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Blue Bomber Report

Blue defensive line has lost its leader

Bombers Willis, Brown owe a lot to coach Harris

Wearing his wraparound sunglasses and Blue Bombers cap, Odell Willis remembered Richard Harris Wednesday morning.

"Words can't describe the things he did for me, the love he showed me," the Winnipeg defensive end said a day after Harris suddenly passed away. "He's the true meaning of a player's coach. He loved us more than he loved coaching."

Odell Willis said Richard Harris loved his players more than coaching.


Odell Willis said Richard Harris loved his players more than coaching. Purchase Photo Print

Harris, the longtime Bombers defensive line and assistant coach, suffered a fatal heart attack in his office Tuesday afternoon. He was 63.

While members of the entire football organization come to terms with the fact the gregarious Harris will not be around anymore, there's a different reality on the Bombers defensive line: The group is without their leader now.

Yes, all players wearing Blue and Gold are Bombers, one group under one giant 'W.'

But the D-line is different: They're Harris' guys.

"If you were one of his players, if you were in his circle, he really adopted you as one of his own," veteran DT Doug Brown told reporters.

"He took care of them. He took care of everybody. He was one of the most loyal people I have ever met. I read (Wednesday) that his players would run through a wall for him.

"He would stop us and he would do it himself."

Willis echoed those sentiments. Harris was one of the nicest guys in football -- the reaction around the CFL Tuesday night proved that -- but he wasn't a pushover. Players respected him for his ability to be straight at all times, his knack of finding the right time to raise his voice when extra vocal guidance was required.

A defensive lineman in the NFL from 1971-77, Harris had the spark.

"Coach Harris -- he could have suited up and played if we needed him to," Willis said. "That's just how much fire and desire he had."

After Wednesday's walk-through, members of the D-line spilled off to a spot on the field and came together, a sign of brotherhood absorbed through Harris' guidance.

Arguably, this is the same group that counts as one of the best defensive lines in the country. The unit -- consisting of mainstays Brown, Willis, Dorian Smith, Don Oramasionwu, and a handful of first-year players -- leads the league with 15 sacks this season.

Willis has six of those and is sure to surpass the career-high 11 he registered a season ago. While Brown has been a CFL all-star every year since Harris joined the staff in 2006, it's Willis who may have gained more on the football field from Harris' tutelage.

The 26-year-old came to Winnipeg via a trade with Calgary in 2009 as a CFL rookie. Now in his third year, Willis and his high-energy style is a name brand, and he says Harris was responsible for that: "He never tried to stop me from having fun and being myself out here. He told me to embrace it."

The truest sign of the coach's impact on Willis came to light in just the simple fact that the speedy pass rusher was one of a handful of players asked to address the media Wednesday. Real life calls for a certain level of maturity, and to be front and centre with veterans like Brown, Chris Cvetkovic, Obby Khan, Buck Pierce and Terrence Edwards, perhaps that speaks to what the actual impact Harris had on Willis.

Away from the media scrum, Willis was asked if he thought about what today's game, with all the emotion of 28,000 people in the stands, was going to be like.

He paused for a moment and adjusted his cap.

"It will be a weird feeling in here, but it's life: You just have to keep going," he said. "Life isn't going to stop. Coach Harris wouldn't want us to stop."

Winnipeg takes on the B.C. Lions at Canad Inns Stadium tonight (7 p.m., TSN, CJOB).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2011 C4

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