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Player Feature: Harvard Football's Collier Winters

-by Carl Ehrlich '09-10

It's November 21, 2009 and, like much of his career, Collier Winters is facing an uphill battle.

With just over seven minutes remaining in the 127th playing of "The Game" against Yale, the Crimson trails10-0. The offense hasn't moved the ball all day, and with each possession, Harvard's chances are getting slimmer.

For most quarterbacks, this is unfamiliar—and uncomfortable—territory.  For Collier Winters, it's just another day in the office.  Of the 53,000 people in attendance, he's the coolest customer of them all.  On the sideline, the first-year starter calmly rallies his troops.  Meanwhile, the defense makes a stop.

The Crimson offense re-takes the field. With 6:46 remaining, Winters throws a 41-yard touchdown pass to Matt Luft. The defense makes another stop. The offense comes back on and Winters throws a 32-yard touchdown pass to Chris Lorditch, putting the Crimson ahead 14-10 with 1:32 left in the game. One more defensive stop and the Crimson fans are rushing the field—patting Collier on the back and congratulating him on the most "shocking" and "unlikely" comeback they've seen in ages.

But for Winters, the win was neither shocking nor unlikely.  It was exactly what he expected.

That's been Collier Winters' story for as long as he's played football—a story of tough challenges and unlikely odds, and how hard work and high expectations have gotten him through.

Now entering his fifth and final year at Harvard, Winters' story starts before he even arrived in Cambridge.

"It's tough for a short quarterback to get recruited," he explains. "When you're 6-5, you can make mistakes and still be seen as a quarterback with a ton of 'potential.' You can make mistakes that a 6-foot quarterback can't make."

Or a 5-11 quarterback for that matter.

"I'm not normally a fan of 'smallish' QBs," Tim Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach of Harvard Football explained of his recruiting decision, "but Collier won me over with his toughness, savvy, mobility and accuracy."

As it turns out, the recruiting process was just the first step of the uphill climb that's marked his career.

Winters' first real dose of adversity at Harvard came in Week 3 of the 2009 season, when he discovered he'd torn the labrum in his right hip. The surgery he required,  which involved shaving down a bone in his hip, is an extremely painful process that requires a long and strenuous rehabilitation.

While some may have thrown themselves a pity party, Winters threw himself in the training room.

Offensive coordinator Joel Lamb was one of many to notice Collier's commitment in the face of adversity. "Collier is a tremendous competitor and has a remarkable work ethic. Once he sets his mind to something, it's hard to stop him."

"I wasn't just rehabbing to get better," Collier explained, "I had a goal in mind. I was rehabbing to be get back for spring ball and win the starting spot."

It was a starting spot left open by Chris Pizzotti '08-09, who'd graduated and headed off to play for the New York Jets of the National Football League. When he departed, Pizzotti took two first-team All-Ivy League performances and two Ivy League championships with him. He left behind a starting spot and a big pair of shoes to fill.

Shoes that might not fit a 5-11 quarterback from Oklahoma.

But just as his goals and ambitions pushed him through his rehab, Winters paid no mind to the expectations that Pizzotti's legacy left him for. Or rather, much like he did with his hip injury, he used them to his advantage, using the challenge to grow and improve.

"There was certainly pressure, but it was a good pressure," Winters remembers. "It forced me to focus and dedicate myself to live up to new standards."

And live up to them he did, leading the league in pass efficiency, yards per completion and  fewest interceptions among all 10 starters in the league.  The performance, which culminated in the spectacular come-from-behind victory at Yale, earned him second team All-Ivy honors.

Things looked to be smooth sailing from there, but adversity reared its head again during the following preseason of 2010. Already playing through an injury that would ultimately force him to receive the same surgery on his left hip, Winters tore his left groin.

With the groin injury and a torn left labrum, Winters contemplated sitting out the 2010 campaign. The consensus amongst the coaches and sports medicine staff was he should rehab  and come back again in the spring.

Winters had other ideas. Deciding to delay his second hip surgery until after the season, Winters once again rolled up his sleeves and went to work. The groin rehabilitation was estimated to take 10 weeks—an amount of time that would've sidelined him for the whole season. Winters came to the training room twice a day to make it back sooner.

And when he wasn't in the training room, he was studying film. Keeping himself sharp. Preparing his mind and body for the return he knew he'd make.

"He may as well have slept in the locker room," roommate and then captain Colin Zych '11 remarked. "He spent way more time at the football facility than he did in the dorm."

But the hard work paid off.  Surprising everyone but himself, Winters made it back in time to play four-and-a-half games last year; four-and-a-half more games than anyone else expected. Winters played well in those contests and the season ended, once again, with him throwing a game-winning touchdown against Yale – scrambling on a roll-out throw against a painful, busted hip.

But 2010 was also another season that ended without an Ivy League championship. That's why, with all the challenges he's already faced, Winters' toughest task still awaits: leading his team to a title.

That task, Winters explains, can only be accomplished if he continues to develop as a leader.

"Vocal leadership isn't something that is natural to me, but it has come with time. Not having won an Ivy League championship, I feel a sense of urgency."

It's that urgency that's forced him into this role. A role that everyone around him sees him embracing.

"He's grown as a leader,"  Murphy confirms. "He's always led by example, but he will not hesitate to get after a teammate if he's not playing up to his potential."

And how has Winters kept his teammates accountable? The same way he's overcome so many of the hurdles in his own life – by demanding the most of them and doing whatever it takes to meet those demands. By setting high expectations for himself and others and not resting until those expectations are met.

So far, those standards have been reached, and Winters is happy with how the Crimson has prepared for the 2011 season. Although his optimism is tempered with caution, he believes this year's squad has the potential to do great things. He knows there are areas where the team must improve but, as always, he is ready and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that progress is made.

So if Collier Winters and the 2011 Harvard Crimson walk off the field after the 128th edition of The Game with a win and an Ivy League championship, don't be surprised.

He expected it all along.