More often than not in professional sports, once a team reaches the championship mountain top, a steep fall awaits them.
Winning equals big money and star players head for the door quickly when other franchises open up the checkbook.
That’s not the case for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Despite the massive financial hurdles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a canceled 2020 season, general manager Kyle Walters has performed the veritable magic trick of securing almost his entire Grey Cup core at a reduced price over the last few weeks.
Back are bookend offensive tackles Stanley Bryant and Jemarcus Hardrick, playoff mercenary Zach Collaros, multi-dimensional receiver Nic Demski, Most Outstanding Defensive Player Willie Jefferson and defensive leader Adam Bighill, all with eye-popping pay cuts.
Most importantly, Walters was able to secure face of the franchise, local running back Andrew Harris, at a similar discount.
“That’s been the most inspiring thing to me is seeing how many guys have been willing to just get back to being in the locker room and being with organization to play in front of our great fans,” Harris said on TSN radio in Winnipeg.
“It just goes to show you, from top to bottom, how well this organization is run and the camaraderie and brotherhood that we have and the appreciation our teammates have for each other to want to come back and do it again.”
The former CFL Most Outstanding Canadian’s new contract comes in at $170,000, a significant pay cut from the $215,000 that he was set to make in 2020.
The soon-to-be 34-year-old capped his 2019 season by not only helping his hometown team win the Grey Cup, but was also named the game’s Most Valuable Player and Most Valuable Canadian. Harris finished the 2019 season with 1,380 yards and four touchdowns along the ground, adding another 70 receptions for 529 yards and four scores.
That same year, Harris missed two games due to a suspension handed down for his doping violation. Testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug cost Harris a shot at the major individual CFL awards.
He was also left off the final ballot for the Lou Marsh Award, which is given annually to Canada’s top athlete. Harris claimed that the positive test came from a contaminated sample.
During the 2019 season, Harris moved into sixth place on the Bombers’ all-time rushing list with 4,779 yards and into tenth place in receptions with 300. Harris also passed Ben Cahoon to become the CFL’s all-time leader in yards from scrimmage by a Canadian with 14,145. He also moved past Normie Kwong as the league’s all-time leader for rushing yards by a Canadian with 9,038.
After a year away from the game, Harris still believes he has enough gas left in the tank to move up the all-time list. It doesn’t take a whole lot to get the five-time CFL all-star motivated for a new campaign.
“Getting back into the swing of things, I’m excited to start training with a purpose full-on and have a light at the end of the tunnel, instead of just training for no reason and trying to stay in shape,” Harris said. “Now we’ve got a season coming up and there is some excitement coming there. That’s all I need to get going.”
Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea have assembled a group of athletes motivated to repeat as Grey Cup champions, unified by a hard-working team culture that is the envy of the CFL. Harris knows exactly what he wants to do when he re-enter the locker room for the first time.
“I think the biggest thing is just giving the guys a hug,” Harris said. “I haven’t seen a lot of guys since the parade and you work so hard with a group of guys, accomplish something amazing and then you don’t see them for a year. Just that camaraderie, it’s going to be a great day.”
While the pandemic has provided many Bombers players, including Harris, the opportunity to pursue other career options and set themselves up for football, the game has never been far from his mind. A football player at heart, Harris credits his GM for keeping the core together for another dream run
“It’s an amazing thing that Kyle has done and we are looking forward to doing it all again,” he said confidently.
Good luck finding someone to bet against them.