Michael Collymore credits CFL career to speed, hard work

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

A late arrival to the world of professional football, Toronto native Michael Collymore did what he does best and hit the ground running.

During his five years in the CFL, Collymore spent time with five different organizations, played for three teams and made 75 career catches for 1,067 yards and two touchdowns.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Given that you never played organized football before the age of 21, how did you end up on Winnipeg’s roster as a rookie in 1981?

Well, even though I was new to football, I had been playing sports my whole life. As a kid, I grew up playing everything from hockey to basketball to lacrosse and volleyball and I think the skills I developed from that variety of sports allowed me to adapt quickly whenever I took up something new.

As a teen, I really focused in on track and field, as I’ve always had plenty of speed. Around the time I began playing football, I was focusing on trying to make Canada’s Olympic team as a sprinter, working out with members of the 1976 Olympic group. That was an excellent experience that taught me a lot about discipline and what was needed to function and maintain yourself as a high-level athlete.

I had a few scholarship offers to do down to the U.S. for track, but I had the itch to try and play football professionally. I didn’t want to look back at my life when I was in my 30s wondering what could have been.

playing for Saskatchewan is another level. The best way I can describe it is that it’s like being a hockey player for the Leafs in Toronto.

So, in 1979, I tried out for the Etobicoke Jr. Argos. On the first day of tryouts, one of the first things they had us do was a forty-yard sprint. Not only did I win, but I beat the next closest guy on the team by a full yard and a half, which certainly caught the coach’s attention.

I spent the rest of the year with that team and in 1980, the Argos invited me out to their camp. That meant that during the days I was at the Argo practices and at night I practiced with my junior team.

In 1981, the Argos traded my rights to the Ticats and after spending training camp and a few months of the regular season with them, I was released. Ray Jauch (the coach of the Blue Bombers) called me and invited me out to Winnipeg, and things went from there.

What did you find to be the most difficult aspect of playing football?

Given that I had plenty of speed and good size, it wasn’t that I lacked any of the physical tools to play the game, but getting the nuances of football down wasn’t easy and required that I worked at it.

Understanding why routes were run certain ways and how to get defensive backs to flip their hips are some examples of things that you don’t learn overnight, but rather over time with repetition and experience.

Why did you land with Ottawa in 1982?

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

When the Bombers released me, I wouldn’t say that I had a specific destination in mind, but I figured that even if they didn’t want me, one of the other eight teams would. My agent did his thing and got back me to letting me know that both Ottawa and Montreal were interested in having me.

At the time, there was a lot of talk around Montreal’s financial issues and rumours that they might fold, so I chose the Rough Riders. I started off on special teams before earning a starting spot on the roster as a Canadian receiver at slotback.

Speaking of special teams, did you prefer covering kicks or returning them? 

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

This might sound funny to some since I was a receiver, but I absolutely preferred covering kicks because it let me use my speed. At that time, my 40 speed was 4.39, so I was able to fly down the field on containment.

I actually never returned a single kick or played on any kick return units, which is something I never understood given the fact that I believe I was consistently amongst the fastest guys on the teams I played for.

Your time in Ottawa coincided with the early days of the Southsiders fan group. Even back then, were they noticeable and as a player did their antics pump you up?

Given that our bench was on the South Side, it was impossible not to notice them. With all the noise they would make, we as players certainly knew where they were in the stands.

That said, I didn’t pay them much mind, not out of disrespect or anything, but rather because during the games I wanted to be 100 percent focused and tuned into what was going on. On game days I really tried hard to focus on myself and make sure that I was doing my assignments properly.

What was it like going from one Rough Rider franchise to the other in 1984?

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Ottawa was great and I really liked playing for that franchise and spending time in the city. It will always have a special place in my heart and to this day I still enjoy visiting when I go to see my daughter (who lives there).

But playing for Saskatchewan is another level. The best way I can describe it is that it’s like being a hockey player for the Leafs in Toronto.

You walk down the street and everybody knows who you are and they’re stopping you to chat or to ask for an autograph. One time, I was in the grocery store, going up and down the aisles and I noticed this guy following me. I finally turned to him and he asks if I’m Michael Collymore.

When I reply yes, he lets me know that he’s the dairy manager of the store and that anything I want to buy from his section — be it cheese, milk or whatever — is only going to cost me a buck.

There’s a lot of talk about Saskatchewan being the best fans in the league and from my experience it’s true. Those guys are in all behind their players, every single day.

