CALGARY — Zach Collaros had started just eight games in the Canadian Football League when a bidding war broke out.
It was a small sample size, but there was enough evidence to see the 26-year-old Ohio native had something special. Pushed into the spotlight with the Toronto Argonauts after an injury to starting quarterback Ricky Ray midway through the 2013 season, Collaros played eight games for the Boatmen, throwing for 2,316 yards and 16 touchdowns with just six interceptions.
In his first game — a 38-12 win over the B.C Lions — Collaros completed 84 per cent of his passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns.
Though the Argonauts were impressed with their young pivot, Ray was in the midst of his Hall of Fame career and, when healthy, it was his team to lead. When he returned later that season, it was clear Collaros was too good to stick around as a backup. With an expiring contract and the Argonauts unable to convince him to stay, he was issued an early release. One day later, Collaros signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
"He’s everything you want. I mean the hardest thing for me was when Hamilton came after him. With Henry (Burris) still there, we thought we could keep him until Ricky was ready to go," Jim Barker, who was the Argonauts general manager at the time, said Thursday in an interview with the Free Press. "But he wasn’t ready to go and we had just won a Grey Cup. It was Ricky’s team and we just couldn’t do that."
"He’s everything you want. I mean the hardest thing for me was when Hamilton came after him." — Former Toronto Argonauts GM, Jim Barker
On the surface, given the quick turnaround, it might have seemed to be a one-horse race. But there were other teams beyond Hamilton that were interested in Collaros, perhaps none more than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Mike O’Shea had just been hired as the Bombers head coach, coming over from Toronto, where he had spent three seasons as special teams co-ordinator. There was also a serious need for a quarterback change, after Winnipeg could hardly tread water with Justin Goltz, Max Hall and Jason Boltus behind centre. The theory was O’Shea’s relationship with Collaros in Toronto, which included a Grey Cup win in 2012, might give him the inside track to sign the quarterback.
Simply put, Collaros was the one who got away. The Bombers signed Drew Willy instead, and it wouldn’t be until years later, with the arrival of Matt Nichols, that they would find a true leader of the offence.
It’s the kind of back story that makes Collaros’s arrival in Winnipeg this season all the more noteworthy. This time, under much different circumstances, the Bombers finally got their guy, acquiring Collaros from the Argos at the trade deadline in early October for a third-round pick in 2020 (Winnipeg also received a fifth-round pick the same year).
"We’d been looking for a veteran quarterback and just hadn’t had much success in convincing someone to come here," Bombers general manager Kyle Walters said at the time. "We wouldn’t have made a trade for another quarterback."
What Collaros has done since joining the Bombers has become the story of Grey Cup week. With little time to adjust to the playbook and find chemistry with new teammates, Collaros led Winnipeg to a fourth-quarter comeback against the Calgary Stampeders in the final game of the regular season and then reeled off a pair of road playoff victories against the Stampeders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders to advance to the championship game Sunday.
But as impressive as Collaros has been, what’s perhaps just as intriguing are the steps it took to not only get him to Winnipeg, but for him to actually get his shot to play.
To fully understand, you’d have to go back to Week 10. The Bombers were 7-2 and about to earn another win when Nichols was driven to the ground by B.C. Lions lineman Shawn Lemon in the fourth quarter.
The result was bad. So bad, in fact, Walters immediately got on the phone and starting looking for an experienced quarterback to join a group that was now being led by 24-year-old Chris Streveler.
"We’d been looking for a veteran quarterback and just hadn’t had much success in convincing someone to come here." — Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM, Kyle Walters
Walters called Willy. He also called Kevin Glenn.
But the money was not good enough. Or the amount of playing time was not long enough. Or the interest not great enough.
Another option was Collaros, who at this point had gone through a whirlwind few years and an even crazier few months. Just the fact he was a possibility was an indication of how far he’d fallen.
Just consider: he had guided the Tiger-Cats to the Grey Cup in his first season, in 2014, losing to the Stampeders after a late punt-return touchdown by Brandon Banks was called back on a penalty. The next year, Collaros was on track to win the league’s most outstanding player award before a knee injury cut his bid short.
Eventually, the changing of coaches, including the abrupt resignation of offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell in 2016, and an 0-8 start the following season led to a shift in culture on the offence — and at quarterback.
