REGINA — For Andrew Harris, it was truly a picture that spoke 1,000 words. And it’s one he forced himself to look at often — the image of him sitting dejected on the sidelines, head buried in his hands, after his Winnipeg Blue Bombers came up painfully short in the West Division final a year ago in Calgary, their seemingly never-ending championship drought growing by yet another year.
"I remember how I felt after that game," Harris told me prior to kickoff in Regina. "I can just see the disappointment and disgust on my face. For myself, I’m using that as my motivation. I just don’t want that feeling again."
So there we were early Sunday evening, moments after the Bombers had prevented recent history from repeating itself by punching their ticket to next weekend’s Grey Cup — in Calgary, no less — with a gutsy 20-13 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The celebration had spilled from the field at Mosaic Stadium into the raucous dressing room following a wild game that will go down as an instant classic around these parts.
Naturally, I went over to see the Winnipeg product, who was standing outside his locker. This time he was the picture of happiness — for his team, himself and his long-suffering hometown. The only thing on his face was a massive smile. And the feeling was hard to describe.
"We’re going to the Cup! It’s a great feeling," said Harris, who quickly tried to bring himself back down to Earth. "We can’t get too high, though. We have to stay locked in. We’ve got a great team we have to go out and beat next week."
That would be the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who finished on top of the CFL standings this year with a 15-3 record, then easily disposed of the Edmonton Eskimos 36-16 in Sunday’s East Division final. They also beat the Bombers in both head-to-head meetings during the regular-season.
Fun fact: Winnipeg (1990) and Hamilton (1999) have the longest active streaks since sipping from the Holy Grail of Canadian football, and one of them is guaranteed to end the misery on Sunday, when the two teams meet for all the marbles for the first time since 1984.
But the future, and the accompanying history lesson, can wait. On this night, it was all about the present as the Bombers partied in the home of their closest rivals, a never-say-die team that is headed back to the grand stage for the first time since 2011.
“Winnipeg’s going off right now. I’m not there, but I’m assuming Winnipeg’s going off right now. They’re getting ready for a big week. And we’ve got to get ready, too. It’s going to be a good one.” — Andrew Harris.
"Winnipeg’s going off right now. I’m not there, but I’m assuming Winnipeg’s going off right now. They’re getting ready for a big week. And we’ve got to get ready, too. It’s going to be a good one," said Harris.
No doubt this one had some extra special meaning for the pride of Oak Park High School. It was about erasing the recent past and getting another chance — in more ways than one.
"I’m already getting greys in my beard and there’s definitely some more coming out from that game. It was definitely nerve-wracking, The most dramatic game I’ve ever been a part of. Just happy to be on the winning side of it," said Harris, who continues to carry a Buffalo-sized chip on his shoulder after a two-game PED suspension he maintains was the result of a faulty supplement, not to mention the subsequent snubbing of post-season award nomination that resulted.
To be honest, Harris wasn’t much of a factor in Sunday’s win, with just 41 rushing yards on 10 carries plus a pair of receptions for eight yards. But the Bombers didn’t need a huge night from their biggest offensive weapon, thanks to an outstanding aerial attack from quarterback Zach Collaros, who began this season as Saskatchewan’s starting quarterback and played a major role in sending the Roughriders home for the winter.
Not to mention a rock-solid defence, which came up with a pair of goal-line stands in the final moments of the game with Saskatchewan looking for the tying touchdown, their last ditch attempt hitting the goal post crossbar.
"It was just like ‘Thank God’. Just ‘Oh, man, it’s over,’" Collaros said of watching the final drama unfold from the sidelines. "It was pretty exciting. A special feeling, for sure. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel some extra motivation."
A sweet, sweet victory, no doubt. And one of numerous compelling storylines this season. Sunday’s thriller had no shortage, especially in a wild, final few minutes that was filled with more twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan film.
Mike O’Shea, now in his sixth year as head coach, was seen by many pundits as a prime candidate to be on the firing line if the Bombers came up short in the playoffs. And now? He’s rightfully being credited with terrific, back-to-back game plans that sent Calgary and then Saskatchewan packing.
"We’ve got two wins that we needed. And we’ve got a lot of work left to do. Hamilton’s a very good football team. So we’ve gotta make sure we stick to our process, our preparation, try to avoid all the noise that a Grey Cup brings. And think about this as just a football game and not about the Grey Cup, which is tough to do."
Yeah, yeah, yeah. How about actually savouring the moment, coach?
"I did enjoy it," O’Shea insisted, cracking a bit of a smile when pushed. "Look at that finish. That game was wild at the end. So I enjoyed every minute of that. Absolutely. I tell ya, it’s easy to believe in our guys. We’re going to find a way to get it done. I know there was a crossbar and it’s kind of anti-climactic. But if that film travelled across North America, how could anybody not love our game?"
The Bombers motto, displayed on a sign in the locker room, seems to suit this group perfectly: Punch first, keep swinging, stay in the fight. They’ve certainly done that this season, after a red-hot 5-0 start was undone by plenty of adversity (Matt Nichols going down with a season-ending injury, the Harris suspension and fallout, falling from first to third in the division).
All of which is why prior to the game, I asked O’Shea whether he believed in the mantra that sometimes you have to fail before you can succeed. With so many returning Bombers players this year, perhaps the agony of last year’s defeat would ultimately help get them over the hump this time.
"Everything we’ve done this year has been perfect. It’s got us to this point," O’Shea said. "From our start to the finish, because of where we’re at right now I don’t know that I’d change anything."
Fortunately for the Bombers, they haven’t hit the finish line just yet.
"I guess it means we’re one step closer," O’Shea said following the victory, when I asked what he thought this meant to the long-suffering fan base in Winnipeg. "But I’m pretty sure they’re not going to be satisfied, nor will we, unless we handle our business."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.