Andrew Harris documentary, Running Back Relentless: ‘You’ll love it, but it’s not what you’re expecting’

Courtesy: Upper Canada Films

I had the privilege of attending the exclusive Toronto premiere of Running Back Relentless, the feature documentary from Upper Canada Films on future Hall of Fame running back Andrew Harris, you can watch the film on Apple TV and YouTube Movies.

The event, held at Hotel X’s gorgeous private theatre was graced by the presence of almost the entire Toronto Argonauts team, some CFL royalty, and passionate Argos fans.

As I write this, it occurs to me I should issue a disclaimer of sorts: I’m a much better football analyst than a film critic. Though I’ve never reviewed a documentary, I have, in fact, written reviews for movies, plays, and operas, but it’s been over 20 years since I last donned my critic’s hat. I felt the need to dust it off for this occasion with the aim of writing an honest review for CFL fans who were unable to attend a screening but now have the opportunity to watch it on a streaming platform.

I knew from the film’s marketing that Running Back Relentless chronicles Harris’ final CFL season, so I expected a traditional behind-the-scenes sports documentary, perhaps similar to a condensed season of Drive to Survive or Quarterback. However, a red-carpet conversation with the film’s director, Taylor Prestidge, hinted at a different narrative.

“I promise you, it’s not what you’re expecting,” he said. “You’ll love it, but it’s not what you’re expecting.”

He was right on both counts. I did love it. And to say it’s about Harris’ final CFL season is to say the Star Wars movie franchise is about space travel, so indeed, it was not what I was expecting.

Instead of a straightforward sports documentary, the film takes a deep emotional dive into Harris’ personal struggles. It’s a film about vulnerability, betrayal, and overcoming adversity — universal themes everyone can relate to, but to my eyes and my interpretation, it’s also about depression and mental health, though those words are never overtly stated.

Given the emotional depth and raw honesty depicted, a trigger warning might be advisable for viewers who could be sensitive to these themes. It also includes explicit language.

Harris’ participation in this documentary is nothing short of courageous. He opens up about the deep-seated resentment he feels towards his mother and his abusive stepfather, a topic many would find difficult to discuss privately, let alone in front of a camera. In one jarring moment, when shown a picture of his stepfather, Harris is unable to hold back an explosive outburst, highlighting the profound impact that relationship had on him. Throughout the film, he never shies away from expressing the complex feelings he harbours.

In addition to confronting his difficult childhood and family situation, Harris bravely acknowledges his own personal mistakes, both as a student and a professional. He candidly addresses his academic failures, his self-destructive tendencies, and relationship struggles. He also discusses his CFL suspension for testing positive for a banned substance in 2019.

By openly walking us through these challenges, Harris demonstrates an incredible level of vulnerability. Professional athletes don’t talk this way and they don’t address these topics, so it was refreshing, heartwarming, and heartbreaking to see Harris do so. His willingness to share these aspects of his life highlights his strength and adds a profound layer of authenticity to the film.

The documentary doesn’t solely focus on Harris’ personal struggles — there are also many segments that feature game action and highlight his remarkable 15-year CFL career. We journey through his unusual path to the pros, playing junior football on Vancouver Island and his early years with the B.C. Lions, where he quickly made a name for himself. With his initial taste of success, which included his first Grey Cup victory, along came a new degree of fame as well as disposable income.

The narrative later shifts to Harris’ move back to his hometown to play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. This transition brought not only the added pressure of having high expectations but also potential trouble as he navigated the challenges of being back in a place where he experienced so much darkness. Despite the added pressures, Harris’ time with the Bombers was marked by tremendous highs, winning two more Grey Cups, Grey Cup MVP, and Grey Cup Most Valuable Canadian. However, the film also exposed one of the harsh realities of pro sports when the Blue Bombers were ready to move on from Harris, leading to a bittersweet end to his time in Winnipeg.

Finally, we follow Harris to Toronto, where he signed with the Argonauts. The reaction Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons had to the realization that Harris was available in free agency is one of the film’s many hidden gems. As was the case in Winnipeg, Harris’ leadership and determination played a crucial role in guiding the Argos to a Grey Cup victory in 2022.

In his final season, the focus shifts to the gruelling rehabilitation process he underwent to recover from what could have been a career-ending knee injury. Ultimately, it all came to a close in a heart-wrenching loss in the East Final to the Montreal Alouettes. The film poignantly captures the emotion Harris felt as he watches the clock hit zeros in his final game, both literally and figuratively, marking the end of his illustrious playing career. His reflections as he walked off the field for the last time and broke down at his locker provide a moving conclusion to his storied journey.

Prestidge brilliantly wove together dozens of interviews, allowing him to avoid using a traditional narrator. This approach lets the story unfold organically through the voices of those who know Harris best. Perhaps Prestidge’s greatest accomplishment is his ability to get each interviewee to open up so candidly, providing bluntly honest and heartfelt insights into Harris’ life and career.

Prestidge blends personal anecdotes, career highlights, and moments of introspection very well, but there are a few small drawbacks in terms of the editing. The film’s division into chapters, each beginning with a title screen, may be seen as a logical storytelling device on paper, but they snapped me out of the immersive experience I was enjoying and reminded me I was sitting in a theatre. In a film that builds so much pace at times, these breaks derail the momentum. Additionally, while the film largely follows a chronological account of Harris’ life, there is one odd break from this structure between the 2022 and 2023 seasons, which I didn’t understand.

Running Back Relentless is a deeply moving and inspiring telling of a remarkable athlete’s life journey. It goes beyond the typical sports documentary by delving into Harris’ personal struggles and triumphs, showcasing his incredible resilience and strength, but also his vulnerability. Whether you’re a die-hard B.C. Lions, Blue Bombers, or Argos fan, a fan of CFL football, or simply someone who appreciates stories of human perseverance, Running Back Relentless is a compelling watch and well worth your time.

Running Back Relentless is available to watch on Apple TV and YouTube Movies.

Ben Grant is the radio colour analyst for the Toronto Argonauts. He has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years.