Just three months removed from suffering a torn pectoral muscle that initially appeared season-ending, Canadian running back Andrew Harris is gearing up to make his return to the Toronto Argonauts’ lineup just in time for the East Final.
“I’ve been playing this game a long time. There’s some sort of much like riding a bike aspect to it,” Harris told the Toronto media on Thursday. “In the playoffs, everything’s faster, more intense, the hits are harder, so getting that game speed is going to be a bit of adjustment, but I think I’ll pick it up quickly.”
The future Hall of Famer began practicing last week but has not seen game action since suffering the injury in a Week 10 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. That hasn’t left him disconnected from the team, however, as Harris opted not to return home to Winnipeg to undergo the rehab process.
At 35 years old, he used the weeks off in Toronto as a type of paid test drive for a future career in coaching and kept himself engaged with the Argos’ day-to-day operations. The fringe benefit was a little added motivation to make an unlikely return at the tail end of his 13th CFL season.
“Being around the guys, working every day and coming in for a common goal definitely lights a fire under your butt to get ready and get back after it,” Harris admitted.
“I’m a hungry guy and I don’t know how many more years I’ve got left in me. We have an opportunity here to do something great and I came here to be a part of that. I wanted to see it through.”
Despite playing just eight games, Harris led the East Division in carries with 114 but finished with 490 yards and no touchdowns — posting a 4.3-yard average which was the lowest of his CFL career. Toronto struggled to find consistency in the run game for much of the season but has turned it on down the stretch thanks to an offensive line that is finally finding its chemistry.
“They’ve definitely made strides since the beginning of the season and I’m licking my chops to get in behind those guys and do what I can do,” Harris noted, before adding an important caveat.
“Again, like I said before, I’m here to complement A.J. [Ouellette]. He’s been doing an amazing job and I’m just looking forward to being a two-headed monster with him.”
In his third season out of Ohio University, Ouellette has seized control of the starting running back job in Harris’ absence. The American was named the East Division all-star at the position after rushing 98 times for 516 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games, while catching 38 passes for 350 yards and another score.
Ouellette is once again expected to start in the backfield in Sunday’s East Final, with head coach Ryan Dinwiddie projecting him to receive roughly 65 percent of the snaps. Harris will get the remainder and is more than happy to play the secondary role behind his younger teammate.
“Me and A.J. have come a long way as far as our friendship. He’s been here beside me in the locker room and I’ve been helping him out since training camp, just giving him my tips and how I see things and vice versa,” the star ball carrier explained. “Even earlier in the season, he was my set of eyes on the sidelines and obviously when I was off, I felt like a running back coach out there helping him out.”
With two similar downhill backs at their disposal, the Argos are certain to employ a physical gameplan against the Montreal Alouettes on Sunday. However, the biggest factor that Harris’ return to the lineup brings is not his ability to finish runs at the second level, but rather his veteran leadership.
The three-time Grey Cup champion joined the Boatmen after back-to-back titles with his hometown Winnipeg Blue Bombers and has stressed to his teammates all week just what it takes to win.
“We’ve all made sacrifices to be a professional athlete. A lot of guys have sacrificed being away from their families, sacrificed being away from college, and guys have kids at home and families at home. At this point, now you’ve got to sacrifice for your teammates,” Harris emphasized.
“It’s all about the guys in the locker room. Do that extra little bit. Whatever you’re doing throughout the week during the regular season is not enough, you’ve got to take that extra step and make that extra sacrifice and it’s not just one day, you’ve got to do it every day.”
It’s a mantra that Harris lived this week. Just after midnight on Thursday, he helped welcome his second child into the world, a baby boy named Axton Jacob Harris. Later that morning, after a brief catnap, the running back was back at Argos practice preparing for a playoff game.
“You’re not going to remember anything else other than those guys in the locker room after you’re all said and done,” Harris said with a grin. “There’s nothing better than drinking champagne, beer, vodka, whiskey, whatever it is out of that Cup and hanging out and raising that thing. It’s indescribable, it’s a priceless feat, and one that I’m hungry to get back at.”