O’Leary: Fajardo, Lawrence discuss the big bang moment of the 2019 season

The night of June 13, 2019 was complex for Canadian sports fans from the get go.

It was the opening night of the CFL’s season. Fans filled Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, a passionately defended turf in the league that loses a sliver of its punch when the Saskatchewan Roughriders are in town. Wherever the Riders go, so too does a roving green contingent of loyalists. There was a buzz in the air for the 7 p.m. ET kickoff, but there was something different there this time.

Part of it was that the Toronto Raptors would tip off their championship-concluding game against the Golden State Warriors at 8 p.m. ET. While the lure of witnessing history may have had fans in the stadium checking their phones — the Ticats hosted a watch party on their big screen on-field after their game — something big was coming as Lirim Hajrullahuh’s kickoff opened the year.

On the Riders’ third offensive play of the season, Zach Collaros ran for seven yards and was met by Hamilton linebacker Simoni Lawrence, who made contact with the quarterback as he was sliding to the turf. The hit was immediately flagged as roughing the passer and Collaros was helped off of the field, sending choice words to his former teammate. He wouldn’t return to the game; in fact, it was his last as a Saskatchewan Roughrider.

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When the door opened for Fajardo, he burst through it, showing that he could lead a team in the CFL (Arthur Ward, CFL.ca)

That play was the big bang moment of the 2019 season, setting in motion a series of events that wouldn’t be fully wrapped until Collaros and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hoisted the Grey Cup 5.5 months later in Calgary.

Collaros’ injury opened the door for his backup, Cody Fajardo.

“I don’t know where I would be without the third play of that first game, to be honest with you,” Fajardo told reporters on a conference call during Grey Cup Unite week last month.

Fajardo showed he could be a starting quarterback in the CFL and ended up leading the league in passing, with 4,302 yards while the Riders put together their best season in decades with a 13-5 record, finishing first in the West Division.

Still dealing with his injury, Collaros was traded to the Toronto Argonauts on July 31. Fajardo, who came in on a one-year deal, signed an extension with Saskatchewan on Oct. 21, making official what the trade had already told everyone.

“I don’t know where I would be if I’d just sat as a backup all year and didn’t have a chance to play,” Fajardo said.

“How many (teams) are going to take a chance on a 28-year-old short-yardage quarterback? I really don’t know. I might be out of the league, to tell you the truth. So just getting my first opportunity in six years, it was actually a blessing for me to go out there and play football again.”

The aftershock of that Week 1 hit reverberated through the year. Collaros didn’t get to suit up for the Argos, who were headed to a four-win finish. After GM Jim Popp was relieved of his duties, the new management team of GM Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons and VP of player personnel John Murphy traded Collaros in the final minute of trade deadline day to the Bombers. An injury in Winnipeg to starter Matt Nichols created a need and Collaros suited up for the Bombers’ final four games. Winnipeg won them all, including a 33-12 thumping of Lawrence and the Ticats in the Grey Cup game.

Collaros signed a two-year extension with Winnipeg on Jan. 27 and will head into the 2021 season as the Bombers’ starting pivot.

In Hamilton, Lawrence took some heat for the hit early in the season. He was suspended two games but found a way to thrive through the criticism. He put together the best season of his career with a league-leading 98 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions and a fumble recovery.

The Ticats posted a franchise-record and league-best 15-3 record in 2019. They were undefeated at Tim Hortons Field and rolled into that Grey Cup game after demolishing Edmonton 36-16 in the Eastern Final.

“I’m just glad everybody’s OK from it and everybody got what they wanted from it,” said Lawrence, who was also on the call with Fajardo.

“To speak for myself, if the play didn’t happen I probably would have gotten defensive player of the year,” he said, drawing a lot of laughs on the call for his honesty.

“This was probably one of the instances where I think all three players in such an interesting situation all won,” Fajardo said.

“The fact where I was able to sign a lucrative contract to be a franchise quarterback. Zach Collaros goes off and wins the Grey Cup and my man Simoni has a great year playing football.

“That’s one of those things that on the rare occasion where something that could have been so bad actually turned out to be a positive thing for the league and some of the top players and Simoni and Zach got to continue to play football.”

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