First & 10 Column : Catching up with Collaros

So many of us are pining right now for a return to ‘normal’ or even a semblance of what once was. We miss our routines and our distractions. We miss a summertime that should have been filled with festivals, with concerts, with folks gathering in large masses to celebrate, to cheer or even to boo.

Zach Collaros has those moments, too.

And then the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback will glance over at his daughter Sierra and his wife Nicole and think…

“We all get frustrated at times and then I see them and it’s like, ‘OK, this world isn’t so bad,’” began Collaros in a chat with bluebombers.com on Friday. “We’re just taking it day by day here, just like everybody else. But we’re doing great. The baby is three months old tomorrow and my wife’s great, she’s a natural. It’s been good to be with them every day.

“Being a father changes the way you look at the world. It’s not just what’s important to you, but the importance of what’s important to you. It’s been what I always thought it would be and more.”

That’s become a common theme during this global pandemic. It’s forced a lot of us to rethink our priorities, to undo the blinders for a bigger-picture take of what is unfolding not just through living with the COVID-19 virus, but also the important anti-racism rallies that continue to take place all over the planet.

Collaros is as well read and informed as any player in the Canadian Football League and right now he’s waiting, like every other player and fan, for some ideas on a return to play in 2020.

Asked about the hub city concept – where all nine teams would work under a bubble in one location – the veteran pivot, and new father, offered an honest answer.

“It would be tough on everybody. Everybody would have to leave their family,” said Collaros. “That’s the hardest part for everybody, just waiting for some clarity. It’s not just the situation the CFL finds itself in, but everything. We, as players, haven’t heard a lot about the hub city concept. That’s not fun, but if that’s what the league figures out… I do know there are a lot of people working very hard to get this thing going. I do have a lot of faith in that. We’re trying to trust the process and if the hub city is the way we go it will be tough on guys, but it always could be worse. You have to put it in perspective. It’s definitely a conversation my wife and I will have – we haven’t had it yet because it’s just rumours – but we will talk about it and be realistic about it.

“Whoever they let into the bubble – players, coaches, staff – it will be something we all have to deal with. But, hopefully, it will be a positive experience and  something we all look back on and talk about over a few beers one day.”

Part of that answer comes simply from maturity. Collaros is turning 32 next month and has seen action with four CFL teams – Toronto, Hamilton, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg – since his arrival in 2012.

He’s been through a lot, too, both mentally and physically and the grind of recovering from injury forces a man to live in the moment, control what he can control. With that in mind, Collaros bought a net for his backyard to keep working on his passing skills and recently during a visit to his in-laws had his brother-in-law, Adam Walsh, run routes for him.

“He’s a paramedic now, but he used to play rugby and he’s a great athlete,” said Collaros.”And if there’s nobody available I’ll bring the net or throw at the soccer goal and try to hit the corners. It’s kind of a pain in the ass chasing the ball every four throws, but I guess I can use it as conditioning.

“Everybody’s dealing with it the best they can. But I was talking to one of my neighbours the other day and he said, ‘You must be going crazy.’ I am. You can only compete against yourself in your garage with dumbbells for so long.

“Usually this time of year you’re out there competing and that void is not filled right now. I said to him once it comes to retire I’m really going to have to find something I can still be as passionate and competitive about. I’ve always known that, but this has been right in your face.”

The Bombers would have been four games into their 2020 schedule by now. And, for Collaros, that would have meant he’d have finished his first full training camp with his new club.

That’s no small thing, either. You see, for as much as Collaros and his wife have celebrated the birth of their first child in the last few months, it was last November – while leading the Bombers to their first Grey Cup championship since 1990 – that he enjoyed a career rebirth.

“That’s been the most disappointing part – missing camp and starting a season with the guys,” he said. “The way things ended last year, not just from a team perspective but for me personally, and ending on such a high note.

“I really felt like I was part of a team and that locker room and coaching staff was just so strong. It was just so awesome to be a part of it for that five-six weeks and then when I re-signed I was so looking forward to training camp and running out of that tunnel for the first game and defending the Grey Cup.

