In the final moments before every home game, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats gather at midfield and form a circle around two players. The first is Simoni Lawrence, the loud, gregarious linebacker who works the team into a frenzy using a profane exultations that promise increasing levels of violence and body bags.
The second player jumps up and down beside him, saying nothing. His presence is all that’s required.
That player is – or was – Zach Collaros.
In addition to losing Collaros’ spectacular play – he was a leading candidate for the league’s most outstanding player award before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 19 – the Ticats must also find a way to replace his unique style of leadership.
And his replacement, rookie Jeff Mathews, must find his voice.
About a month ago, a table tennis rig appeared in the hallway outside the Ticats’ training room at Tim Hortons Field. Football players being as hyper-competitive as they are, a ladder was soon established with lower-ranked ping pongers taking on those above them in a quest for table tennis supremacy.
After Tuesday’s practice this week, Mathews and receiver Bakari Grant squared off, two lanky, 6-foot-4 guys hunched over a green table trying to beat each other’s brains out.
A football locker room is a singular entity united in a common goal – winning – but it’s also an intricate social network that divides itself along cultural, racial, geographical and positional lines. The offensive linemen have a tendency to hang together. Players who hail from the same part of the United States often form easy friendships. It’s no different from any work environment: the like-minded have a tendency to gather together.
The subtle genius of Collaros’ leadership is simple: he moves easily between virtually every group. He has forged friendships across an unusually wide swath of players, venturing out past the usual boundaries. Just as important, he has managed to avoid one of the usual trappings of quarterback success – a certain arrogant aloofness. His commitment to preparation and stellar play would have earned him the respect of the locker room but his personality and behaviour has him genuinely liked.
On the field, Collaros isn’t a “rah-rah” guy but plays with a certain infectious intensity. He feeds off the emotion of the game – that’s why he’s standing next to Lawrence in the pre-game circle – but channels that energy effectively. Late hits and trash talk are further fuel. His toughness and personal accountability after mistakes – watch his body language after interceptions – further enhance his status with teammates.
This is the leadership void the 24-year-old Mathews steps into. He’s been a Tiger-Cat for just over four months – Collaros is two-thirds of the way through his second year – and so hasn’t been able to establish himself in anywhere near the same way. His closest relationship is with receiver Luke Tasker, a former college teammate.
As a result, leadership on offence will likely come from other, more veteran players in the short term. The return of receiver Bakari Grant, another guy known for on-field intensity, will certainly help. Right guard Tim O’Neill, thrust into a starting role after the injury to Ryan Bomben, provides a certain comforting stability when things are tough. “Uncle Timmy” has seen pretty much everything in his nine years in the CFL – and he’s also, rather improbably, among the best ping pong players on the team.
For Mathews to lead, he must play, and play reasonably well. Replicating Collaros’ consistent greatness is likely out of the question but his teammates will expect him to perform at a high level – just like they are. “Do your job, ” is common refrain from both coaches and players, and that will be Mathews’ first, and most important, test of leadership.
Beyond that, Mathews’ role within the team dynamic will naturally fall into place. Mathews seems more laid back than Collaros – think of the easygoing competence of Danny McManus – and needs to stay true to himself, even in the face of his new responsibilities and the setbacks that will inevitably occur.
Collaros earned his place, too. After signing the deal to become the Ticats’ starting quarterback before the 2014 season, Collaros fulfilled his basic media responsibilities but refused to be the subject of in-depth profiles or TV feature stories. His point: I have to earn the role of leader, it can’t be bestowed on me.
Mathews grew up with a ping pong table in his basement, although he hadn’t played in a good long time. But he won his game against Grant. It’s all coming back to him. He’s learning. And he’s moving up the ladder, quickly.
Calgary Stampeders (10-3) Hamilton Tiger-Cats (8-4)
Tim Hortons Field
Game time: 7:30 p.m.
TV: TSN Radio: TSN 1150
The storyline for Calgary: The Stampeders can clinch a playoff spot with either a win or B.C. Lions loss to Saskatchewan this week, and a victory also locks up a home playoff date. They haven’t looked dominant this season but have won a series of close games, including a 24-23 nail-biter over the Ticats in Week 1. Like the Ticats, the Stamps are dealing with some significant injuries this week, particularly on defence.
Key injuries: The Stamps will be without middle linebacker Juwan Simpson and boundary corner Joe Burnett, two of their veteran stalwarts. They are also signing a brand new left tackle in Derek Dennis, who was signed Sept. 21.
Five funky Calgary stats:
1. The Stamps have won seven straight meetings over the Ticats, and 11 of the last 12.
2. Of their 10 wins in 2015, six have involved a comeback of some sort. They are 5-1 in games decided by four points or less, a league-high.
3. The Stampeders are a perfect 5-0 when committing fewer turnovers than the opposition but have also won a CFL-high four games when committing more. Hamilton has yet to win a game when losing the turnover battle.
4. Calgary has the league’s No. 1 receiver in Eric Rogers (1,124 yards) and the No. 3 man in former Ticat Marquay McDaniel (815 yards).
5. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell has won 25 of his first 30 starts, tying him with Tracy Ham for the best mark to open a career. He is 4-0 against Hamilton.
The storyline for Hamilton: Jeff Mathews. With starting quarterback Zach Collaros out for the season with a torn ACL, the job falls to the rookie Mathews, who played for head coach Kent Austin and offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell for three seasons at Cornell. Mathews doesn’t have to be as spectacular as Collaros – who was a leading candidate for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player – but he can’t throw two pick sixes like he did in relief against Edmonton.
Key injuries and roster changes: With Collaros out, Jeremiah Masoli comes off the practice roster to fill the No. 3 quarterback spot. Running back Michael Ford, who is bigger and better in pass protection, takes over for Ray Holley, while newly-signed defensive back Jalil Carter comes onto the roster for Cleshawn Page and will likely play a back-up and special-teams role. Receiver Bakari Grant returns after missing six games due to injury and will start in place of Tiquan Underwood, who will likely be a healthy scratch. Canadian special teamers Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Mike Daly also return, while tackle Jake Olson (six-game injured), guard Ryan Bomben (one-game injured), defensive end Everett Ellefsen (practice roster) and receiver Matt Coates (six-game injured) come off the roster.
Five funky Hamilton stats:
1. Since the start of 2014, the Ticats have regular season record of 17-13. They are 16-7 in games started and finished by Collaros. They are 1-6 in the rest.
2. In the 25-18 loss to Edmonton, Hamilton did not record a single rushing first down.
3. 11 different quarterbacks have made their first career start for the Ticats since 1996. They’ve gone 2-9 in those games. The winners: Dan LeFevour in 2014 and Kevin Eakin in 2005.
4. Defensive end Justin Hickman has at least one quarterback sack in the last three games and five of the last six.
5. The Ticats are coming off a bye this week where teams are 8-5 across the CFL so far this season. Hamilton, however, lost after their first bye this season.
TSN play-by-play: Chris Cuthbert and Glen Suitor with Matthew Scianitti
Referee: Andre Proulx
The weather forecast: Cloudy, 10 degrees with 40 km/h winds out of the northeast gusting to 65.