April 24, 2020

Harris finds peace, new perspective on his 33rd birthday

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris prepares for a tv interview at media day during the CFL's Grey Cup week in Calgary, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

We hadn’t spoken for a long while, not since right after the Grey Cup parade when Winnipeg Blue Bombers players gathered in the locker room for a teammates, friends and family unwinder.

Andrew Harris was still gearing down then from the most tumultuous of his 10 years in the Canadian Football League. The final few months of the 2019 season had him wound tight – tighter than the bolts on a new bridge as they say down south – and the veteran running back was in the midst of an emotional letting go that began on Grey Cup Sunday and was then still unfolding.

And so when Harris and I spoke again earlier this week for the first real time since parade day, that was a subject I wanted to broach, along with his celebrating 33 years on the planet on Friday and where the back-to-back-to-back CFL rushing champ might go from here.

What then became crystal clear over the course of a 30-minute chat was the picture of a man who had admittedly become hardened by being to hell and back last year, but who was also very much at peace with himself now – as syrupy and melodramatic as that might sound.

Yet, to truly understand the foundation of this happy place Harris finds himself in now, it’s important to rewind a tad – back to a Grey Cup week which was bringing to a close a few months that had pulled him back and forth through an emotional and physical grinder that included a two-game suspension and the hard days that followed.

“Grey Cup week can be enjoyable for a lot of players, with the media attention and all the stuff that’s going on,” Harris began. “But for me, I really didn’t enjoy the days leading up to Grey Cup all that much. All I wanted to do was to go play the game and get it done. That’s it: I just wanted to get to game day.”

What happened next is already Bombers folklore, as Harris effectively harnessed all the rage and adrenaline that was churning inside his gut and all those emotions  banging around in his brain en route to being named both the game’s MVP and top Canadian in a sensational performance.

Afterward, there was that ‘blank-you’ acidic tone to his voice while accepting those two trophies, and it wasn’t until a little later when he said he felt his shoulders really loosen and exhaled.

“I had so much energy that week from the season with some of the B.S. that was included in it,” he said. “And when the game was all said and done I had a bunch of buddies in my hotel room after and I was just sitting and I had that  ‘Wow’ feeling. It was, ‘Wow… we just did that. I just did that.’ We had overcome so much. We were underdogs in every game in the playoffs. That was an amazing feeling.”

“And the parade? Well, I remember being on that stage at The Forks and being so emotional. I was supposed to speak and I was in tears. And I can remember Bob Irving whispered to me, ‘Pull yourself together, man.’”

Harris paused for a moment here. And as yours truly paused, too, the proud Winnipegger then next barrelled through the opening like some sort of end zone was in sight.

Yes, it would seem reliving and talking about those moments can be good therapy sometimes, too.

“It was definitely an emotional year for me, everybody knows that,” Harris continued. “It’s funny…  a lot of the guys poked fun at the amount of tears I shed last year – definitely more than any other season I’ve played in my life.

“It showed me the amount of love and the brotherhood we had with our team. We overcame so much, I overcame so much on a personal note. And so that moment at The Forks was like, ‘I’m here. Enjoy this moment.’ We did what we said we were going to do and that was to bring the Cup back to Winnipeg.

“That’s a feeling I’ll cherish forever. I still see the clips once in a while from the parade and me standing on the stage talking to the fans and enjoying my teammates. An amazing day. An amazing week. I think of the emotions I had from when our plane landed in Calgary for Grey Cup week to that day at the Forks… it’s night and day.”

There’s a clear and obvious sound of contentment in his voice now. The offseason can have that effect on any player, but especially so for someone like Harris, whose ups and downs last year were both so dramatic and so public.

He’s still working to stay in shape for an 11th season – although he desperately misses playing his rec hockey and basketball – and, as always, he is juggling a number of projects.

Just as a point wrapped around celebrating his birthday, we mention that Saskatchewan Roughriders legend George Reed was the oldest player to win a CFL rushing title – having done so at the age of 35 back in 1974 – and wonder if that might be something that could fuel him next.

“I don’t really think about stuff like that,” Harris said. “I told myself I wanted to play until I was 33 and anything beyond that would be gravy. To know that this season is going to be delayed and how many games we’re going to play or how it’s going to play out… for me it’s been a great ride, a great journey and anything beyond now I’m just blessed to be a part of it.