As someone who experienced the prairie Labour Day Classic from both sides, what makes that game so special?

That’s a really good question and I have to admit that before I went out West to play in it, I knew of the rivalry but I don’t think I fully grasped the enormity of it. I think the proximity of the two teams plays a massive role and the fact that the teams are representing two cities full of proud people. I’m grateful I experienced it.

Why did you retire following the 1985 season?

It wasn’t by design, that’s for sure. At that point in my career I felt I was just starting to get into a groove and that my best football was still ahead of me. You know when you’re doing something and it suddenly starts to click? That’s how I was feeling in terms of honing my football skills.

I had actually signed a contract with Ottawa in January of 1986, but six days before training camp they cut me, telling me they no longer felt they needed me. I reached out to other teams around the league but was told that their rosters were full.

Knowing that there would be cuts and injuries in training camps, I stayed in shape hoping someone would eventually get in touch and pick me up, but nobody ever called.

Throughout your career you had the opportunity to play with a number of talented QBs, who did you most enjoy catching passes from?

I didn’t spend long with the Ticats in 1981, but even in the few months I was there, I really grew to appreciate just how easy it was to catch Tom Clements’ passes. He had great touch.

I was fortunate in that I played with a number of excellent quarterbacks — guys like J. C. Watts, Joe Paopao and Dieter Brock. Brock probably had the strongest arm, it was a rifle, but I often felt he could’ve taken some off his passes, especially in cold weather.

Did you have a favourite city to play in?

Not really. I enjoyed certain aspects of every stadium I played in. For example, in Edmonton, I loved the massive outdoor stadium and the fact that the grass was always pristine, no matter the weather. That was an outstanding field to run on.

Obviously since I’m from Toronto, I relished every time I had an opportunity to play there in front of friends and family.

Given that you didn’t have an extensive background in football, were there any teammates you leaned on in terms of mentoring? 

That’s another great question. One thing I used to do was that I was never afraid to ask questions. During my career I played both the wide out and slotback positions, so depending which team I was on, I spent a lot of time studying the other guys at those positions.

I’d take a lot of notes and ask very specific or technical things like, “What were you doing with your hands on that route?” or “If you’re running a down and out, which foot do you want to plant? Would it be the same if I ran it from a different position?” and so on.

A couple of names that come to mind in terms of teammates who were generous with their time and tips are Bob Gaddis, Mike Holmes, Terry Greer, Chris DeFrance and Joe Poplawski. I really respected those guys and tried to incorporate aspects of all their styles into my own.

Over the course of your career you averaged over 14 yards per reception. Would you credit that more to your speed, or the development of your route-running skills?

I think it would have to have come from a combination of the two. You can’t teach speed but it doesn’t matter how fast you are if you aren’t running the route with good technique.

I also had the mentality that no matter who was lined up against me, I was faster than them and would beat them. The more games I played and reps I got, the better I felt I was. As I had so little prior football experience, I don’t think I ever stopped improving since I was always learning new things.

There’s a lot of talk about Saskatchewan being the best fans in the league and from my experience it’s true. Those guys are in all behind their players, every single day.

What was your favourite route to run?

I’m tempted to say any route that let me use my speed! (laughs) I used to really enjoy setting up defensive backs. What that means is that early in the game I might run a curl route, get them to creep up and later on we’d run the same look from the same formation except it would be a curl and go and I’d get to blow by the defensive back.

As soon as I saw his hips turn I knew I had him beat. Post patterns were good too, because depending on the angle you took you could make the safety cheat, thinking it would be a fly route and then cut to the post.

Tell me about the best prank you witnessed or were involved in.

I was a goody two-shoes and didn’t really take part in that stuff, but I do recall one pretty funny prank. During a training camp I spent with Saskatchewan, you used to get fined if you showed up late to practice. Well one day, some guys grabbed a bunch of pennies and wedged them into a door jam, trapping an offensive lineman in his room. I’m not sure how they pulled it off but there was no way that door was opening.

So practice starts and about fifteen minutes later we’re all warming up when this large man comes running onto the field red-faced, helmet hanging off his fingers, shoulder pads half on and his pants undone, belt hanging low. Everyone had a good laugh and that’s an image that’s still strong into my mind.

You started off your career using No. 25 but switched to 31 upon your arrival in Ottawa. Why? 

No reason at all other than the fact it’s what I was assigned. When I arrived in Ottawa, 25 was taken by Ricky Barden, so I asked for 88 as a lot of NFL receivers were using numbers in the high 80s at the time.

