Cody Fajardo credits Bombers’ Zach Collaros as ‘calming voice’ during his first season as Riders’ QB

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders/Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

The Labour Day Classic rivalry between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers is one of the most contentious in all of sports, but quarterback Cody Fajardo has nothing but love for the signal-caller on the other sideline.

When Fajardo first came to Regina in 2019, it was current blue and gold starter Zach Collaros who had the Riders’ top job. That changed abruptly in the first game of the season when a hit to the head of a sliding Collaros thrust the backup into the spotlight.

Fajardo seized the opportunity and ran with it, going on to be named the West Division nominee for Most Outstanding Player, but none of it would have been possible without Collaros’ support through the early part of the season.

“He was great for me. When he got injured, he was nothing but a coach for me. There’s a lot of things going a million miles an hour and he was that calming voice in my ear where he kept everything even-keeled when the pressure mounted and the coaches were getting on me for being a young starter,” Fajardo recalled ahead of his third Labour Day Classic.

“He was the guy that I turned to to be like: ‘Hey, what would you have done here?’ And hearing that he would have done the same things in similar situations made me feel that I was on par with one of the best quarterbacks to play in the CFL. It was great to learn from him.”

In many ways, the two quarterback’s paths have been intertwined. When Fajardo first arrived in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts, it was to fill the backup role vacated when Collaros jumped down the QEW to become the starter in Hamilton. Watching his predecessor from afar, the young quarterback modelled his game in a similar fashion.

“I knew a lot about Zach Collaros and how he played the game and I thought there was a lot of things I did that try to emulate his game, running around and trying to make plays,” Fajardo admitted.

Once together in Saskatchewan, the mentorship became much more hands-on. Collaros would go so far as to leave notes in Fajardo’s locker, giving him a heads up about defensive looks and tendencies he should expect as a dual-threat passer.

“A couple of teams and defensive coordinators, he had an idea of who they were and I didn’t really know much about them. He’s like: ‘These guys did this to me and that to me. They might do something different, but this is what you should expect,'” he recalled. “Anytime you get that from a starting guy with a lot of experience, it helps you feel a little bit more calm going out there and seeing the game a little bit better.”

The pair’s time together was brief. As Fajardo cemented himself as the Riders’ future, Collaros was shipped off to Toronto mid-season, before being traded a second time that year to Winnipeg.

It was a move that altered the course of CFL history, Collaros has powered the Bombers to back-to-back Grey Cup victories and was named the league’s M.O.P. last season. It is a feat he seems on pace to repeat, as Winnipeg leads the league at 10-1 and can clinch a playoff spot with a Labour Day victory over their rivals.

Fajardo has borne the brunt of the Bombers’ newfound success, losing to Collaros in the playoffs both years. The Riders franchise quarterback has struggled this season and his grasp on the starting job has never been more tenuous but with his health seemingly restored in a bounce-back performance last week, the chance to test his mettle against an old friend is as exciting as ever.

“He’s been one of the top quarterbacks in the league the last couple of years with the Bombers,” Fajardo grinned. “It’s always fun to compete against the guy that is the head of the class and see where we stack up and where I measure up as a quarterback.”

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.