Prior to the 2018 season, Collaros was traded to Saskatchewan for a second-round pick in that year’s draft. His time with the Roughriders was defined by injuries and inconsistency on an offence that seemed to win in spite of their average attack.
The beginning of the end in Riderville came on the third play of the first game of this season, when Collaros suffered another concussion after taking a hit to the head from Ticats linebacker Simoni Lawrence. By August, he was a member of the Argonauts, and it took weeks before he was cleared to play.
By the time the Bombers came calling, Collaros had a clean bill of health. But Toronto didn’t want to move him. More accurately, general manager Jim Popp wanted to keep him.
"When I talked to Jim about it, there was really no interest from Jim to move Zach," Walters said in October.
Then, something major happened: Popp was fired the day before the CFL’s Oct. 9 trade deadline. Multiple reports surfaced that he had written up a new contract for Collaros the day he was let go.
"Watching this organization for the last four or five years from afar, they seem to do things right and that’s been validated for me since I’ve been here to see it up close." — Zach Collaros
Suddenly, Collaros was back on the market. But even though he was available, it took some work — and patience — to reach a deal.
With Popp out, Walters got in contact with John Murphy, who had been promoted to Argonauts’ vice-president of player personnel. A deal was discussed, then the two sides parted and the Bombers were left waiting to hear back. The Argonauts had a meeting early in the afternoon, which they told the Bombers about, but as the clock ticked closer to the 4 p.m. CT deadline, there was some concern the deal might fall through.
Just before time expired, around 3:45 p.m., the Bombers received a call from Murphy saying he would move forward with the trade. Because it was so close to the deadline, the CFL had to intervene to ensure it was approved.
At least part of the issue was getting Collaros to agree to come. Though players don’t have a say in trades, Murphy did make sure it was OK with Collaros.
"I had heard some rumblings a couple days before. I didn’t know if there was any value to it," Collaros said earlier this week. "Then it became more of a reality the day of the deadline. It was kind of a crazy day.
"I kind of did have a say there at the end and I was excited for the opportunity, for sure. Moving to a couple spots during the season isn’t ideal but I told my wife going into it that if there was a place I’d like to end up, it’s here."
The main attraction for Collaros was O’Shea and the kind of man he is. He also was intrigued to work with Bombers offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice, someone he marvelled at from afar for years.
"Watching this organization for the last four or five years from afar, they seem to do things right and that’s been validated for me since I’ve been here to see it up close," Collaros said. "Then with LaPo watching film over the years, seeing his creativity on offence and the different shots he’s able to get the quarterback and the pass game, through the run game, was something I was always kind of jealous of. When I would watch, I’d be like ‘man, why can’t we try this?’ And having worked with him and (quarterbacks coach) Buck (Pierce) now for the last month or so, it’s validated that as well and their openness and willingness to collaborate a bit and take input has definitely helped me."
With Collaros in the fold, there was still no guarantee he would play.
"No, there really wasn’t, to be honest with you. You know, I knew there was the chance, there’s always a chance," Collaros said. "When it was all going down in those 24 hours — really, it was 30 minutes — it was kind of chaotic."
Meanwhile, O’Shea seemed adamant that Streveler remained the team’s No. 1 option, often saying, unprovoked, that it was "Streveler’s team." It wasn’t until Streveler broke a bone in his right foot and suffered a high ankle sprain that Collaros got his shot.
"When you bring anybody in, whether it’s in training camp... the expectations are anybody out here that you see running around has a chance to help us win football games and when we brought Zach in, we were looking for a veteran quarterback to come in and provide depth," Walters said. "And when Zach became available, we knew it was a veteran guy who was going to pick up the system quicker than a young guy and we weren’t sure if and how he fit in on the field, but we were confident with his ability that if he did get a chance he would perform and we’ve seen that."
Collaros, the passer, is now the primary part of a two-headed monster with Streveler, the runner, a duo that has created major problems for opposing defences. And now, after all the ups and downs before he got to Winnipeg, Collaros is in position to help his team win their first Grey Cup in 29 years.
Needless to say, Walters is happy how it all turned out.
"Very glad," he said.
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.
Updated on Thursday, November 21, 2019 at 7:39 PM CST: Updates details of story.