I can’t remember why but that was turned down, so I wound up with 31. When I went to Saskatchewan, I felt like I’d established myself while using 31, so I kept it.

Unfortunately, you never won a Grey Cup, but you did earn another ring thanks to your time in the league. What does your CFL alumni ring symbolize and mean to you? 

It means everything. I actually have two alumni rings, one is gold and I received it about 25 years ago, and the other I got 10 years back. The reason for that is that I have two daughters and I wanted them each to have one when I pass on.

For me, the ring serves as a reminder that my hard work paid off and I earned a small spot in a league with over 100 years of history. Everyone in the country knows what the CFL is and the fact that I got to play in this incredible league will forever be special.

When I wear the ring out, people will always stop me and comment on it. I find as I age, I appreciate the rings even more, because they are a testament to the fact that I made the most of the chances I was given. Playing in the CFL was an honour and I’ll never take it for granted.

I saw an interview from the 100th Grey Cup where you mentioned that you were attending your 12th Grey Cup in a row as a fan. Have you kept that streak alive?

Unfortunately not. I’ve been to close to twenty Grey Cups but I’ve had to miss a couple in recent years. My new goal is to start a new streak and to get to one in every city, since I’ve never been to a Grey Cup in Winnipeg.

As an alumnus, the entire Grey Cup week is special, but it culminates in the Legends Lunch held the Friday before the game. As a former player, you get to sit at a table with other players, catch up with teammates, chat with the commissioner, mingle with fans, reminisce, take pictures and sign autographs. It’s also neat because it’s a forum that brings together guys who played before you, guys you played with and guys who are playing now.

When people say the Grey Cup is the biggest party in Canada, they’re completely right. The ability for fans to interact with legends of the game and rub shoulders with players is so fantastic and unique to our league.

Do you still keep in touch with any former teammates?

For sure! Even before COVID, I didn’t see as many in person as I would’ve liked, but I do keep in touch with quite a few guys via social media. Sometimes it’s to send well wishes or just to check in on people’s birthdays.

Most recently I’ve chatted with Randy Fournier, Skip Walker and Stephen Jones. I also chat with Pinball Clemons since we’re both Toronto guys. We might not have played together, but there exists a mutual respect.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

As a Toronto native, what do the Argos need to do to bring the CFL buzz back to Toronto? 

The Argos are facing a tough situation and I don’t think there’s any easy answers. The biggest and most obvious problem is that Toronto has so many different teams competing for your entertainment dollars.

First and foremost, the city is a hockey town, so there’s the Leafs to deal with. Then you’ve got the rise of the Raptors, who seem to be more popular by the day, and there’s still the Blue Jays and TFC, too. I don’t think the Argos advertise well to begin with, but whatever they do is dwarfed by those other teams.

Playing in the CFL was an honour and I’ll never take it for granted.

The media doesn’t help either. Every so often you’ll see lists of Toronto championships on certain outlets, and they’ll list everyone except the Argos, as if the team and their Grey Cup wins simply don’t exist. When I was with the Argos in 1980, we’d get 45,000 out to a pre-season game at Exhibition Stadium, nowadays they struggle to get 20,000 into BMO Field.

Speaking of that venue, although it’s a beautiful place to watch a game, I think it’s tougher to find parking, especially when other events are going on at the same time. It can get quite congested down there. I know a lot of people didn’t like the Skydome, but at least it was easy to access and there were tons of restaurants within walking distance.

Anyways, it’s a lot easier for a team like Saskatchewan to do well simply because they aren’t competing with anyone, aside from the junior hockey team there’s not much else going on in Regina in terms of sports.

Toronto’s facing a totally different reality but the ironic part is that the Argos are probably the best bang for your sports buck in town. Season tickets will run you the same as a single pair of teams to a random Leafs game.

What are you currently doing for work?

I’m a certified financial planner and have been for the last 33 years. I own my own practice in Ajax and I love what I do. When I was a football player, I think I did a really good job saving money, but I was terrible at investing it and letting it work for me. So before I even retired from football, I started taking university courses in the off-season (Economics and Psychology), which eventually turned into my profession.

Tell me something most CFL fans would be surprised to know about you.

I’m not sure that many of my friends know this, but about 40 years ago I started playing guitar and more recently, I’ve learned to play the bass. From time to time I jam with a couple of different bands whenever they need me.

Thank you for your time, Michael and best of luck in the future!

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).