Mixed emotions as Big Blue prepare to face Harris, Argos


Mixed emotions as Big Blue prepare to face Harris, Argos

When Andrew Harris signed with the Toronto Argonauts in February, marking the end of his time with the Blue Bombers, the decision to move on from the future Hall of Fame running back was met with mixed feelings.

While fans were quick to condemn or justify Harris’ departure after five seasons in Winnipeg, a tenure that ended with back-to-back Grey Cup titles, it was a tough pill to swallow for several Bombers players. For many of Harris’ now-former teammates, it remains difficult to digest the fact that No. 33 is no longer with the Bombers and part of their run at a three-peat.

Though it’s been months since Winnipeg opted to move on from Harris, leaving ample time for the initial shock to wear off, it’s still going to be weird to cross paths when the Bombers travel to Toronto for a Monday matchup against the Argonauts at BMO Field. Winnipeg and Toronto play just once this season, with the Argonauts not scheduled to return to IG Field for a rematch.

“It’s always hard. Especially a guy like him, a guy who we’ve formed a relationship with over a long period of time,” Bombers offensive lineman Patrick Neufeld said following Friday’s practice at IG Field. “But that’s always the sh—-y part about this business. Everyone says, and everyone, at some point, more likely than not, is gonna go through it. So, it’s it sucks not having him around, but we have a phenomenal locker room and I’m sure he’s forging those new bonds out in Toronto, too.”

Harris signed with the Bombers in 2016, after breaking into the CFL with the B.C. Lions in 2010. A Winnipeg native, many believed that Harris would end his career playing for his hometown team.

After an injury-plagued 2021 season that saw Harris limited to just seven games, with his production also dropping off slightly from previous years, the Bombers opted to go in another direction. Toronto was quick to sign the 35-year-old, inking Harris to a one-year deal worth $165,000 – the highest salary among CFL running backs.

“Respectfully, the best running back in the Canadian Football League,” said Argos GM Michael Clemons, in a prepared statement, shortly after signing Harris. “Homegrown through junior football, he is not defined by his birth certificate but refined by our Canadian game. His will to win is only paralleled by his love of the game. Andrew is a gift, a game-changer.”

In two games with the Argonauts this season, Harris has rushed 25 times for 114 yards — an average of 4.6 yards per run — and reeled in five of six targets for 42 yards through the air.

“Andrew has meant a lot to the organization. He was here four years before I even arrived,” Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros said. “It’s going to be an exciting game and I know Andrew is going to play with a chip on his shoulder.”

Collaros and Harris became fast friends after Collaros was acquired from the Argonauts just prior to the 2019 trade deadline. The Bombers quarterback would often speak glowingly of Harris and what he brought to the offence, as well as the energy he added to the huddle.

Having players move on to other teams is nothing new in professional sports, especially the CFL, where one-year contracts have become the norm. Collaros has experienced the tough side of the business, having played for four teams over his 11-year career in the league.

Still, that experience didn’t make Harris leaving more palpable.

“I don’t think it makes it any easier. I’ve been in similar situations; obviously, not to that extent,” Collaros said. “But sometimes a team just wants to go a different way and that’s just, I guess, what happened.”

To be clear, Collaros and Neufeld, while close with Harris, are happy with what the Bombers have in the backfield. Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine were both signed to make up for the sizable loss, and each has contributed to a run game that will only improve over time.

The Bombers are averaging 84 rushing yards per game, which ranks just fifth in the nine-team league. The B.C. Lions lead the CFL in that category, averaging an eye-popping 167 rushing yards. Hamilton has a league-worst average of 44 yards.

With Harris as their feature back for five seasons, the Bombers were ranked first in rushing yardage three times and second once. Harris also led the league in rushing for three straight seasons (2017, 2018, 2019).

“The guys that we have in the backfield never looked at it as filling Andrew’s shoes. They have their own identities, they’re their own players,” Neufeld said. “They do unique things, and when it comes to energy, different position groups bring that energy. So, there’s no drop off in that department, for sure. It’s just the uniqueness of Brady and Johnny and what those guys bring is great, too.”

Bombers offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce has employed a two-back system so far this year, though Oliveira has received a majority of the touches. The 24-year-old Oliveira, who is also from Winnipeg, has 39 rushes this season compared to Augustine’s 12.

With Harris, when he was healthy there was no debate over who was running the ball.

“Oh, of course,” Pierce said when asked about the difficultly in replacing someone like Harris. “But every year we’ve got to continue to find different ways, and looking at what you’re doing, and play to our strengths now. The past is the past and we’re looking forward to moving on right now with the guys that we have. We’re proud of the work that they’re doing and we’re just going to keep grinding as we go.”

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Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

Credit: Mixed emotions as Big Blue prepare to face Harris, Argos