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November 16, 2022

Long Read | Who is Zach Collaros

REGINA – It’s not only a compelling and enthralling story, but one of the most improbable in the long and storied history of the Canadian Football League.

Sometime during the CFL’s annual awards gala Thursday night at the Conexus Arts Centre here in the Saskatchewan capital, Zach Collaros will likely hear his name called out as the league’s Most Outstanding Player.

And in the process, he would become just the second Winnipeg Blue Bombers player to be so honoured in consecutive seasons – Dieter Brock won it in 1980 and 1981 – but also the first since Montreal Alouettes legend Anthony Calvillo went back-to-back in 2008-09.

It’s an astonishing comeback story, now folklore in Winnipeg and across the CFL, of a player who was acquired in a last-second deal at the 2019 trade deadline – the second time he was traded that season – and then helped guide the club to consecutive Grey Cup championships with a shot at a third this Sunday against the Toronto Argonauts. And with every pass completion, every touchdown, every win the legend of Collaros only grows further.

All these moments help paint a portrait of the all-star quarterback.

But to really get an understanding of Collaros – what makes up the man, the myth, the legend – bluebombers.com went to those who, outside of his family, know him best. This is Zach Collaros in the eyes of those who stare back at him in the huddle…

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” – Will Rogers

Nic Demski: I didn’t know what kind of guy he was when he first got here, and I guess I put my assumptions first. I thought he’d come in here and take over that quarterback position right away. He came into the room, and he just sat back and didn’t say too much. But he had this quiet confidence about him. He didn’t press anything, he just let it happen naturally.

I remember the very first day he let it fly at practice, even before his first start. There were a couple of eye-opening plays, and it was, ‘There it is. Here we go. The legend is true.’ Then there was the throw to Darvin (Adams) in his first start against Calgary and that whole playoff run in ’19.

You know, just to get my mind right for these playoffs I was watching back our last two playoff runs a couple of weeks ago. In 2019 he had (Chris) Streveler here and he took on a different role then, understanding that Strev was a big part in what we did when he arrived. And in 2021, well, that speaks for itself.

He’s the man now, but what he did when he first arrived was so impressive to me, it was one of the greatest examples of quiet leadership I’ve ever seen.

Stanley Bryant: I was waiting to see what he had to offer when he first came to us. He had dealt with a couple of concussions in Sask and in Hamilton had some injuries, too. I saw him in the ’14 Grey Cup and he had a spark then and almost beat us when I was with Calgary.

Then after what I saw on that one play, when he spun around and then threw it to Darvin and I knew that’s the guy we needed to win a Grey Cup. That play… it was something we had been missing. Matt Nichols did a great job for us – great job – but Zach had that spark. And he had this grit and toughness like an O-lineman.

Dalton Schoen: I came up here not knowing a lot about the league. But I did my research, and I knew Zach was the Most Outstanding Player and the highest-paid guy in the league. I already knew of him as this great figurehead and so when I first got in the huddle with him it was a little overwhelming and I didn’t want to mess up.

And then you talk to him and he’s such a great dude. The way he talks about the game and teaches it and explains how he wants stuff done is something I took to heart. I took the mindset that I didn’t want to have him have to tell me something twice.

CONNECTIONS

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” – Dale Carnegie

Jermarcus Hardrick: The biggest thing about Zach is he really goes out of his way to get to know everyone so that he knows how to touch everyone in the huddle some way.

With me, he knows I’m a big, goofy guy and so if he thinks he has to snap me into shape, he does. He just knows his guys. He knows how to play to them and how to get the best out of them because he knows us so well.

Brady Oliveira: It’s a skill he has, to be able to observe all the guys on this team. I know I’m not the only guy he does this with or has this kind of connection with. He sees how people are reacting to things or playing and he’s able to approach every scenario and every situation. If you step back and look at it, it’s pretty cool to see.

Drew Wolitarsky: It started in 2019. We win the Grey Cup and it’s like, ‘Cool.’ We’re back in the locker room, everyone’s drinking out of the Cup and it’s chaos. Zach and I are sitting there and we’re a little more quiet and chill and I was like, ‘This moment reminds me of a song by Bob Dylan, bro.’ He goes, ‘You like Bob? I love Bob.’ So, we’re listening to his song ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ and it was such a cool moment. I had only known him for about three weeks at the time and we had just connected somehow. What we had been through was such a high of emotions.

