17-of-23 passing for 170 yards but it was Winnipeg native Andrew Harris who led the way, rushing for 134 yards and a TD while adding five catches for 35 yards and a touchdown to secure MVP and top Canadian honours.
Winnipeg didn’t skip a beat when the CFL resumed play in August, posting a league-best 11-3 record. Collaros completed 243-of-346 passes (70.2 per cent) for 3,185 yards with a league-best 20 TDs and just six interceptions en route to being named the West Division’s outstanding player.
“I’ve been very lucky to play for a lot of great organizations, the one in this town (Hamilton) being really special.,” Collaros said. “I’d had have to say it (playing in Winnipeg) has been the best experience I’ve had so far, though.
“Obviously when you have success everything is hunky dory . . . but the organization has really provided us with everything we need day in and day out. It’s been an amazing experience, it’s an amazing community. Playing in front of that home crowd is really special and being able to meet people and talk outside of football has been awesome.”
Collaros spent four seasons with Hamilton (2014-17), guiding the Ticats to a Grey Cup appearance his first year with the club. He was traded to Saskatchewan on Jan. 3, 2018.
Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer isn’t surprised by Collaros’s emergence. He got a glimpse of what made Collaros tick in 2012 when Steinauer was an assistant coach with Toronto and Collaros a rookie on the squad.
“So he was named basically the fourth quarterback in 2012, but I just remember going by the weight room at the University of Toronto at Mississauga and there’s this quarterback in there power cleaning,” Steinauer said. “That just kind of sums up Zach.
“He’s a worker, it didn’t matter what role he was going to have that year. And so when he got his opportunity there was no doubt in my mind. He already had the physical tools. He bought his time and he’s here today so no surprise.”
O’Shea, who was also an assistant coach with Toronto in 2012, agreed.
“As (Steinauer) said, ultra-competitive, an easy guy to follow,” O’Shea said. “You know, something that would get said by retired guys is he’s one of us, he just is.
“You’re just drawn to him. We’re so pleased that he’s on our team.”
Collaros always projects a calm, confident demeanour in public. He holds himself accountable in losses and is always quick to deflect praise to his teammates in good times.
But Bombers tackle Pat Neufeld said the Collaros people see is different from the quarterback in the huddle, but in a good way.
“It’s exciting being in the huddle with him because of the command he has over not just the offence but the team,” Neufeld said. “People rally around him and around that confidence and competitiveness.
“It’s what drives our offence and it’s a huge reason why we’re successful. His total command of the offence is really inspiring.”
Neufeld said Collaros, a two-time Grey Cup champion, also goes out of his way to take his teammates’ thoughts into consideration.
“I live with our centre Mike Couture and almost nightly Zach will get hold of us and ask us what we’re thinking in this look, if we see this what are you thinking on that,” he said. “There’s a constant dialogue between him and our offensive line.
“Then there’s his confidence and demeanour. His body language is extremely confident, it’s something that breeds confidence as well.”
Collaros draws plenty of inspiration from his teammates.
“Being a part of this organization and a teammate of all these guys is just really special,” he said. “I can’t say enough about that.
“There’s a lot of veteran leadership in that lockerroom, a lot of guys you admire being around and want to give your all for. I’ve told guys behind the scenes, ‘It’s a privilege to your teammate.’ It really makes you want to work harder and leave it all out there for them.”