A self-proclaimed cynic, Zach Collaros admitted he didn't always see the light at the end of the tunnel when it came to the Canadian Football League playing through a global health crisis.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback watched with disappointment as the 2020 CFL season was cancelled owing to COVID-19. And then for months he waited anxiously until a vote Monday that would determine the immediate and potentially long-term future of the league.
"I probably thought about it every day, ‘what if this doesn't happen? Should I look into doing something else? What's my next step?’" Collaros told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. "I think it's something every athlete thinks about, especially in professional football and how volatile it is with no guarantees on contracts. Obviously during the pandemic, with how drawn out it's been from the CFL and the government, it’s definitely been something on my mind."
When news broke that the CFL's board of governors voted unanimously to put on a 2021 season, beginning Aug. 5 with a Grey Cup rematch between the Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, there was a massive sense of relief for Collaros and his teammates. Mixed in with a building excitement — not only because they'll be back on the field for the first time in nearly two years, but the Bombers will also finally get the chance to defend their Grey Cup title.
"We're all obviously very excited to just get back to work," Collaros said. "We don't know exactly what it's gonna look like, the workspace and all those things, but I know a lot of guys have been just missing that grind, missing that whole process and preparation of what goes into a training camp, a season and all those things."
While it's certainly being viewed by players as a positive last couple of days, there's still a lot to consider in the coming weeks and months, with the coronavirus expected to have a significant impact on the upcoming season. From a health standpoint, safety guidelines will be put in place and players are being encouraged to get vaccinated before they arrive for training camp.
Vaccinations have been, at times, a controversial topic in society, and it's particularly prominent in professional sports. Teams must walk a fine line between encouraging players to get vaccinated, in order for the rest of the team to feel safe and make the logistics of running a football club as seamless as possible, while also respecting a player's right to choose.
Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson said he was hesitant to get his shot at first. He hadn't done any research on vaccinations and, being an extremely fit athlete, questioned whether he needed to. But after getting more informed about vaccines and the studies that have been conducted, he soon saw it as an easy decision to roll up his sleeve.
"These are all steps that are moving us forward and getting us closer to playing football, getting us closer to being on the field. We haven’t been on this field in over 500 days," Jefferson said. "I’m not the only one, but I’m pretty much ready to do whatever it takes to get back on the football field. I’m saying let’s get vaccinated, do the quarantine and everything else that may be required to play football in Canada this year. We need to have smart minds with decision making because I think everything that’s going on is necessary."
The CFL, including commissioner Randy Ambrosie, has also been clear with its messaging about vaccinations. The league needs the public to get vaccinated so the greatest number of fans can get into stadiums and it has used coaches and players who have received the vaccine as part of a marketing strategy to encourage others to get on board.
How many players a team has vaccinated might also prove to be a competitive edge. Clubs that have a sizeable number of players that are unvaccinated risk stricter health protocols, including the potential to prohibit in-person meetings. Having to run positional meetings virtually will only add to the stress in a day and will make time-sensitive work schedules challenging to execute.
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There's also the risk of being sidelined in the event an unvaccinated player becomes a close contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Those who aren't vaccinated would be forced to quarantine for two weeks, meaning they wouldn't be allowed to take part in team activities. That's not the case for vaccinated players, who would still be allowed to play.
"There are always injuries, but this year it’s going to be potential for close contact, or people who end up getting COVID," Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill said. "You might have a loss that’s missing a few guys based on contact or having COVID. That's another thing that can severely impact a game day. The edge would be minimizing those kinds of surprises. It's also going to come down to management at the team level, doing everything we can to minimize those possible transmissions and everything of that nature. So, the structure of that — how does the day work? What’s the process look like? Even that is going to have an edge, more so than ever."
With all that's surrounding what will be a unique CFL season, and the fact it's coming up on 600 days since the Bombers hoisted the Grey Cup, offensive lineman Patrick Neufeld said he doesn't see the team using its recent championship as a rallying cry. But that doesn't mean he's not hungry to repeat, a challenge he said will be met with the same day-by-day approach instilled by head coach Mike O'Shea.
"We’re a team that’s about earning things. It’s a brand-new challenge and a brand-new season, with unique circumstances," Neufeld said. "I don’t know if we’re gonna be talking so much about defending it but having the right to go out and play in that game, hopefully, and literally taking it week by week, day by day to try to earn that trophy again. We’re lucky that we’ve got damn near the same roster and guys know what it took to get to that Grey Cup, the ups and downs, so I think we’ll approach it with that kind of mindset."
Jeff Hamilton Multimedia producer
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.