Playing quarterback requires a lot more than just a cannon arm and an imposing stature.
It requires the leadership to orchestrate a fourth-quarter comeback on the road in your team’s biggest game of the year. Or the toughness to fight back from an injury and return before anyone expected. Or the perseverance to work to get better after an up-and-down season.
Over the past five years, Harvard senior Collier Winters has done all these things. But he has yet to accomplish the one act that defines the legacy of the quarterback far after his playing days are over—he has yet to lead his team to a championship.
Winters arrived at Harvard in 2007 at a mere 5’11, 175 pounds. That season, he appeared in six games, though he didn’t throw a pass all season; instead, he was instructed to use his athleticism and run. That he did, carrying 15 times for 74 yards over the course of the year. In a breakout game against Dartmouth, Winters—his first name listed as “Collie” in the box score—scored on scrambles of 20 and 4 yards in the second half to give Harvard a lead it would not surrender.
The quarterback came into the 2008 season set to play a larger role in the offense, but a myriad of injuries kept him out the entire year, which he chose to redshirt.
Despite the missed time, Winters continued to work hard on his game. He returned to the Crimson a year later, won the starting job, and shined, not just with his legs, but with his arm as well. Named to the All-Ivy second team, the sophomore led the league in pass efficiency and threw for the ninth-most yards in a season in Harvard history. He capped his breakout year with two touchdown passes in the final seven minutes of The Game, spurring Harvard to a comeback victory in front of 53,000 people at the Yale Bowl.
“Collie” had become “Collier,” the rushing quarterback had turned into a dual threat. All signs were pointing upwards for Winters’ junior season when the injury bug struck once again.
A torn labrum suffered shortly before the Crimson’s season opener was expected to keep the quarterback—named the preseason Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year by The Sports Network—out for the entire season. But Winters wasn’t going to accept another year without football.
“I was told by a doctor that [the injury] would normally take about 10 weeks to heal, so that would’ve kept me out the whole season,” he explained. “But I was confident I could come back sooner. I prayed a lot about it, and just having a positive attitude—not looking at it as something that was going to hold me out, but as something I had to overcome—was helpful. I focused all my energy on coming back.”
With backup Andrew Hatch also dealing with injury problems and inexperienced third-stringer Colton Chapple struggling early in the season, Winters knew his team needed its leader back under center. Five weeks later, that’s just where he was, having surprised everybody with his rapid recovery, but no one with his guts and determination to get back on the field.
“[His return] was a huge uplifting experience,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “It gave us a big lift mentally.”
Though Winters was still hampered by his shoulder injury, the junior was impressive in a gutsy week six debut against Princeton, appearing in the second half and completing 8-of-12 passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns. He then led Harvard to back-to-back wins over Dartmouth and Columbia, picking up an Ivy League Player of the Week honor in the process. In the season’s final game, Winters was 13-of-16 with a touchdown and no interceptions, defeating the Bulldogs on the Ancient Eight’s biggest stage once again.
The quarterback’s 4-1 record down the stretch helped lead Harvard to its Ivy League record 10th straight season with seven wins or more. But due in part to Winters’ struggles against Penn, against whom he threw three interceptions in the season’s penultimate contest, Harvard finished without an Ivy League title for the second straight year.
“I thought we had a good season last year, but our goal is always to win the Ivy League title,” Winters said. “We obviously fell short on that end, losing to Penn again, but ultimately that just makes us hungrier coming into this year.”
Winters used that hunger as fuel, working hard over the past summer to make himself the best quarterback he could be. The Claremore, Okla. native went down to the Manning Passing Academy run by Archie, Peyton, and Eli Manning at Nicholls State University in Louisiana, where he served as a camp counselor but showed off his own talents as well.