Andrew Harris (33) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers before the pre-season game at TD Place in Ottawa, ON on Monday June 13, 2016. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
He grew up here. He played his football here. And then Andrew Harris left to fine-tune his craft and transform himself into one of the Canadian Football League’s elite.
Now, after six years with the B.C. Lions, he’s about to play his first game for his hometown Winnipeg Blue Bombers. But his journey back home has hardly been a straight line free of potholes.
Here is Andrew Harris, in his own words, on the road back home:
I’m a visualizer.
I spend a lot of time visualizing what I want to do in games and I’ve been thinking about that first real game at Investors Group Field and coming out of the tunnel for the first time.
I know it’s just going to be electric running out and hearing the fans. I know this place is going to erupt and the chills will be going down my spine. That first carry, that first snap… it’s going to be unreal.
But it’s not just football any more. It’s all the things that have gone into it. There will be friends and family in the stands, but this is also a team I watched growing up.
I really want to be a part of changing things around here. I want to be a part of a championship team.
My first memories of playing football are from back in school in Steinbach, where we lived at the time, at a barbecue at Southwood Elementary. We were just throwing the ball around and playing a little bit of touch football. One of the kids at the school, his dad was the coach of the Eastman Raiders and asked me if I had ever played football before and what kind of sports I was playing.
I was really into hockey at that time, just like any Canadian kid, and it was pretty much my only sport. My mom was at the barbecue that day and the coach started talking to her. She’s a worrywart and has always been very worried about me getting hurt. Plus, I had never played football before, so she was worried about that too. We went through the same thing in hockey when she was worried about me getting cut by a skate or people skating circles around me.
But I went out that summer and played football. They had me at quarterback and running back. I was in the older of the two groups of 11 and 12 year-olds, and that first year the season went really well for me.
I remember after our first game, there was even an article in the Steinbach paper and the coach came up to me and said, ‘Look, you’re already a superstar!’ That was a cool moment for me. I had the old O-lineman helmet with the one bar in the middle, but had no idea what the difference was.
I was still playing hockey and it wasn’t too long after that I started getting some interest in the WHL around the time of the bantam draft, but hockey was getting really expensive. I played AAA and summer hockey, and then one winter I had sponsors all over the back of my jersey. I had to get subsidized because my mom was pretty much a single parent.
It was tough.
It’s also when the composite sticks were coming out and everyone was using them, but I had the old wooden ones and the old gear. It was just too financially stressful for my mom.
So, when we moved back to Winnipeg I stopped playing AAA and just started playing hockey for Grant Park in Grade 10 and 11.
At that point, because of the expense and my growing love for football, I knew I wouldn’t take hockey any further.
I remember being at a super scrimmage for football and doing really well. I got some respect that day because I was competing against some guys who were already getting university scholarship offers. That was the turning point when I thought I could go on and play university football.
But in Grade 11, I was hanging around with the wrong crowd. I didn’t have a lot of positive influences and was getting into situations on weekends or at night that weren’t the best. I thought it would be a good idea to try and get away from those distractions and so that’s why I went to Oak Park for Grade 12. Plus, Stu Nixon, the coach, was the guy who basically initially convinced me to go to Grant Park and then when I first got there in Grade 10, he left for Oak Park. I trusted him. I had a great coach at Grant Park, too, Mike Kennedy. But it was just a decision I made for myself.
My grades weren’t great coming out of high school. I thought about university, but I came out to Nanaimo on a recruiting trip where they were starting up the Vancouver Island Raiders and fell in love with it. I ended up working for Hadi Abassi, the owner of the team. He had a truss company and a window company and I’d do deliveries and just general stuff to make some money while playing.
We were good and it got us noticed.
Around that time I had a chance to play university ball with the St. Mary’s Huskies. I was flown out to Halifax in the offseason of 2007 to see the campus, meet Steve Sumarah – he was the coach there at the time – and to meet the players and check out the school.
I remember meeting Dave Stala there and they had Erik Glavic, who had just won the Hec Crighton, as their quarterback. It was a great program.