We’re leaving the stadium and I said to him, ‘Hey man… I don’t know why, but I have this weird feeling I’m not going to see you next year. But I just want to say it’s been an honour playing with you. You’re a genuine dude and one of my favourite guys I’ve ever played with, and I’ve only known you for a few weeks.’ And then next year COVID hit.

We hit each other up in the offseason during that lost year. I’d send him some riffs on my guitar and if it was folky I’d say, ‘This is a Bob vibe.’ Since then, he’s always come to my concerts and if I’ve done some random stuff in the Exchange District and he comes out with his kids and watches. He’s been super supportive.

I know he loves music. Driving to practice we’ll put on some old-school blues because he loves that stuff. I call him ‘Dickey Betts’, after one of the Allman Brothers founding members.

THE COMPETITOR

“You don’t lose if you get knocked down; you lose if you stay down.” – Muhammad Ali

Pat Neufeld: Can I swear when I tell this story? Let me explain the difference from in-the-huddle Zach to out-of-the-huddle Zach. Saying it’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ isn’t the right analogy, but it’s like Ying and Yang.

Out of the huddle Zach is super relaxed. He likes listening to old-time rock ‘n roll, blues and soul music. And then in the huddle he’s like heavy metal and he’s ready to rip your face off.

He’s just so competitive. He wants to win so badly and beat the people across from him so bad. We’ll be in the huddle, even in practice, and if something didn’t go well – and he’ll come in while we’re talking and he’ll say, ‘Shut the f— up! I’ve got it!’ When he does that, he’s controlling so much.

There are other times where he gets in the huddle and says, ‘If I get some f—— time, this is a f—— touchdown.’ You have no choice but to believe in him. He’s fiery, he’s competitive and he’s just so dialled in.

It’s not like he’s cracking the whip, he’s just got this laser focus. I look back to the Grey Cup in Hamilton when we were down by 12 in the fourth quarter and every drive was the most important drive of the season and his control of the situation was phenomenal.

Hardrick: I heard someone say he was so monotone when he’s speaking to you guys in the media. Monotone? That’s not the Zach I know. The Zach I compete with, the Zach I go to war with is a warrior. There’s no better way to put it. He’s going to give you his all for his guys.

Chris Kolankowski: We train together in the offseason at a place called GRIT Athletics in the east end of Toronto. We like to go at 6 a.m. because we’ve both got things to do, but that early in the morning in the offseason it’s tough to get the energy sometimes. But when we’re there together we’re ready to go.

I feed off him sometimes and no matter what day it is, how cold it is, he shows up to the gym ready to work. It’s just non-stop with him. Even the simple stuff like our warm-ups – we do ‘bounds’ – and he’s bounding as far as he can, he’s getting height… he gets a sweat going pretty quick.

He’s right in there all the time on everything. He’s in there lifting heavy with me. I’m running with him trying to keep up. We do a lot of compete drills with each other and it’s non-stop. He doesn’t opt out of anything.

When it’s time to work it’s like this switch flips with Zach and he gets that much more intense. When you make a mistake on the field, he’ll let you know, but you understand what it’s for because he expects the best in you because he expects the best in himself. It’s just such a high standard he expects of himself, and he expects everyone else to meet it, too.

He raises everybody up. It’s all about intensity and it’s really out of love because he wants us all to succeed together.

THE TEAMMATE

“Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the me for the we.” – Phil Jackson

Rasheed Bailey: Zach is a special dude. We text a lot. We always tell each other we love each other. He can be hard on me, and I can be the same sometimes, too.

When we first started our relationship, I remember telling him, ‘I’ll never be mad at you if you come at me in any kind of way. If you told me I needed to be somewhere or run a route differently… I would do it’. He’s not afraid to be like that with me and some other guys, too. He pushes me. When you have a quarterback like him who has so much experience you want to listen to everything he is saying. Everything. It’s because most of what he is saying is right.

But he’s a jokester. He has that persona about him. He’s like one of those big brothers. When you see him, sometimes you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know if I should say something’ and when you do, he opens up and you get closer. That’s my quarterback.

Greg Ellingson: He’s a guy that, aside from football, you just want to sit down and grab a beer with. That’s how we first connected in Hamilton. We would both go to this restaurant we like, West Town on Locke Street, grab a drink and talk football.

He’s just a dude that loves football, his family, his teammates. When he was talking to me last winter around free agency about coming here, he said, ‘You want to go out there, have fun and just ball?’

