CFL Pass

Scott Stinson: Winnipeg's Zach Collaros missed most of the season and was traded twice. Now he's a Grey Cup champion

CALGARY • Zach Collaros was doing that thing that players do when they do not want attention on themselves.

“I know it’s a good story,” he said during Grey Cup week, before brushing off an attempt at getting him to be introspective.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback was wrong about that. It’s an incredible story. Collaros was concussed on the third play of his season, crunched on June 13 by a hit in Saskatchewan’s opener from Hamilton’s Simoni Lawrence that eventually led to a suspension.

It would take 134 days, and two trades, before Collaros would throw another pass, for his third team this season. And now, a month after that improbable return, Collaros was the starter for the Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers, helping that franchise break a 28-year title drought, the longest in the modern era of the Canadian Football League.

Collaros provided most of the passing of Winnipeg’s two-pronged quarterback attack, keeping drives moving as the Blue Bombers offence was rarely slowed on the night on the way to a 33-12 win. As he had in three straight playoff games, he avoided throwing an interception.

With three minutes left and the outcome long decided, Collaros walked off the field after another scoring drive and gave coach Mike O’Shea a quick hug.

A good story? A ridiculously improbable story, a possibly dangerous story, and a story that, at least for now, has the unlikeliest of happy endings. The quarterback who was twice tossed aside for a draft pick in 2019 is a 2019 Grey Cup champion.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Winnipeg coach Mike O’Shea of Collaros’ seven-week journey from discard to champ. “That story should be written and told over and over again for a lot of years.”

Collaros said he’s had a lot of fun on what he jokingly called his revenge tour. “It’s been a wild year,” he said. “But this is where you want to end up after every season, as a Grey Cup champion.”In the five months after that opening-game blow to the head, many thought Collaros’ football career was over, felled by too many blows to the head in an era where the damage caused by those shots is much better understood.

Over his years in the CFL, he had shown flashes of brilliance, but the 31-year-old from Steubenville, Ohio, was a perfect example of the grim reality of football. He broke out with the Toronto Argonauts in 2013, but left soon thereafter for Hamilton, as the Argos were already set at quarterback with Ricky Ray. Collaros led the Tiger-Cats all the way to a Grey Cup loss the following season but his 2015 campaign was cut short by a serious knee injury. By the time he was healthy again, the Tiger-Cats had changed coaches and Collaros had a much less uncertain hold on the starting job. He would eventually land with the Saskatchewan Roughriders after a trade in the winter of 2018.

His time in the Prairies was as difficult as his latter years in the steel city. Collaros took a blow to the head in a pre-season game against Calgary, and in the second regular-season game of 2018, he was yanked with concussion-related symptoms and soon placed on the injured list. The quarterback would later blame himself for not being forthright with the Saskatchewan medical staff about the effects of the pre-season hit. “In a new setting and a new situation and as the new guy, I just wanted to be out there with my teammates,” Collaros said.

He returned in the summer of 2018, and played the rest of that season with Saskatchewan until another hit to the head in the Roughriders’ final game of the regular season. He would not be cleared to play for the post-season, but when the Roughriders still needed a starter last winter, he re-signed with Saskatchewan as a free agent. There was a little bit of desperation on all sides. Collaros hadn’t lived up to the early promise he had shown, when that half season with the Argonauts led to multiple teams pursuing his services, but he still felt he had good years ahead of him. The Roughriders had tried to go elsewhere to find a starting pivot, but Collaros knew their system and he was available. There were fingers crossed in hopes that it would work out.

It lasted those three plays, until Lawrence’s illegal hit. This time, there was no doubt that Collaros lost his job in his injury absence, as Cody Fajardo took over Saskatchewan’s quarterback duties and guided them to the best record in the West. Saskatchewan traded Collaros to the woeful Argonauts in August. Concussion symptoms remained, though, and Collaros stayed on the sidelines. It seemed like he would stay there — the Argos were going nowhere and had no reason to risk an early return — but then Toronto GM Jim Popp was fired just before the Oct. 9 trade deadline and the new regime decided, at the last minute, to move Collaros to Winnipeg for a draft pick.

It would still be weeks before he would see game action. Collaros was on his third playbook in three months, and he was told to learn as much as he could as soon as he could. He said Sunday night that he still hasn’t seen much of Winnipeg; he’s been bunkered down at the practice facility for weeks.
By late October, he was ready to play. Or at least, everyone with the Bombers hoped he was ready.

Four games later, Collaros has three road playoff wins and a championship to show for his efforts. Of his odyssey of a year, the three teams, the injuries, all that, Collaros said, given the result, “it was cool.”

“If it meant winning the Grey Cup, if you said that was the path to do it, I would have said, ‘Let’s do it,’” he said.

Zach Collaros did it.