The night before I was ready to commit to the team, my girlfriend at the time called me and said, ‘We need to talk.’ I told her I was just about to commit to the team, and she told me she was pregnant. The next day, I told Coach Sumarah that I would have loved to go there but, financially and with everything I had going on in my life, it probably wouldn’t be the best decision. He tried to say that lots of guys had kids and made it work, but for me to move my girlfriend and have a newborn in a new city while trying to go through school… I just didn’t think that would be in our best interests. And so I declined and opted to go back and work in Nanaimo full time while playing football.
In 2008, I was a territorial exemption pick of the B.C. Lions and was invited to training camp. That first year I made it through rookie camp, but was sent home after the first week.
A year later I made the Lions’ practice squad, but was still playing for the Raiders. It was a crazy year. I lived with Hadi’s son, who was going to Simon Fraser, in Burnaby and also had a place in Nanaimo where my daughter Hazel and girlfriend were. I’d get up at 8:00 in the morning in Burnaby to go practice with the Lions. I’d be done practice at 1:30 p.m., shower, jump on the SkyTrain to downtown and then onto a float plane for Nanaimo and practice at 5:00 or 5:30 with the Raiders. Then I’d be back on the 9:00 o’clock ferry back to Vancouver and then the bus to Burnaby and be back home around 1:00 a.m.
I did that every day and by the end of the 2009 season, when we also won a national championship, I was so exhausted. It was just a straight-up grind.
I had a good relationship with Neil McEvoy, who is the Lions’ Director of Football Operations now, and he told me that Wally Buono didn’t really want me at first and wondered if this Canadian junior kid would even make it. At some point, and I’m not sure when that was, I definitely won Wally over.
I made the team in 2010 as a kick returner and special teams guy. After that season, Wally called me. We had Jamall Lee, who broke all these records at the CIS level, and Jerome Messam at running back. Both those guys are big and run fast. I was an under-sized running back from Canadian Junior ball.
He called me and to tell me I was going to be the starting tailback.
That offseason I trained like crazy but tore my pec. I remember the day clearly – March 17. That was a big shock; especially after the doctor told me I’d be out for six months. I was going to miss all of training camp, the start of the season and the chance to start. That rehab, that offseason, was very frustrating because I couldn’t do any upper-body stuff. But I worked my butt off and rehabbed myself to be back by training camp.
Jamal Robertson ended up being the starting running back to open the season. He’d be out there for three or four series and then I’d go in for one. We started out that season going 0-5. We were at 1-6 when they shuffled the roster, and one of the moves was to make me the starting running back. We won eight straight games and 10 of our last 11. It was crazy, going from being hurt and not knowing when I was going to be back, to being the starting running back and on this crazy run all the way to the Grey Cup and playing against Winnipeg, of all teams. That was a crazy, crazy ride.
Last year was tough. There were a lot of negative things going on, and with my family and daughter in Winnipeg and heading into free agency, there was a ton of talk about my coming home.
There were a lot of people, a lot of Winnipeg people, who were asking if I was coming home or if I had thought about it. I just said it would be nice to finish my career in Blue and Gold. I didn’t know if it would happen.
A funny story: Back in Grade 11, Charles Roberts was a Big Brother to one of the players on our team. He was living in the area near Grant Park and so I’d see him and he kind of knew who I was. When I turned 18, I was at the Palomino Club and had a couple of drinks in me and was feeling a little confident.
I saw him, and I remember saying to him, ‘I’m going to come take your job in a couple of years.’ And he said, ‘Come and get it.’
It’s amazing that all these years later I’m playing his same position with my hometown team.
I can’t wait for Friday against Montreal. I don’t look back too much. Like I said, I try to visualize the future.
There’s been a lot of adversity, for sure, to get back to this point. It’s been a long grind. It seems like any time I had an opportunity to take the next step or things were going well a door would shut. I was in high school doing well, but got in trouble and a door got shut. I thought I was going to go to university… that door got shut.
As it goes on, there just seems to be so many things that I had to go through. It’s been tough, but it makes me who I am. I definitely have a chip on my shoulder when I step on the field. I have something to prove, even this year. I’ve had some success, but coming back to Winnipeg I’ve got some other pressures to overcome, including being the hometown guy.
Expectations are high. But I want to do something big for this city and be a part of something that’s huge. This is for my daughter now. This is for my mom. Everything I do is a tribute to her because it wasn’t easy for her. She’s had to work really hard to help get me to where I am.
This is for them. This is for me. This is for my hometown.