Breaking up is hard to do: messy split between Bombers, Harris should have been avoided

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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers went through a messy split with star running back Andrew Harris over the past week, which in retrospect seems like it should have been avoidable.

It’s rare that one party is solely to blame for a breakup and this one is no exception. Had the situation been handled better by the team and its hometown hero, it appears this pairing could have remained intact.

The Blue Bombers should have done a better job of communicating with Harris throughout the winter. It’s pretty clear that Winnipeg intended on moving forward with Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine in the backfield, which makes sense. They’re both talented young Canadians who are ready to take on larger roles in the offence.

The club should have simply done a better job of explaining their plan to Harris, who felt as though he was left in the dark for most of the winter.

The future Hall of Fame running back told the Winnipeg Sun that he would have considered staying in Winnipeg at a reduced rate if the club has been more forthcoming about their plans, which seems like a huge missed opportunity. As good as Oliveira and Augustine are, they would surely be even better with Harris serving as a mentor in a rotational role.

The club could also have gotten creative with how they compensated the aging star. Perennial all-star linebacker Adam Bighill has an off-field job with Wellington-Altus Private Wealth, whose president and co-founder, Shaun Hauser, sits on the team’s board.

It’s unclear what Harris wants to pursue after football — coaching, finance, real estate, whatever — but I’m sure the club has resources they could have offered to help him transition down that path. After all, the veteran ball carrier turns 35 in April and should be doing everything he can to plan for his future.

Harris also could have done a better job of communicating with the team. He chose to represent himself, presumably to save the commission he would have had to pay an agent to negotiate on his behalf.

There’s a reason why most players hire an agent: negotiations are often contentious and it’s easy for feelings to get hurt. Harris has been represented by a top CFL agent in the past and there’s no reason why he couldn’t have hired one again.

The Winnipeg native also admitted that he didn’t come into training camp in the best shape last season following what he described as a challenging year. He was dealing with a lingering injury from the summer of 2020 and went through a separation from his wife, which weighed on his heart and mind.

“I didn’t really have the right frame of mind to get myself into the gym and be able to work the way I was supposed to be,” said Harris via videoconference. “I felt like I isolated myself a little bit. I came in off the wrong foot and there were a lot of different emotions going on. I think there was definitely some mental health things going on with myself and I kind of went into a hole personally and mentally.”

Harris is only 339 rushing yards away from becoming the fifth running back in CFL history to reach the 10,000-yard mark. His departure from Winnipeg feels eerily similar to that of Charles Roberts, who was traded to the B.C. Lions in 2008 when he was just 13 yards shy of the milestone.

The Winnipeg native wanted to bring the Grey Cup to his hometown after he signed with the club as a free agent in 2016 and was successful in doing so — twice. I’m sure the relationship between Harris and the Blue Bombers will improve over the years to come — time, as they say, heals all wounds.

Harris will one day be inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club’s Hall of Fame and the Ring of Honour at IG Field. He’ll be remembered primarily for his time in blue and gold when he’s inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and I’d imagine the Blue Bombers won’t assign any incoming players his No. 33 for the foreseeable future.

Playing for the Arizona Cardinals didn’t diminish Emmitt Smith’s legacy with the Dallas Cowboys and a short stint with the Toronto Argonauts won’t damage the way Harris is remembered in Bomberland decades from now.

It’s just a shame that he and his hometown team couldn’t find a way to keep their relationship going for another year or two. In retrospect, their split seems entirely avoidable.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.