“We’re all really excited about that. It will be a different vibe if and when we get to that, but I still like our chances if it happens… when it happens.”

Here are the rest of our notes, quotes, links and other ponderings in this week’s 1st & 10…

1. A couple more tidbits from Collaros… he said he has spent hours studying film and watching old games on YouTube. I asked him if there was anyone in particular he watched, or if it was situational – where he was looking at particular offensive schemes.

Turns out, it’s both.

Collaros said he’s always liked to watch film of Drew Brees, paying particular attention to how he uses his feet to move around the pocket. A lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan, he’s also gone back to take in some young Ben Roethlisberger games.

“I’m just trying to find some things that could be applicable up here, because things get recycled in this game,” Collaros said. “I know Buck (Pierce, Bombers offensive coordinator) does a lot of similar things, whether it’s NFL or CFL, to see things in the past that you can bring back.

“And (former Steelers offensive coordinator) Bruce Arians, for example, was just a master of the screen pass and so you try and take some ideas from that.”

Collaros likely has coaching in his future, by the way.

“I do love it. I love the game,” he said. “Plus, when you go back and watch there’s just a bit of nostalgia there, too. It’s like, ‘Oh man, I remember where I was when I was watching this game.’ But I hope to one day move into that side of the game.

“When you’ve been playing the game for so long you always look at the game with a critical eye. There have been a lot of times where my wife will say, ‘Why are you watching this?’ And I’ll be rewinding to see what the concept was or what the defence did to adjust to take something away. Whatever I throw on I try to find a wrinkle or nuance that maybe I can bring to Buck this year, talk about it and maybe make it a part of our thing.”

2. Throwing to your brother-in-law or into a net is one thing, but we asked Collaros how you can possibly replicate game action in those scenarios. After all, it’s hard to imagine practising the step up, roll right, then left, drop back further, roll right again TD toss he delivered to Darvin Adams in the regular season finale last October – his only regular-season start for the Bombers and his only one at IG Field

“I’ve had a couple good quarterback coaches over the years… those kind of plays, you actually practise them,” said Collaros. “For me, when I’m doing my conditioning stuff I use those kind of throws as my conditioning… I’ll imagine I’m getting chased and I have to do this and do that and sprint 40 yards and throw it.

“You see videos of that online all the time. Russell Wilson is great at working that type of stuff. You’ve got to get creative.

“it’s funny, I was talking to my mom the other day and there are times when I feel like I’m in the back yard just playing by myself. It’s like you’re shooting a free throw with two seconds left in the Final Four… you’ve got to put yourself in those situations in your own brain and pretend that things are full speed.”

3. News broke Friday via TSN’s Dave Naylor of the CFL formally submitting its request for financial aid to the federal government – with the endorsement of the CFL Players’ Association. That ask would see all the dollars coming from the government directed toward the players and operating costs.

For more detail, click here.

Naylor and Justin Dunk of 3Down Nation have been leading the coverage on the CFL front. Check out this clip for more from Naylor.

4. If the CFL does return to play in 2020 the hub city concept remains the most discussed option – at least, at the outset. That idea was batted around Friday in this week’s ‘Virtual Huddle’ on the Blue Bombers Facebook page featuring Andrew Harris, Pat Neufeld, Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick.

“I just want to play,” said Hardrick. “But everyone’s situation is different there are going to be so many different answers because there are 500-plus different players (in the CFL).”

“It really comes down to if you want to sacrifice time with your family and friends,” added Harris. “It’s just going to be all 100 percent football. Bus to practice, meetings and that’s it. No one is going to be allowed to leave, go anywhere or do anything. There’s not going to be much of a social life. It’s going to be 100 percent football… there’s going to be a lot of different dynamics that would make it really tough, but it’s a sacrifice you’d have to make to play the game.”

