Against all odds: The story of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ 2019 Grey Cup run
In Part 1 of our anniversary series, which you can read here, we revisited GM Kyle Walters’ last-minute acquisition of quarterback Zach Collaros at the CFL trade deadline. Today in Part 2, we take an inside look at the first impression Collaros made, what he did to fit in so seamlessly – and how he was pressed into action sooner than anybody expected.
A warm welcome and a cold beer
Writers of fiction often use weather to foreshadow events.
So in the storybook or movie version of this tale, the new quarterback who’d lead Winnipeg to Grey Cup glory would arrive on a sun-drenched October day, the leaves gleaming Blue Bomber gold.
Instead, Zach Collaros, traded from Toronto a day earlier, was greeted by a historic snowstorm that ripped down trees, knocked out power and crippled parts of the province.
The 34 centimetres of snow that fell, Oct. 10-12, was the biggest snowstorm to hit the city since records began in 1872.
We should have known right there this quest to end the CFL’s longest championship drought wasn’t going to go smoothly.
“Man, what did I sign up for out here?” Collaros, in an interview for this series, recalled thinking, 12 months later.
He received a much warmer welcome, and a cold beer, at the Bombers facility that night.
Practice was over, and after shaking the hand of Kyle Walters, the GM who’d traded for him, Collaros walked into his first meeting with head coach Mike O’Shea.
The first words out of his mouth would have instantly endeared him to a man who values a team mentality above all else.
The Bomber mantra, posted on the locker-room wall, said it all: Fit in, or F— off.
“I don’t know what your plan is for me here, but I just want to help any way I can,” Collaros told O’Shea that day. “If that’s helping Chris (Streveler), if that’s adding to the voices that you already have in the locker-room, I’m here to do whatever you need.”
The two chatted for a while, and Collaros asked for a playbook and a place to study it.
O’Shea got him onto the team’s video system in a nearby room to watch some clips put together by offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice.
“I started studying,” Collaros said. “And Osh walked in with a pint of beer for me. ‘You might need this if you’re listening to LaPo’s voice on that video.’
“I started laughing and said I appreciate it.”
Watching his new team’s offence for a couple of hours, Collaros noticed the system seemed remarkably familiar to what he was used to, apart from the terminology.
At the end of the day, he and O’Shea grabbed a bite to eat at Nicolino’s on Pembina, before the coach dropped him off at his hotel.
Before saying goodnight, O’Shea told him what was happening early the next morning.
Quarterbacks Matt Nichols, out for the season with a shoulder injury, and Streveler, the new starter, would be meeting at 5 a.m., as they usually did, to go over film.
“You’re not gonna want to miss that,” O’Shea told Collaros. “I’ll pick you up.”
The Bombers had three games left in the regular season: a home game against Montreal in two days, and a back-to-back set with defending champion Calgary.
“They just said to stay ready,” Collaros said. “Obviously I’m going to stay ready. It’s football.”
* * *
Then 31 and in his eighth CFL season, Collaros brought a pedigree to the Bombers.
Breaking in with the Argos for their 2012 championship season, when O’Shea was the special-teams coordinator, he’d moved to Hamilton, had one MVP-type year and took the Ticats to the Grey Cup in 2014, only to lose a heartbreaker to Calgary.
Last fall, all that seemed an eternity ago.
Collaros had battled concussions and switched teams two more times, amid growing whispers his career was in doubt.
He hadn’t taken a snap since starting for Saskatchewan Week 1, when a violent shot from Hamilton’s Simoni Lawrence left him concussed, yet again.
But the Toronto doctor had cleared him and so did Winnipeg’s, after what he describes as “a great conversation” about head trauma and its effects.
“He gave me the OK,” Collaros said. “And I just dove into the playbook.”
Teammates quickly realized their new quarterback’s head was one of his best assets.
“The very first day I met Zach Collaros, he pointed me out,” defensive back Brandon Alexander remembered. “He’s like, ‘You’re No. 37?’ Yeah, I am. He was like, ‘Hey, how did you know we were running double-digs on our side?’”
It was a reference to a game and a type of offensive play from when Collaros was with the Riders, facing the Bomber defence.
Alexander told him the Riders telegraphed the play, because they only ran it out of a specific formation.
“He was like, ‘Oh, so you watch film.’ I was like, ‘Yes I do,’” Alexander said. “From that point, we had a mutual respect for each other.”
Others saw it, too: a willingness to put in the work, the extra hours studying film.
“You got that vibe right away,” linebacker Adam Bighill said.
“He didn’t step on toes,” is how offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick put it. “He was the quiet guy, showing up early and staying late, making sure he had everything in order so when his time came, he was ready.”
And doing it in a way that didn’t ruffle the starter’s feathers.
Streveler says Collaros fit like a passer’s glove into what the incumbent quarterbacks called “the 5 a.m. club,” a routine started by Nichols.
“Zach wanted to fit in, too, so he came in right away and was part of that for a little bit as well,” Streveler said.
For a little bit?
“After that he was, like, ‘Man, this is too early,’” Streveler said, laughing. “And he’s a vet. Alright, I respect that. I get it.”
* * *
With Streveler at the controls, the Bombers would beat Montreal, 35-24, to end a three-game slide.
A week later, on Oct. 19, they’d lose more than just a game in Calgary.
Streveler suffered an ankle injury, and while he’d returned to finish the game, it was obvious he wasn’t right.
That turned out to be an understatement.
He’d suffered a fractured ankle and high-ankle sprain, which includes torn ligaments.
The next day, just 10 sleeps after arriving in Winnipeg and seeing his new playbook for the first time, Collaros met with his head coach again.
“I walked by Osh’s office,” Collaros said. “He yelled my name, I walked in and he said, ‘This is your team now.’ And that was pretty much it. I said, ‘OK. Let’s go.’”
That message, and how it was delivered, meant everything to Collaros. And not just because he was getting back in the saddle after more than four months on the sidelines.
“You always hope for some clarity in our profession,” he explained. “Just tell me what’s going on, even if I’m not going to start. Tell me I’m No. 2, tell me we’re competing for it, give me some kind of clarity.
“The fact it was about five words, that was perfect for me.”
With one game left before the playoffs, starting their third quarterback of the season seemed anything but perfect for the Bombers.
Next Sunday in Part 3 of our series: Inside Collaros’s first start. “When he got up, I felt like Superman was getting set to go out. I knew something special was going to happen.”
AGAINST ALL ODDS SERIES
• Part 4: How a bye week helped win a championship