August 19, 2019

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Bombers' Harris plays it cool on passing 8K milestone

Spend long enough in professional football and the more the accolades pile up, the more you learn to briefly acknowledge them and move on. No matter how impressive they might seem to those around you.

Take, for example, Andrew Harris. On Friday, the 10-year CFL veteran and Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back since 2016, surpassed the 8,000-yard rushing mark with a stellar performance in a 48-21 win over the Toronto Argonauts. He carried the ball 14 times for 116 yards, bringing the 32-year-old's to a career total of 8,036.

Only 11 other players have reached 8,000 rushing yards in CFL history. Had Harris stood in front of reporters and basked in the spotlight, even for just a moment, it would have been merited. He did offer praise to his coaches and teammates, some dating back to when he played junior football in British Columbia, but remained mostly subdued when discussing the milestone.

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Spend long enough in professional football and the more the accolades pile up, the more you learn to briefly acknowledge them and move on. No matter how impressive they might seem to those around you.

Take, for example, Andrew Harris. On Friday, the 10-year CFL veteran and Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back since 2016, surpassed the 8,000-yard rushing mark with a stellar performance in a 48-21 win over the Toronto Argonauts. He carried the ball 14 times for 116 yards, bringing the 32-year-old's to a career total of 8,036.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris was back at work at IG Field Tuesday after reaching the 8,000-yard rushing mark during last Friday's 48-21 win over the Toronto Argonauts.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris was back at work at IG Field Tuesday after reaching the 8,000-yard rushing mark during last Friday's 48-21 win over the Toronto Argonauts.

Only 11 other players have reached 8,000 rushing yards in CFL history. Had Harris stood in front of reporters and basked in the spotlight, even for just a moment, it would have been merited. He did offer praise to his coaches and teammates, some dating back to when he played junior football in British Columbia, but remained mostly subdued when discussing the milestone.

"Until I’m done playing this game fully, I’ll still brush it off and keep working for more," Harris said after Tuesday’s workout at IG Field. "At this point, I still feel I have a lot more in the tank and a lot more to give, so those numbers are irrelevant."

He added: "There are a lot of good football players on that list so it’s definitely an honour. But for me it’s just keep on going and bigger things to accomplish."

“Until I’m done playing this game fully I’ll still brush it off and keep working for more. At this point, I still feel I have a lot more in the tank and a lot more to give so those numbers are irrelevant.” – Andrew Harris

Harris has already done enough to warrant his invitation into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

He’s a five-time CFL and West division all-star. He’s been his team’s nominee for most outstanding Canadian in five of the seven years since he became a regular starter with the B.C. Lions in 2013, including the last three in Winnipeg. He won the league-wide award for most outstanding Canadian in 2017 and was a runner-up last season. He’s led the league in rushing the past two years.

As impressive as Harris has been in recent years, perhaps what’s most remarkable is what he continues to accomplish today. While his standout performance last week against the Argonauts put him into a rare class of ball-runners, it was on pace with what he’s done all season.

Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols, right, hands the ball to Andrew Harris. Nichols says having someone like Harris in the backfield makes his job easier.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols, right, hands the ball to Andrew Harris. Nichols says having someone like Harris in the backfield makes his job easier.

In fact, Harris is off to his best start since making the B.C. Lions in 2010.

Through four games, he has 378 rushing yards for an average of 94.5 yards per game. Twice this season he’s eclipsed 100 rushing yards in a week, including a season-opening victory against the Lions in which he scampered 148 yards on just 16 carries — an eye-popping average of 9.3 yards per run. He’s currently on pace for 1,700 rushing yards, which would eclipse his career high of 1,390 that he set last year.

Harris has been less effective in the passing game, but only in terms of yardage. He’s in a three-way tie with Darvin Adams and Lucky Whitehead for most targets, with 20, reeling in 18 for 101 yards. Only Drew Wolitarsky’s three receiving touchdowns is more than Harris’ two.

“He’s really such a smart football player and that’s really what separates him from a lot of people." – Matt Nichols

"Everyone wants to talk about how many years he’s been playing and how he’s getting older. Every game, it seems like Andrew is playing the best football of his career and that’s fun to be a part of," Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols said.

 "It’s rare that you know while you’re playing with someone that you know they’re going to be a Hall of Famer. It’s a fun thing for me to soak that in."

Nichols said having someone like Harris in the backfield makes his job easier, noting the obvious first: a strong runner that can chew up enough yards on first down to make for more manageable second-down situations. What’s less known, he said, is his ability to help in pass protection.

Bombers running back Andrew Harris relied on his strength and breaking tackles.

BEN NELMS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Bombers running back Andrew Harris relied on his strength and breaking tackles.

While it’s not rare for running backs to be able to understand the blocking assignment designated to them on each play, it’s another thing to be able to actually execute them all. Nichols said Harris not only understands each task and executes its perfectly, but his instincts are refined to the point he can also quickly provide help when needed or break away into a check down for an open pass.

"He’s really such a smart football player and that’s really what separates him from a lot of people," Nichols said.

Fewer work closer with Harris on a daily basis than running backs coach Kevin Bourgoin. Bourgoin joined the Bombers in 2017, one year after Harris, and is now in his third season in charge of the tailbacks.

On Tuesday, he recalled the first time he met his star running back.

“Probably the first two years I was here he relied on his strength and breaking tackles and now, seeing some things when he’s running the ball, it’s just the little things." – Bombers running backs coach, Kevin Bourgoin

Having never coached at the professional level — spending the previous 20 years coaching at various U.S. colleges, including 10 years as an associate coach at the University of Maine — Bourgoin didn’t know what to expect from Harris. Given all his success in the league, and how long he’d been playing at a high level, he was somewhat surprised to find out just how much of a sponge he was.

"Meeting with him for the first couple weeks it was, ‘coach, what can I do better?’ He was picking my brain, trying to take things from me," Bourgoin said. "I was like, ‘wait a minute, here. You’ve been in this league, I should be learning from you.’ What impressed me was not only just learning from others but from a guy who has never coached in the league before."

It wasn’t long before Bourgoin realized he was working with someone special. He said it’s not rare to refer to Harris during film sessions. Harris, Bourgoin said, has a vast amount of knowledge from all the preparation he puts in each week. If there’s a break in a defensive coverage or a player perhaps the offence can exploit, it’s usually Harris who identifies the edge.

Harris has reached nationwide celebrity with what he’s achieved on the field, but Bourgoin credited his attention to detail off it for why he’s so successful. He’s also noticed a change in the way Harris has played this year. Where he used to be more of a downhill runner in previous years, ploughing through players and breaking tackles to earn yards, he’s evolved his game this season.

"Probably the first two years I was here he relied on his strength and breaking tackles and now, seeing some things when he’s running the ball, it’s just the little things," Bourgoin said. "I’m not going to tell you what he’s doing. But he’s evolving in some ways."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

Read full biography

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