VANCOUVER - Ask Zach Collaros' teammates about him and most immediately point to how competitive the Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback is.
It's been like that for about as long as the 26-year-old Ohio native can remember.
"My mom and dad have got some stories about that," Collaros said with a wry smile. "It was always bad at family reunions. We'd go to St. Louis, for my mom's side of the family, and we'd be playing a softball game. I'd be like seven years old treating it like it's the World Series. You've got 80-year-old grandmothers out there playing.
"Everyone hated me for it, but it's gotten me to where I am so far. It's been good for me."
Off the field, the clean-cut Collaros looks anything but a wild man. He is quiet, polite and respectful.
But he is different behind centre.
"Zach Collaros is a beast," said Ticats cornerback Delvin Breaux. "When I saw him play at Toronto last year, I was like that guy's very competitive. He can play. That's who we need at the helm of a team. You need that quarterback that's going to have that competitive nature and the will to win. That's who Zach Collaros is. He's a great competitor."
"Highly competitive, wants to be great," echoed head coach Kent Austin.
Collaros and Calgary counterpart Bo Levi Mitchell, another relative newcomer, will share the spotlight Sunday in the 102nd Grey Cup.
In his third year in the CFL, Collaros has found a home in Hamilton after two years in the shadow of Toronto star Ricky Ray.
"He's a proven winner at every level, from high school through college," Austin said of Collaros. "He got put on the road in a tough situation before we got him, the year before, when he was in Toronto, and won some tough games on the road. I know because we were trying to catch Toronto in the standings, and we couldn't."
Collaros went 41-1 in three years as starting quarterback at Ohio's Steubenville High School, posting a 30-0 record the final two years en route to back-to-back state titles.
At the University of Cincinnati, he completed 485 of 783 passes for 6,272 yards and 51 touchdowns. He also rushed 268 times for 1,240 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Listed at six foot and 216 pounds, Collaros is anything but prototypical NFL quarterback size.
He signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but was released a week later after mini-camp.
"The difficult thing was up until that point I had never been told I wasn't good enough to be somewhere — athletically," said Collaros.
A month later, he signed as a free agent with the Argonauts.
He dressed for four regular-season games and won a Grey Cup ring in April 2012 but failed to see the field as the Argos downed Calgary in what was Ray's hometown show.
"It's at home so I haven't looked at it," Collaros said of his ring.
In 2013, he went 5-3 as starter when Ray went down, leading Toronto to four crucial road wins.
Collaros joined the Ticats as a free agent in January after the Argos, realizing he did not plan to re-sign, released him. He is generous in his praise to Ray and Toronto coach Scott Milanovich.
"I learned a lot about football from both of them," he said.
Collaros, who moved his home "a couple of kilometres down the road" after the move, admits being able to stay close to his family in Ohio played a big part in his choice of Steeltown.
"I'm a very family-oriented guy. I love my hometown," he said. "I love my family and friends that are back there .. Having my parents be able to come to the games was huge for me."
It has not all been smooth sailing this year.
He was hurt in the Ticats' fourth game of the season, a 28-24 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos on July 4. Collaros missed five games with concussion-related problems, with the Ticats going 1-4 in his absence.
"It was definitely hard to stay positive," he said of his time on the sideline. "There were some tough times, but the training staff did a great job with me."
His teammates and coaches told him to take his time coming back. Collaros is particularly indebted to Austin.
"He understood the injury, how serious it can be," he said.
Austin also told him that no matter what happened, Collaros was his quarterback.
"He was very patient with the whole thing and very supportive. And I appreciate that and he knows that i appreciate that."
Collaros' return was more than timely. Hamilton was 1-6 going into its Labour Day debut at Tom Hortons Field.
With a healthy Collaros at the helm, the Cats went on to win eight of the next 11 including all six games at their new stadium to finish the season at 9-9.
Collaros is meticulous in his pre-game work. It is his safety blanket.
"As long as I do my due diligence during the week and I'm prepared for the game, usually that leads to good things," he said.
Added Austin: "(He) prepares really hard. He's very, very unselfish. He's endearing to his teammates. The guys don't ever question whether Zach will come to play and be prepared to play."
Collaros completed 279 of 424 passes for 3,26 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. He also rushed 57 times for 328 yards.
"He's got all the talent in the world," said receiver Andy Fantuz.
"The play's never over for him. He can move around and make plays."
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