“This will be the last year of my contract, so you never know what’s next for me. Obviously I’d like to still continue to play if the body is feeling good. I feel like I still have more to contribute at a high level. But it’s out of my hands at this point. The only thing I can do is make sure that once we do get back on the field that I’m ready to go.”

That telling, honest answer led to the next question: with the goal of bringing a championship back to his hometown now accomplished, with the rushing titles and awards piling up, does Harris still have that trademark chip on his shoulder, the one that drove him from junior football in Nanaimo to CFL stardom?

An Andrew Harris without that chip, after all, might just be unrecognizable.

“The chip on my shoulder is there, but it’s also bigger than that now for me,” he reasoned. “If anything, what we’re experiencing now is a wake-up call for a lot of athletes – not just in football but in any sport – to realize all this can get taken away from you just like that. It can be getting cut, getting injured or something like this pandemic and so this should remind everybody to always be thinking about what’s next because this can end at any point.

“Some guys are realizing that or are having that ‘Oh s—t’ moment now. A lot of guys, unless they have offseason bonuses or offseason money, they haven’t seen a cheque since their last game. So around now a lot of guys are relying on that training camp money and the money from Week 1 an 2 and having that coming back in again. I hope a lot of guys are prepared for this and working for it and if not, that they’ll be OK. That’s every profession, I get that. I think of the single parent families or all the families that this is affecting heavily. It’s a tough time for a lot of people.

“But that chip is always going to be there,” he insisted. “It’s imbedded in me, it’s part of the competitor I am. This season will come down to me wanting to show I can compete and that I can still do this at 33 years old or 34 years old or however long I keep playing this game.nI was just looking forward to playing a full season this year and have a season with no B.S., like what came with last year. We’ll see.”

Harris kept spinning back to this same theme, this bigger-picture view of his career, of life in general.

Again, that’s partly what happens every winter when a player has a chance to recharge. But he’s officially 33 now and his birthday comes during a global pandemic and just months after the biggest item on his to-do list – returning the Grey Cup to his hometown – had been checked off in dramatic fashion.

“Last year… I guess I always knew this, but as hard as it was to get here, it can all get taken away just like that,” he said. “You can get humbled very quickly. It showed me that’s how it is in this business, but also that it’s that way in life. It’s not how bad things get, but how you respond to them.

“I tip my hat to the people in the organization like Osh (Mike O’Shea) and (Senior Director of Public and Player Relations) Darren Cameron and my teammates who had my back. They didn’t do it because it was their job, they did it because they cared about me. That’s still very meaningful to me. And there were others who showed their true colours and wanted to kick you when you were down.

“To be able to go through what we went through and accomplish what we did means everything. To my teammates… I’ll never truly be able to express how much I appreciated them telling me, ‘We’ve got your back.’”

Make no mistake, Andrew Harris is still driven, still has more to accomplish, more goals to chase individually and as a team. The 2020 Bombers have a ton of returning faces and Harris believes the squad has the capability of becoming the first squad to win consecutive titles since the 2009-10 Montreal Alouettes.

But last year changed him and going through what we’re all experience right now does have a lot of folks pining for a return to ‘normal’, whatever that might look like after this.

“There’s this photo of me from when I was in B.C. in 2012 and we lost in Calgary (in the West Final),” he said. “I had that printed and I hung it on my mirror. It was probably there until just a couple years ago. The quote with it was, ‘Never underestimate the commitment to winning.’

“It was a hard road for me to get here. There are a lot of guys who go through even more than me and then when they get to the point where they are a household name or a starter they forget their journey. It’s a lot of hard work to get to become a great player and you can’t ever take that for granted. You have to work at it and, again, remember that it can get taken away from you with an injury, with being cut, a pandemic…

“It’s just such a blessing to be able to hang out at the field with a bunch of guys, a bunch of goofs playing a kid’s game,” Harris added. “That’s one thing I’m definitely going to do now once we get back to it.

“It’s all part of me looking at things differently now. I’m going to appreciate every day, every practice, every snap whether it’s the dog days of camp or when it’s 35 degrees in August. You take things for granted sometimes. I won’t do that anymore. That’s a guarantee.”