As the biting November wind rippled through the stands of Harvard Stadium last fall, an era was ending. A war of attrition had been fought and the Crimson had emerged victorious over the visiting Yale Bulldogs, sealing its place as Ivy League co-champions. Senior fifth-year quarterback Chris Pizzotti ’08-’09 walked off of the field to take his place in the record books as 2008 Ivy League Player of the Year, accompanied by his second-in-command, fellow fifth-year senior Liam O’Hagan.
The Pizzotti-O’Hagan dynasty had ended, and as September ushered in the start of a new season, a question lingered in the minds of the Crimson faithful—who on earth is Collier Winters?
Winters, a junior from Claremore, Okla., was the one chosen to fill the lofty offensive gap left by the departed Pizzotti and O’Hagan. After a few sloppy scrimmages with an offense that was far from being cohesive, Winters’ debut at quarterback was a disappointing 27-20 loss over then-No. 23 Holy Cross.
Watching from the sidelines, I didn’t have much hope for the Crimson’s three-peat bid for Ivy League champions. Sure, Collier was fast, but the 5’11, 190-pound quarterback was built more like his coalition of sturdy running backs—Gino Gordon, Treavor Scales and Cheng Ho all clock in around 5’10, 190 lbs—than the 6’5 Pizzotti.
In fact, Winters doesn’t just look like a running back, he used to be a running back. Growing up idolizing players like Barry Sanders and Edgerrin James, the Oklahoman spent the first seven years of his football career carrying the ball as a tailback.
Then, as Winters began his first season at Booker T. Washington High School, his combination junior-high-and-high-school coach stepped in, and encouraged the athlete to change positions. Luckily for the Crimson—whom Winters has led to victories over Brown, Lehigh and Cornell, being named Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week along the way—Winters’ coach knew him well enough to foresee his success at quarterback. That coach was former Kansas State linebacker and the Oklahoman’s father, Kevin Winters.
“[Collier] played running back, but when we were home we spent hours learning how to throw the ball properly,” Kevin Winters said. “I anticipated that when he got older, his natural position would be as a quarterback. [In high school] he was ready to be quarterback because he had spent all that time learning how to throw and learning the nuances of being a quarterback.”
Winters’ father had made a good judgment call, and Winters transitioned easily into his new role as a signal caller. He set school records for passing yards and touchdown passes in his junior year, and was two-time team MVP and a member of the Tulsa World All-Metro and All-State teams.
However, along with his newfound aptitude for playmaking, Winters also became wary of the heightened pressure of being a quarterback. From his first foray into this position up through his time calling the shots for the Crimson, Winters has had to bear the burden of responsibility for both his team’s successes and failures.
“You definitely get a lot more attention focused on you [as quarterback],” Collier Winters said. “Either with the win or the loss, you get more credit than you should.”
In light of the impressive tenures of Pizzotti and O’Hagan, Winters has had all eyes on him during his first four weeks as Harvard’s starting quarterback.
“A lot of people see it as a lot of pressure and trying to live up to the standards that [Pizzotti and O’Hagan] set,” Winters said. “I would love to have the career that Chris [Pizzotti] had, but we’re different quarterbacks with different styles. I think that takes a little bit of pressure off.”
While Winters relies on his quick speed and running game, his recent Ivy League successes have positioned him as the legitimate successor of the Crimson’s former playmakers. From running back to Ivy League standout, it seems that Collier’s father was right all along.
—Staff writer Alexandra J. Mihalek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.