VANCOUVER -- You can take the boy out of Winnipeg, but never, ever, the Winnipeg out of the boy.
And so it didn't take long for B.C. Lions starting tailback -- and Oak Park High School alumnus -- Andrew Harris to start talking up his hometown this week, even in a place where the locals have adopted him and his underdog story -- a Canadian tailback? From the ranks of junior football? -- as one of their own.
"I went to four Jets games last year," Harris reflected the other day about his off-season in Winnipeg. "It's a crazy experience. I went to a couple of Canucks games in the playoffs a couple years ago.
"But there's nothing like being in that arena at MTS Centre."
That's high praise from the man who electrified the locals here in the Grey Cup last November with a performance that helped his club to a 34-23 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and earned him the nod as Most Outstanding Canadian in the game.
Oh, and it also earned him a two-year contract extension in the off-season -- perhaps explaining how he was actually able to afford to attend four Jets games last winter.
It's all been the culmination of a wild ride for Harris, who earned a spot on the Lions roster out of training camp in 2011 as a punt returner only to supplant starting tailback Jamal Robertson midway through the season and carry the ball for the Lions the rest of the way.
His 2011 regular-season rushing numbers weren't overwhelming -- 458 yards, a 4.8 yard average and just one touchdown. But his receiving numbers -- 30 catches for 395 yards and seven TDs -- showed his versatility.
Harris was also overshadowed a bit in a season in which, remarkably, two other Canadian tailbacks also excelled -- Calgary's Jon Cornish (863 rushing yards, 7.3 yard average, 9 TD's) and CFL Rookie of the Year Jerome Messam of Edmonton (1,057 rushing yards, 5.4 yards average, six TDs.)
But when the dust settled, it was Harris -- not Cornish or Messam -- who got fitted with the crazy expensive Grey Cup rings that all the Lions were awarded this spring.
And so armed with a new contract, Harris headed into Friday night's regular-season opener against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at BC Place -- the game was still underway at press time -- as the undisputed starting tailback for the Lions.
"When you look at his production not only as a ball carrier but also as a receiver, he produced a lot of really explosive plays," Lions head coach Mike Benevides says of Harris.
The challenge now, says Benevides, is Harris no longer will have the element of surprise on opponents this season. "The cat's out of the bag," Benevides says. "Our expectations for him are really high. He had a tremendous camp. He had a really good off-season and he's in great shape.
"Andrew's just going to get better and better and better. Last year was just a first taste..."
While he was born and raised in Winnipeg -- and continues to live there in the off-season -- the 25-year-old Harris really made his mark in football when he moved to B.C. With high school marks a bit low to get into university, Harris instead shattered Canadian Junior Football League records as a member of the Vancouver Island Raiders, winning CJFL titles in 2008 and 2009 while setting league records for career scoring and touchdowns.
All of which brings us to today. Harris says his mindset is different coming in as the starter this season, but the basic task remains the same. "Make an impact like I always have," he says, "and just be that every-down back that we need this year. That's my biggest goal."
Lions QB Travis Lulay -- the most outstanding player in the CFL in 2011 and a quick learner himself -- says the progression in Harris's game has been remarkable. "The thing is that he's so steadily improved. And I expect him to do just that -- to continue to improve, continue to work hard and be the hungry, humble guy that he's been."