Collaros conquers doubts, fears



HAMILTON — If you were to look over Zach Collaros’ 11 years in the Canadian Football League, you might understand why he carries a healthy dose of skepticism.

Beginning his career with the Toronto Argonauts, Collaros moved onto Hamilton two seasons later and blossomed into a bona fide threat with the Tiger-Cats, leading them to a Grey Cup berth in his first year as a starter in 2014. But injuries, including a torn ACL that ended an MVP-calibre season the following year, would derail his run in Steel Town — leading to a whirlwind the next few seasons that would test any player’s love for the game.

Then, partway through his second season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, while sidelined with a concussion he suffered on the third play of the first game in the 2019 campaign, Collaros was traded back to Toronto. He’d stew there a short while before getting flipped again, this time in a trade to Winnipeg, where he would win four straight games to lead the Bombers to their first Grey Cup title in 29 years.

Not even the validation of winning a championship, though, or the fact he’s back there again this season, with a Grey Cup rematch on Sunday against the same Tiger-Cats team that turned its back on him, has altered his perpetual mind frame of fearing the worst. When you ask Collaros where those feelings come from, he’ll tell you he doesn’t know. Just that it’s always been there, well before he knew anything about the CFL, back when he was a kid growing up in Steubenville, OH.

As the eldest sibling to his sister Lanae and brother Dimitrios, Collaros figures it might be from wanting to protect those closest to him. But he’s not even sure if that’s the case.

“My dad always says to me you’re more of a Collaros than you think. So, you’d have to ask him. But I don’t know,” Collaros told the Free Press in an interview earlier this week.

“My sister and I were really close in age. So, anytime I’d be put in charge of her I’d always be thinking nothing can go wrong. But if something goes wrong, I’m ready to take care of that. I’ve always been kind of wired to try to cross all my T’s and dot all my I’s, to be ready for the worst.”

On Friday, Collaros was named the best player in the CFL, edging out Montreal running back William Stanback for the league’s most outstanding player award. He finished the 2021 regular season with a league-best 11-3 record, threw for the most touchdowns, with 20, compared to just six interceptions. His 3,185 passing yards were second to B.C.’s Michael Reilly, who threw the ball 54 more times.

Not surprisingly, Collaros doesn’t have any grandiose plans to celebrate the achievement. He said he’ll do so quietly with his wife, Nicole, who he met early into his CFL career and together they own a home and have two young children.

“And my dad. Because you go through a lot,” said Collaros, his eyes starting to well up in a rare show of emotion.

“I’ve always had a complex as well — I think everybody’s against me, even when I was a kid. ‘They doubt me. Why are they doubting me?’ I’m definitely not going to talk like the way I just talked now, because I don’t want to do that on stage.”

As for speeches, that’s not his thing either. Collaros has a lot of people he credits for his success on and off the field, but he doesn’t view thanking them in front of a large crowd as the appropriate way to express his gratitude.

And when he says there are too many to name, he’s not just saying that either.

“My wife always comments on it. It’s a really special community of people that I’m really close with in my hometown and, obviously, from my Cincinnati days playing college football there and everybody feels like family,” said Collaros, the lump in his throat still there.

“There are a lot of people that I think about. People that I’ve been close with — through middle school, high school, college — we have really deep relationships. Not just friends, but family friends, parents of friends, and they’ve been there with me through every stop. I really haven’t thought about it this deeply, but it makes me emotional to think about just how many people have supported me and my family. It’s just really special.”

To provide a better idea of just how sizeable his support system is, and how much of an impression he’s made at every stop he’s been along his football journey, Collaros tells a story about his wedding and how he and Nicole had 450 guests attend the special day. With the wedding being in the Greater Toronto Area, he didn’t imagine all his friends and family from back home and who he met in college and from his years in the CFL would make the long trek.

More than 150 people from out of town were invited and every one of them showed up.

“The bartender at the hotel that we had everybody staying at said to one of my friends that he’s never seen a turnout like that for a wedding, in terms of people that had to drive six or seven hours,” Collaros said. “Like, all the rooms got booked, there wasn’t one person that said, ‘no, we can’t come.'”

Ask his teammates in Winnipeg, and it’s Collaros’ preparation and genuine approach to people that has made him among the most respected teammates in the locker room.

“Him being an open and authentic person has opened up trust between not just him but everyone in the locker room with him, as an absolute leader on our team,” offensive lineman Patrick Neufeld said. “Those things, just as a human being, are fantastic. And then there’s the fact that he’s a hell football player.”

Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea, who was special-teams co-ordinator in Toronto while Collaros was there, saw his ability to lead immediately upon arriving in Winnipeg in 2019.

“When he walked in the building he got right into the meeting, he knew how to approach his teammates in the meeting, he listened a lot as you knew he would,” O’Shea said.

“I’ll say I don’t think there was another guy that could come in and do what he did. I’m not sure there was another guy that could fit in that seamlessly and get it done. From the second he walked in it was obvious that he could and that’s the only reason why you wouldn’t have brought another guy in, it just wouldn’t have worked like that.”

Collaros is just as appreciative of the Bombers organization, from O’Shea and the rest of the coaching staff to every player he shares a field with. In Winnipeg, there is no doubt that Collaros belongs there, and the care his teammates have for him is just as obvious.

“My teammates and the kind of person that I am and the success that I’ve had, individually, all stems from our unit and our preparation – the communication, the trust that goes into our process week to week, day by day, f–king meeting by meeting,” Collaros said.

“It’s really, in the big picture, great just to even be nominated for an award like this. Some of the names that are on the list, it’s like holy s–t. You almost can’t believe it.”

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

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.

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