November 22, 2017

Long Read | Andrew Harris

Andrew Harris (33) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers warms up before the game against the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, AB, Friday Nov. 3, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

OTTAWA – It’s what Winnipeg Blue Bomber fans have come to expect now from their hometown hero: the sight of Andrew Harris driving his legs and then pushing, pulling, dragging would-be tacklers while scrapping for just one more inch, one more yard.

Now, it would be a bit misleading to suggest Harris runs like a man possessed – besides, that conjures up all sorts of negative images – but he does bulldoze and tip-toe his way around the football field like a man obsessed.

And in many ways, what drives Harris can be called an obsession. He is fuelled by the desire to provide for his daughter Hazel and be considered among the best at his craft, all of which continually stokes an inner fire that, even in a week when he is the front-runner for the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Canadian Award, never stops raging.

“It comes down to me trying to prove myself all the time,” began Harris in a chat with “No matter what kind of season I’ve had, I always feel like there’s something I have to prove. This year it was ‘He’s 30 now.’ When I first came to Winnipeg it was, ‘I have to prove that it was worth me coming here or whether I was worth this amount of money.’

“I’ve always felt that I’ve been looked at as an underdog, even with my amateur background and coming from junior. It’s always been about that, about proving things to myself and to everyone else that I can play and do it at a high level.”

“As an athlete, no matter what you do there are always going to be critics, there are always going to be people you have to prove yourself to. I take that as a challenge. Those are the things that motivate me.”

The story of Harris and his rise to stardom in the CFL has been told before here. It has its roots in Steinbach, where a hockey-playing kid was spotted messing around at a barbecue at Southwood Elementary by a coach with the Eastman Raiders football program. He was a gifted athlete – so much so that he was drawing attention from Western Hockey League scouts – but turned his focus completely to football in high school, first with Grant Park and then with Oak Park.

He had an opportunity to play college ball at St. Mary’s University, but while on a recruiting trip to Halifax found out he was about to become a father. Harris opted to play with the Vancouver Island Raiders of the BC Junior Football League instead, as it gave him the freedom to work when he wasn’t on the football field.

“My mom was always a hard worker and a lot of times when I was younger, she worked two jobs to be able to keep me in sports,” said Harris. “But I feel like I’m a product of my environment as far as influences and how I grew up. When I first went out to Nanaimo I became a completely different kid after two years out there. I grew up a lot out there.

“And having Hazel at a young age really motivated me as well because I knew I had to provide for her and the best way I knew to do that was to play football, but I also worked a full-time job in Nanaimo.

“I was doing labour jobs, but it was then that I realized I might be able to make some money playing football. That was my biggest motivation and driving force to be successful.”

He was a territorial exemption pick of the B.C. Lions in 2008 and attended their training camp. A year later, Harris practised with both the Leos and the Raiders, rising at 8 a.m. to go to work with the CFL squad, then hopping on a float plane to Nanaimo and practising with the junior team before taking the ferry home at night.

That dedication began to bring results: by 2010 Harris had cracked the Lions roster and in 2011, led B.C. to a Grey Cup victory over the Bombers – he was named the top Canadian in that game – and then further morphed into a CFL All-Star in 2012 and 2015.

“I would have done anything in any role for the Lions at that point just to get on the field,” Harris recalled. “It started with special teams because I was willing to do anything just to get on the field.

“You have to have the mentality that every game, every play, could be your last. When you’re breaking tackles and trying to fight for every yard, that’s where the inner motivation comes from… I try to have that fire and drive every time I have the ball in my hands.”

Harris is also driven by the memory of a friend – Aaron Niedergesaess – who passed away in 2008. The two became close while playing junior football and their daughters were born just two weeks apart. Niedergesaess quit football when he was 21 to care for his young family. Tragically, his life was lost in a car accident.

“He had a troubled upbringing and was involved in some bad things. But he totally cleaned himself up and was completely sober the entire time I knew him,” said Harris. “He was an extremely passionate guy as far as his intensity and drive. We became really close, really tight.

“He had a good job in Northern Alberta working on the rigs. He was doing that and was back in Calgary visiting his family. They were driving back to go back to work and the guy who was driving fell asleep at the wheel… Aaron was sitting in the passenger seat and was killed in the car crash.

“When that happened… I remember being on the practice field and my coach came up to me and said, ‘I have some bad news…’ It was devastating for me, especially because he had just had a daughter. He overcame so many things in his life. He was on the right track and everything was going well… for his life to be taken like that, it just didn’t feel like it was fair at all.

“It hurt me a lot.”

Harris switched his number from 20 to 33 to honour Niedergesaess and has a tattoo of a Lion on his shoulder that spreads to his back that features ‘33’, his daughter’s name as well as clouds and birds.

“The lion is a symbol of what kind of person he was and the pride he had,” said Harris. “That fire, that passion he had… it’s another driving force for me. It’s one of the other reasons I play the way I do.

“Every game I pray to him while kneeling at the 33-yard line and I wear his number around my neck. He was a big part of my life. He was involved in my life for a short time, but he was one of those people that just touches you in a way that is indescribable.”

Harris arrived back home with the Bombers through free agency in 2016, by that time already an established CFL star. But he hardly threw his feet up and coasted. Realizing the pressure on him to help lead the franchise back to respectability, Harris spent even more time taking care of his body and in the film room.

He’s a regular at Thermea during the season, and in the offensive line meetings in the days leading up to games. It’s all part of his dedication to having his body and mind right on game day.

“I’ve always been a firm believer in the more you know, the better off you’ll be on the field,” Harris explained. “It’s why I worked so hard to be a better receiver, especially earlier in my career. That’s the other part of this: earlier in my career I didn’t really know where I was going to be (kick returner, receiver or running back) and so it was important to be in on everything.

“This year with me sitting in on the O-line stuff… it was about sitting around and doing nothing while those guys were meeting or being in those meetings to help me. But it was as much about the guys and being around them and learning with them and growing with them.

“And Thermea… that was a huge part of my rehab and trying to be healthy every week. It was taking that extra day, getting more massages… the body is one thing, but the mind is another and taking the time to get that R&R and shut the brain off was important to me.”

“I’ve heard people talk about me being 30 now,” he added. “You get to that mark and it’s like you want to prove you can still play and still be explosive and still do all the things you’ve been doing your whole career. It was a challenge to myself. It was like, ‘OK, I am 30 now. But I can still do this and be better than I ever have.’”

The results were there every week in 2017 as Harris authored his best season as a pro, winning the CFL rushing title, leading the league with 105 catches – breaking the old league mark for running backs – as the centre piece of the Bombers’ offence.

He posted those numbers with defences keying on him, with Darvin Adams and Weston Dressler out for long stretches, with Timothy Flanders in and out of the lineup and Matt Nichols also nicked.

Why does he run so hard? It’s who he’s running for and it’s what he’s running for that keeps his legs moving.

“You play this game to provide for your family,” Harris said.

“At first you do it because it’s fun and you’re good at it. But at the end of the day it becomes a job. It’s a great job to have and it’s not one I want taken from me until I feel I’m done with it. That’s part of it, too: I want to play this game until I’m done with it, not until the game is done with me.”

“I’ve been thinking about a speech and who I might thank if I’m lucky enough to win this week. There are so many people in my life who have got me to where I am today. No one gets anywhere without help. I’ve had great influences and great people to help keep me in check and help me along the way.

“That’s what gets me up on those days when you’re sore and you’re tired: there are other people on the line, people that are holding you accountable and people you are responsible for every day.”