Reunions are often a time of heated emotions, but don’t expect Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea to suddenly bare his soul ahead of the team’s first meeting with former running back Andrew Harris.
The Canadian star ball carrier left his hometown team this offseason with two Gray Cup rings and some hurt feelings.
While the Bombers had nothing but compliments for the future Hall of Famer as he walked out the door, there were rumors of dissatisfaction with his preparations for an injury-plagued 2021 season. As a result, Harris only received what he described as an “disrespectful” late contract offer held, and the 35-year-old left with a vow to make Winnipeg regret his decision.
His first opportunity to do so in person will come on Monday when the Bombers visit the Toronto Argonauts. It’s certain the result will be a hugely motivated Harris in a new shade of blue, but his former head coach, as usual, doesn’t care about the situation – at least not publicly.
“I think he plays everybody hard,” Mike O’Shea told the Winnipeg media on Friday. “I also think he got where he is because he’s a pro, so I imagine he has the same amount of juice for every game.”
For a more honest perspective on Harris’ mindset at play, fans should instead turn to offensive coordinator Buck Pierce’s analysis, who understands what his former workhorse might be experiencing back.
“I was traded as a player and I think the most important thing is that you have connections and a life outside of football,” he explained. “Yes, you play football with these guys, but you also build relationships. He’s built relationships here, roots in this community obviously, and a lot of friends.”
“I would expect him to be competitive, not just because he’s Andrew, but because he’s a footballer, and when you’re playing against your old team in a new environment, that’s exciting.”
Pierce is also the man dealing with the biggest fallout from Harris’ departure, as the powerful rusher was the heart and soul of the Winnipeg offensive for five seasons. He recorded 5,402 rushing yards, 2,584 receiving yards and 35 total touchdowns during that span, and although his production declined with his health in 2021, replacing him was no easy feat.
The Canadian tandem of Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine have averaged 84 yards in three games, putting them mid-table in the CFL, but their 3.8 yards-per-carry is the second-worst in the league so far. The Bombers have been a far cry from the dominant rushing team of years past, and the team have taken a long look at American Greg McCrae in hopes of creating a spark.
Still, Pierce doesn’t lose his sleep, wondering what would have happened if Harris could have stayed.
“Every year you have to keep finding different ways and looking at what you’re doing and playing to our strengths now,” he said. “Every year is different, the past is the past and we look forward to moving on now with the guys we have and we’re proud of the work they’re doing.”
For his part, Harris has yet to make his move in Toronto. In two games, he has carried the ball 25 times for 114 yards and caught five passes for 42 more. A promising debut was derailed by a hamstring strain and there was little a running back could do during the Week 3 Argos blowout loss to the Lions. No one will remember any of those games if they can pin it on the Bombers in a new uniform.
Despite the bitterness of his departure, Harris has indicated he continues to have great respect for those who are still in Winnipeg, including Mike O’Shea. That feeling is mutual, but O’Shea will make no promises to speak to his former player before the game to bury the hatchet. Such things happen on their own timeline.
Pierce, who hasn’t spoken to Harris since last season, was more sentimental in his own response to the question.
“On a personal level, it will be great to see Andrew. All his awards and things, that’s what he is on the football pitch, but he’s also a great teammate and has gotten a lot of respect from the guys in that locker room and across the league,” he said.
“We are proud of the things he has achieved here. Very grateful of course and we wish him all the best in Toronto.”
Just not this week.