Oliveira: My relationship with him has really grown, to the point that it’s almost like a big brother relationship. It was tough times, dark times for me at the beginning of the season. There were times where I was like, ‘Dude, I’m just being real, but I don’t know if I can do this.’ Zach was there consistently in my ear at practice, in the weight room, in the lunchroom, in the sauna. I’d be at home, and I’d get a text from him saying, ‘Hey, just watching film and you did a great job here’ on a certain play. I needed to hear that and especially from a guy of that stature.

I’ve heard stories of guys on football teams, especially quarterbacks, and if some guys aren’t producing it’s almost like, ‘Get him out of there. Put the next guy in.’ But Zach had so much belief in me since Day 1. I really do appreciate Zach for that. I really, really do. He gave me so much confidence.

THE PASSIONATE STUDENT

“Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you’re passionate about something then you’re more willing to take risks.” – Yo-Yo Ma

Schoen: He’ll text us receivers at 9:30-10 o’clock at night after seeing something on film, or on Twitter or while watching college games and say, ‘This is what I’m seeing on this look’ and then you go out there on the field to try it and it’s ‘OK, now we can be on the same page and play fast.’ It’s the power of his mind and his physical abilities, on top of the baller he is.

Wolitarsky: A huddle is like a band, bro. Straight up. A team is a band. On the field, what we do best is creative. When we’re creative we’re playing our best. We’re out there kind of playing jazz. And Zach loves to create.

Ellingson: This is part of what makes him the ultimate competitor – he’s texting me at night talking about plays and I’m sending him videos of things I like. He’s never shutting off when it comes to competition. He’s always trying to be better for himself and his teammates.

I remember the game in Ottawa earlier in the year we were talking about something we saw while we were on the sidelines, and we said if you see this look, we’ll switch it up and throw a ‘go’ ball here.

Sure enough we called it again – I looked over at Zach – I gave the DB a little jab and he threw the ‘Go’ ball and trusted me. That’s the fun part of football. You have those conversations and a lot of time it doesn’t happen on the fly like that.

Quarterbacks can be creatures of habit and they often don’t want to do that kind of stuff in a game. They want to do everything they’ve been coached and what they see on film. It’s, ‘I have my reads… it’s 1, 2, 3 and the ball goes here.’ But he’s a chill dude and the ultimate competitor. It’s like backyard football when it comes to that… he’s a ballplayer. He’s running around making defensive ends miss and chucking a ball 40-50 yards downfield for touchdowns. He’s just out there having fun. That’s one of the things I love about Zach.

That’s what makes it great around here. We’ve got coaches who allow that input and a lot of smart players who can recognize things quickly and make adjustments.

It’s not like that everywhere, believe me. A lot of places you go in, you get your playbook, you study your plays, and the coaches really don’t care what you have to say. It’s, ‘this is the play and we’re going to run it.’ It’s fun to work with a quarterback who makes it like we’re in the backyard drawing up plays in the sand again.

THE DUDE

Noun – someone or something that’s just so awesomely cool, amazingly kick ass. – Urban Dictionary

Bryant: We both love to eat. I call him ‘Fat Ass’ all the time. He can eat with the best of ‘em. He’s a real fat ass. Of course, once he gets on the field all that goes out the window and it’s time to play football.

I wouldn’t say we’re ‘foodies’ but when we go grab food, he just gets locked in and he goes to town. Big-time locked in. Put that in there because he’ll laugh when he reads this. He knows what I’m talking about.

He’s one of us, he’s like an O-lineman – it’s just that he’s at the quarterback position and can actually throw a football. We can’t. We love him.

Demski: Off the field, to me he’s just a genuine dude. I know and I’ve seen how much he cares for his family. No matter how all-in he is on football, he always has time for his family. That motivates me for later on in my life. I know how much time and passion he puts into the game, but then he can leave that at the door and still be a family man – a dad and a husband.

I’ve never told him that myself, but probably should. I see that in him and try to take that life/work balance.

Wolitarsky: He’s a man of the people, bro. And he’s like an old soul.  He’s grampa. We went to the lake this year during a bye week, and it was me and my girl and few other couples from the team. Mostly the older guys. Me and my girl and our little kid are splashing around and playing in the lake all weekend and Zach was up there on the grill, beer in hand, just chillin’. That’s just his vibe. He didn’t get in the water or swim or anything.

He’s the over watcher, man, and makes sure everyone’s good. That’s his disposition.

He doesn’t just play quarterback, man, that’s who he is, and he brings it into his life.