“It’s about sacrifice,” said Neufeld. “I want to play more than anything. It’s the best job in the world. I love doing it, I love playing for Winnipeg but like Andrew said there’s a ton of sacrifice involved.

“We’ll see what the league says and what the (CFLPA) says and all we can do is make the best informed decision we can.”

5. If you haven’t already checked out these Virtual Huddles, they have been a lot of fun over the last couple of months and offered a glimpse at the bond these players have with each other.

Friday’s edition offered a few gems, including the answer to the question which player – other than an offensive lineman – could down the most hot dogs, a la Joey Chestnut, the world champion competitive eater.

Neufeld’s vote, FYI, went to long-snapper Chad Rempel, while John Rush got some votes if the hot dogs were vegan.

Harris revealed two things in this discussion: first, he won a hot-dog eating contest in Grade 8 – he had eight. And, second, this:

“I had a hockey game the other night,” he began, “and after I stopped at McDonald’s and had a quarter-pounder with cheese, a double cheeseburger, a junior chicken and six McNuggets… and ate it all.”

6. One more, via the Virtual Huddle and eating related… it turns out offensive lineman Geoff Gray can really put the food away.

“Geoff Gray… I’ve never seen him not eat,” said Hardrick. “When we get there in the morning, Geoff’s eating. When we get on a break, he’s eating. Right before practice, he’s eating. When we come in, he’s eating. When we’re on the plane, he’s eating. When we’re on the bus, he’s eating.”

When Harris explained that Gray always has a Tupperware container with food in his hands, Hardrick added this:

“Yes, and when he empties one, he opens another.”

7. Kudos to Adam Bighill and the work he does in the community, including for Cleft Awareness Month.

Bighill visited with Global Winnipeg earlier this week to talk about his son Beau, who recently had second surgery for his cleft palate.

8. Nice read here from my compadre with the Toronto Argonauts, Mike Hogan, on former Bombers assistant coach Glen Young, now the defensive coordinator with the Boatmen.

Among the highlights of the story, Young spoke a bit about what unfolded last season with the Bombers.

“It’s the evolution of the season,” he said. “That’s where we did well in Winnipeg, we evolved all year long. What was there in training camp paled in comparison to what we did in the Grey Cup. It was the evolution of the guys, their understanding of how things work, and my way of teaching them how to do things correctly. Once they get on the same ship or paddle the same boat then we can get really extravagant and elaborate, and that’s kind of the way I like to live. I like to live in that world if I can, but if I can’t I’ve just got to take my time to get there.”

9. Earlier this week I spoke with Winston Rose as part of a look at the four players from last year’s Bombers team who are getting NFL shots. Rose has signed with Cincinnati, Jonathan Kongbo with San Francisco, Marcus Sayles with Minnesota and Chris Streveler with Arizona.

And in chatting with Streveler our conversation, naturally, included a chunk on Drew Wolitarsky – his long-time pal – and his growing musical talents.

“Me and Woli, we’ve had some long FaceTime sessions together,” said Streveler. “There will be times where we’re talking for three-four hours or we’re just chilling and he’s playing and I’m getting feedback on what I’m hearing, what I like and what sounds good.

“It’s super cool to see things progress for him and I know he’s up there working on an album right now. He shot a video in Minneapolis and I saw he did that Canada Day concert… I’m so pumped for him. I had butterflies watching that Canada Day concert because I’ve been listening to this guy since Day 1.

“It’s cool to see him grow in this music business. I know he loves it.”

10. And, finally, this from Andrew Harris – who was part of the Bombers’ Grey Cup ring design committee – on the players getting closer to receive their championship bling later this month with a virtual opening as a team.

“I’m definitely excited to see them and see everyone else’s reaction and what they think of them,” he said. “Obviously it would be amazing to be in the room with everyone and open the box at the same time. But it’s going to be amazing to share that and I can’t wait to see everyone sharing it on social media.”

Pressed by Stanley Bryant for a hint as to what they look like, Harris added:

“They look great. There’s a ‘W’ on it,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a ring and there’s diamonds on it.

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