‘The past is the past’: Bombers’ coaches ready for reunion with motivated Andrew Harris

Photo courtesy: Toronto Argonauts

Reunions are often a time of heated emotions but don’t expect Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea to suddenly bare his soul ahead of the team’s first meeting with former running back Andrew Harris.

The star Canadian ball carrier departed from his hometown team this offseason with two Grey Cup rings and some hurt feelings.

While the Bombers’ had nothing but compliments for the future Hall of Famer as he headed out the door, there were rumours of discontent with his preparations for an injury-plagued 2021 season. As a result, Harris received only what he deemed a “disrespectful” late contract offer and the 35-year-old left with vows to make Winnipeg regret their decision.

His first opportunity to do so in person will come Monday when the Bombers visit the Toronto Argonauts. It’s a safe bet that the result will be an extremely motivated Harris wearing a new shade of blue but in typical fashion, his former head coach is placing no stock in the situation — at least not publicly.

“I think he plays everybody tough,” Mike O’Shea told the Winnipeg media Friday. “I also believe that he’s gotten to where he is because he’s a pro, so I imagine he has the same amount of juice for every game.”

For a more honest perspective on Harris’ mindset entering the game, fans should instead turn to the analysis of offensive coordinator Buck Pierce, who understands what his former workhorse back may be experiencing.

“I’ve been traded as a player and I think the biggest thing is you have relationships and a life outside of football,” he explained. “Yeah, you play football with these guys, but you build relationships too. He built relationships here, roots in this community, obviously, and a lot of friends.”

“I would expect him to be competitive, not just because he’s Andrew but because he’s a football player and when you’re in a new environment going against your old team, that’s exciting.”

Pierce is also the man dealing with the biggest fallout from Harris’ departure, as the powerful rusher was the heart and soul of the Winnipeg offence for five seasons. He posted 5,402 rushing yards, 2,584 receiving yards, and 35 total touchdowns over that span and while his production declined with his health in 2021, replacing him has been no easy task.

The Canadian tandem of Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine have averaged 84 yards rushing through three games, middle of the pack in the CFL, but their 3.8 yards per carry so far is second-worst in the league. The Bombers have been a far cry from the dominant rushing team of years past and the team has been giving American Greg McCrae a long look in practice in the hopes of creating a spark.

Nevertheless, Pierce isn’t losing sleep wondering what might have been if Harris could have stuck around.

“Every year, you’ve got to continue to find different ways and look at what you’re doing and play to our strengths now,” he said. “Every year’s different, the past is the past and we’re looking forward to moving on right now with the guys that we’ve got and we’re proud of the work that they’re doing.”

For his part, Harris has yet to fully hit his stride in Toronto. Through two games, he’s carried the ball 25 times for 114 yards and caught five passes for 42 more. A promising debut was derailed by hamstring tightness and there was little a running back could do during the Argos blowout loss to the Lions in Week 3. No one will remember either of those outings if he’s able to stick it to the Bombers in a new uniform.

Despite the sourness of his departure, Harris has indicated that he continues to have a deep respect for those still in Winnipeg, including Mike O’Shea. That feeling is mutual but O’Shea will make no promises about speaking to his former player pre-game in order to bury the hatchet. Those types of things happen on their own timeline.

Pierce, who hasn’t spoken to Harris since last season, was a little more sentimental in his own response to that question.

“On a personal level, it’ll be great to see Andrew. All his accolades and things, that’s him on the football field but he’s a great teammate as well and got a lot of respect from the guys in this locker room and around the league,” he said.

“We’re proud of the things that he did here. Obviously, very thankful and we wish him the best in Toronto.”

Just not this week.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.