November 17, 2023

48-Hour Primer | Grey Cup

HAMILTON – The transformation can unfold methodically, slowly evolving from one quarter to the next.

Or it can come and disappear in a nanosecond – like a Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk moment – with the 11 faces in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive huddle staring back at him then instantly snapping to attention.

This is ‘Fiery Zach Collaros’. Not the chill dude with all the right answers when the cameras and microphones are directed at him, but the Zach Collaros who absolutely, positively hates/loathes/despise/abhors/detests losing with every single fibre of his being.

And ask anyone in the Blue Bombers locker room about Fiery Zach – not just the offence, but the men on defence and special teams, too – and they’ll insist it’s one of the many reasons they bring so much confidence into Sunday’s 110th Grey Cup against the Montreal Alouettes.

“How can I best describe Fiery Zach? Hmm….,” began Willie Jefferson in a chat with “So, remember how Kirk Cousins was after that game a few years ago when he was in Washington? That ‘You like that!’ game? That’s it.

“Fiery Zach is Tom Brady on the sideline down 14 in the fourth quarter looking at the iPad with his head down. You don’t talk to him then. You just let him work. Give him the ball and let him work. That’s fiery Zach.”

A stat that we surely take too much for granted in Bomberland and, perhaps, deserves even more attention across the Canadian Football League: the Blue Bombers are an incredible 45-9, including playoffs, in games Collaros has started since his arrival in 2019. That run includes Grey Cup championships in 2019 and 2021 and last year’s one-point loss. On Sunday he becomes the first quarterback to start in four consecutive Grey Cups.

That’s the stuff that has already made him legend in Winnipeg and beyond. And ask those closest to him and they’ll all insist Fiery Zach – and how he effectively channels that emotion – is his super-power.

“Fiery Zach are those moments when his true dad comes out,” explained receiver Nic Demski. “That’s what I love about Zach. He’s such a personable guy who can relate to anybody, but when things aren’t going the way he thinks they should be, he’s going to put his foot on the ground. And that’s when you get ‘Dad Zach’; you get that dad mode out of him.

“I’m not going to name names, but I remember in the huddle last week he was like this with one of our guys: ‘Calm down or get to the sidelines! Calm down or get to the sidelines!’ It was like, ‘Whoa… OK, everybody lock in now.’ He has a fiery side to him, but I love that because he is our leader on the offensive side, and we need him to be like that. We need him to take control of the huddle and he has no problem doing that. At the same time, you love his cool, calm and collected composure as well because that’s just Zach Collaros – he’s going to go out there, he’s going to make a play and then he’s going to act like it was nothing.”

Earlier this week we asked Kenny Lawler to describe Collaros in one word. The Blue Bombers receiver thought for a moment and then provided this – a series of one-word answers piled on top of each other – that provided a glimpse at the respect the man has in the locker room.

“One word? Fiery. Competitive. Passionate. Leader. Funny. Smart. Great guy. Brother. Father. Husband… the list goes on. He’s just a great guy,” said Lawler. “Our relationship goes further than football. I consider him family. That’s a dude I honour and look up to.

“Fiery Zach shows up in the huddle, on the sidelines, in practice, in film… the guy doesn’t want to lose. He’s going to put our team in the best position to win and with that being said he’s going to spend more than extra time to watch film to perfect the plays, to perfect everything he controls. That breeds the fire and the competitiveness in him. You’ll see it in practice if we’re working on something. We’re in playoffs and if something’s not right, he might get on you. He’ll do it with love and great passion because he wants to win. There’s been a time I’ve been cussed out by him, but I don’t take it personal because I’ve got a job to do as well and he’s getting on me to do my job so we can win.

“And when he’s fiery he’s in that huddle going, ‘We’re going to get after them. No mercy!’ That’s what I love because I’m the same kind of player. It just gets me to play at a higher level.”

Lawler further explained that a key component to this working is the relationships Collaros builds with teammates off the field. He knows the names of every player’s kids, and their wives. He’s a look-you-in-the-eye/firm-handshake guy who instantly earned respect back in October of 2019 and has been growing that ever since.

“He’s a mobster, bro. He’s a Greek Mobster,” said Drew Wolitarsky. “I think Zach might be the most competitive guy on the team. You may not always think that because of how cordial and relaxed he is off the field, but that boy loves to win. And he does it for the people around him. That’s why I call him the Mobster because he’ll do anything for family.

“He doesn’t go off on people, but at the same time he’ll demand that we all give that same effort and that same intensity. He’s all about trust. Zach has to trust you if you want to play with him and to get that you have to give everything you have and be in the right spot and show you’re going to be there when he can’t see over the D-line.

“There will be times this year where it’s, ‘I couldn’t even see you, but I knew you’d be there.’ That’s trust.”

Further to the Fiery Zach, the Dad Mode Zach, the Greek Mobster Zach…

It was during his media session here at Grey Cup week when yours truly asked him about this other side of him, this side we might only see in snippets but hear about regularly from his teammates.

“I’m just a fiery person by nature, a competitive person,” he said. “There are times you need to raise your voice a little bit, when you need everyone’s attention as part of an acknowledgement of what the moment is. It’s not always me. Sometimes it could be Nic, sometimes it could be Paddy (Neufeld)… everybody takes turns. Rasheed (Bailey), Kenny, Brady (Oliveira)…. There’s just moments in time where everybody has to understand what that moment is and how important it is.”

“Dealing with your emotions and how you handle them as you get older is an easier thing. If you ask some old of my old Hamilton Tiger-Cat teammates, fiery me was a little too fiery at times.

“I’m very fortunate – I’ve been on teams where the quarterback always has to always be the rah-rah guy and always be the fiery guy. We have half a locker room that could be that person on our team, so I just hang back a lot of time and let those guys take it away.”

Still… when the moment calls for it Collaros leads in a manner that seems ripped from the pages of a Hollywood script. It can be in the first quarter or the final seconds. It can come in a Wednesday practice or a Saturday film session.

“It’s never for a mistake that anybody made,” he explained. “It’s in a TV timeout. It’s second and six when we need to get to a third and one. It’s a first and 10 after a couple of bad drives. It’s a ‘Hey, we need to put this thing away and go step on their throats.’ It’s just different moments in a game as you feel it and as you need to understand the nuances of a football game and lock in a little more.”

Collaros said this competitiveness is in the family genes. And yet, he’s also got more of that in his DNA that perhaps anyone in the clan.

“My mom is a very competitive person. My dad is a little more laid back,” he said. “I can remember being a kid and I would cry when we would lose games because I really took it personal. I’d really took it personal when my sibling would beat me in a board game. My sister probably hated me up until she was 24 because everything was personal; everything was a contest.

“I think I’ve told you this story… I can remember being at a family reunion in St. Louis – this is one of my earliest memories – and I was about six or seven. It was a family softball game, and my grandma was 90-something years old and I was mad they didn’t call her out on a play where she was out. I think I’ve matured a little bit since then. I remember my PapPap… that was the first time he ever yelled at me. It was ‘boy, you’re embarrassing me.’”

Collaros grinned there, laughing at himself and the story. Again, this is all part of the Collaros package. A self-deprecating sense of humour mixed with a workmanlike approach to his craft and the touch of a surgeon on game day.

And when he switches to Fiery Zach, well…

“Then he’s like Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter,” said Jefferson. “It’s over then. It’s the Mamba mentality and you just sit back and watch him work.

“It’s amazing seeing him like that. That’s when we just want to get him the ball back and let him cook because it’s beautiful to watch.”