The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the entire Canadian Football League are mourning the loss of defensive line and assistant head coach Richard Harris today.
Harris died after suffering a massive heart attack in his office at the team complex Tuesday afternoon. An ambulance arrived at Canad Inns Stadium shortly after he collapsed and he was taken to hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Harris was 63.
The Shreveport, La., product is survived by his wife Tami, and their four children: Kimberly, Chianti, Jennifer and Michael. Harris also had three grandchildren: Chandler, Keegan-Michael and Aurora.
News of his death sent an instant shock through the club. Players were left speechless late in the afternoon, many just shaking their head in solemn disbelief as they entered the building. The club put out a request to media that members of the organization be allowed to grieve Tuesday night.
Harris, who first entered the CFL with the B.C. Lions in 2001, was respected for his football acumen.
Players, both current and former, always point to Harris being the best coach they've ever had, but his loss holds a deeper impact for Winnipeg as a whole. He treated people with an unparalleled respect, never once losing sight of an opportunity for a personal connection with someone he would only meet for the first time.
Former Bombers coach Bobby Dyce knew what that was about. He was the first person to welcome Harris to Winnipeg.
Dyce, currently a receivers coach and passing game co-ordinator for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, was the man assigned to meet Harris at the airport when he arrived prior to the 2006 season.
"He came through the international gate, came right up to me and gave me a big bear hug," Dyce recalled. "It took me by surprise. I never met him before. That big smile, this huge man in front of me, that's when I knew what he was about. He's just an incredibly warm individual."
Dyce, who worked with Harris for four years under the Bombers banner, called Harris a 'mentor' during their time together.
"Very seldom do you run into a person who doesn't judge people and looks for an opportunity to help," he added. "It's easy to talk about -- but to actually live it? That's what Richard was all about. You will never meet a better man."
Harris came to Manitoba in '06 on the insistence of then-Bombers defensive co-ordinator (and current Riders head coach) Greg Marshall, who worked with Harris in Ottawa (2005). The two were known to be as close as brothers from that time on, but when Marshall offered Harris a spot on his staff in Regina, Harris surprised many by turning it down.
"It's hardest thing I had to do in my entire life," Harris told the Free Press in January.
Winnipeg was his home, but he was still very close with Marshall: When Marshall won his first game as a CFL head coach last Sunday, Harris was the first person to call.
"Greg's pretty shaken up today," Riders GM Brendan Taman said Tuesday evening. "We all are. He was a great man first, but he was a great coach, too."
This season, Winnipeg's defensive line leads the league in sacks with 15 -- six more than any other club. Last season, Harris' line was one of the best defensive fronts, with DEs Phillip Hunt (16 sacks) and Odell Willis (11) leading the charge. Hunt and veteran tackle Doug Brown were named to the CFL all-star team under Harris' watch, as well.
Brown was was close with the former NFL lineman. Harris' decision to stay in Winnipeg this off-season played a part in his decision to play another year at Canad Inns Stadium.
That's the impact Harris had: He didn't just make people better, he gave people a reason to care.
"You always hear about players wanting to play for coaches -- you always hear that," said Taman, the former Bombers GM. "When that D-line played for Richard in Winnipeg, and they still do it to this day -- Doug Brown can verify it more than anybody -- they legitimately played for that man.
"Richard was the guy they would walk through a wall for."