As big a man as Richard Harris was and as capable of violence as he was during his NFL career, the soft, warm, loving heart that gave out on him Tuesday afternoon was his most dominant feature.

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This article was published 26/7/2011 (3553 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

As big a man as Richard Harris was and as capable of violence as he was during his NFL career, the soft, warm, loving heart that gave out on him Tuesday afternoon was his most dominant feature.

A collegiate star at Grambling under the great coach Eddie Robinson, a first-round pick of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles and finally a coach in the CFL, Harris died of heart failure on Tuesday at the age of 63.

At the end of the day, and there will be no shortage of good words said about Harris, the true mark of this man was his ability to interact with the tall, short, old, young, black and white. Frail or hale, Harris had time for you.

Defensive line coach and assistant head coach with the Blue Bombers, Harris didn't find conversation with others, whether he knew them or not, inconvenient. He saw it as part of his role on this earth.

"I always like to say that I wanted my legacy to be more about numbers and the things I did on the field. I wanted it to be about what I did with people away from the game," said Blue Bombers legend Milt Stegall. "If I'm correct, coach Harris's legacy will be about the people he interacted with and all the lives he touched. He was a great coach and he had great players. He made Doug Brown better, he helped Stevie Baggs get started and then there's Philip Hunt and Odell Willis. But what coach Harris did better than anyone was make people feel good about themselves."

It's surreal to comprehend this man of men, a bon vivant, a killer athlete and a storyteller who gave his audience their money's worth every time out, is dead.

It doesn't make sense and it doesn't feel right but as Saskatchewan Roughriders GM Brendan Taman said about the news, "we all know life can be cruel sometimes."

Yep. We all get a kick in the groin once in a while, but this one comes from a steel-toed boot.

Harris was as plain folks like to say "a good guy." He was born in Louisiana and spent most of his life in the U.S., but in the end his was a Winnipeg story.

Coaches and players come and go. But Richard Harris became a fixture in Winnipeg. At 6-5 and with a baritone that made most men sound soprano, Harris loved to suit up in his parka and get out and about in the Winnipeg winter. He was a sight to behold shaking the snow off his big shoulders and immediately sticking out his hand to meet and greet.

From a stool at Earls Polo Park or over a slice at Cosmos in Charleswood, Big Richard made the rounds and talked with whoever wanted to listen.

It was a common scene after Blue Bombers practice during Harris's six years with the club -- the giant would amble off the field shooting quick comments to players, media and fans while he made his way to his posse.

The group would change from day to day, but they were a collection of misfits that Harris had adopted and vice versa. He'd roll up to the group and immediately they'd pepper him with questions about football, the weather or what kind of car to buy. They talked like friends because that's what they were.

Stegall says Harris had a gear no other Bombers coach he worked with could access.

"Richard could get in anyone's face. When coach Harris spoke, everyone listened. It wasn't all about physical intimidation although he could certainly bring that," said Stegall. "Players respected him because he respected them. He cared about the important things in life. Sure, football was a big part of it but he cared about the man and not just the player. But when he had something to say, he said it. We'd be playing badly and come in at half and it wasn't the defensive co-ordinator (Greg) Marshall or coach (Doug) Berry talking. It was coach Harris. And he could go places other people couldn't."

The Bombers will likely hire a new defensive line coach. They should as it will help the team.

Hopefully the coach will be good at his job. But he won't replace Richard Harris and what he meant to this city and its football people.

Not even close.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca