August 13, 2014

Harris’ unconventional route to the CFL

Kadie Smith | Staff

VANCOUVER — Andrew Harris’ name sits near the top of pretty much every offensive category in the CFL: league leader in rushing, first in yards from scrimmage, and fourth among receivers.

It doesn’t stop there. Tied for the most touchdowns in the league with elite receivers the likes of Adarius Bowman and Nick Grigsby, Harris has more points receiving than he does rushing. Pop him up to the offensive line and the fleet-footed running back can do serious collateral damage blocking, throwing his body into opposing linemen with as much force as he does when he sheds tackles on the rush.

“There’s really very little he can’t do,” said head coach Mike Benevides.

The Winnipeg native has taken his game to another level this season, playing with a fire that Benevides hadn’t before seen. He’s created his own theme: refuse to be denied. Watch his 58-yard stomp to the house against the Riders this season, or his play against the Stamps where he took the Lions down the field, racking up 74 yards with one TD on five touches in a single drive, and you’ll understand.

He’s a superstar in this league. There’s no denying that, but Harris is nothing if not humble, and the path he took to get to where he is keeps him that way.

His is a story of a non-traditional route to the pros. One of sheer hard work and determination. He came to the Lions in 2008 as a territorial exemption, a product of the VI Raiders, part of BC’s junior football program. The majority of players in the CFL are university draftees or US free agents; it’s rare to see a former junior player top the charts.

Harris himself admits that junior wasn’t his first choice, but when his grades weren’t where they needed to be, he had to find another way to play football. “It gave me another option,” said Harris. “When I was playing junior I didn’t look at it any differently. I was still just trying to establish myself as a good junior player. That would have been a bigger step to try to prove myself as a CIS player. I look at that as a positive.”

After his second year, Harris had the opportunity to return to school, but chose to stay on the Raiders. “There was something about it. We had just won a national championship in 2006. The whole team was really close,” he said. “Even to this day, I find it weird sometimes because there is nothing like it. We were just so close and grew up together. For a long time I didn’t really trust a lot of people. I’m still kind of like that, but for the first time I really felt like I had a family and had some people that I could trust.”

He admits it was a harder road though. “I didn’t go to school and that’s a negative thing to a lot of people,” said Harris. “Being in junior though, I worked a full-time job when I was 17 and had my own place and had to pay bills and learn to be a man. Junior taught me to work a different way.”

Perhaps it is that work ethic, cultivated through junior football, that helped Harris climb the ranks of the Lions roster from a junior invitee, to the practice roster, to his 2011 coming-out party at the Grey Cup. Even in those first few years when he was being bounced between receiver and safety, Harris still kept his head down, just happy to be a part of a team.

There’s no sense of entitlement with him; it’s genuine, and it is bred of his fight and determination to make it in the pros, the same fight and determination that he still plays with every single game. Call it a chip on the shoulder if you want to; Harris would agree. He plays angry and that’s the way he likes it.

“I don’t look at myself as a star or anything,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve reached that. I always look at myself as the underdog and I like that role. For whatever reason I didn’t get the benefits when I was younger and I had to work really hard.”

Past the stats sheets and the wins, perhaps 33’s greatest legacy in the CFL will be the impact that he will have on the future of junior football in terms of investment from the league.

“I think what Andrew’s success does is open people’s eyes to the fact that there’s talent everywhere and in junior football,” said Benevides. “It puts the focus on the youth that are playing football there. It gives kids something to aspire to.

It’s a different option and a personal choice. Some people, their path is not in the direction of school, and there’s some great people in the technical aspect or the trades and it’s just not for them so junior football gives young athletes an option to still train and play.”

The Lions have always had a strong commitment to BC’s junior football program. Benevides himself takes great pride in the Canadian system. Having a player like Andrew come up through those ranks provides a poster boy for success; he’s an inspiration for the players and an investment example for owners and GMs.

“I see the conversation growing. Everyone is looking for an edge, the next athlete the next recruit,” said Benevides. “Our league and organization has put a lot of resources into the draft and to be able to reach out to junior football to find talent is a bonus. The biggest example of success is Andrew Harris.”

The Lions have three junior players on their roster this season, Whitman Tomusiak, who played for Harris’ VI Raiders, Steven Doege of the Okanagan Suns, and Anthony Daley, their current territorial exemption. It is not a far reach to assume that Tomusiak heard of Harris’ success on the Raiders when he was a young player, much as Harris himself was inspired by Lauren Plante, a former VI Raider and practice-roster player for the Lions.

Across the league, the success of players like Rob Cote in Calgary and Sean Whyte in Montreal are paving the way for junior players to achieve pro careers. The shining example is Andrew Harris.

“I see a larger growth in investment from CFL teams into the program,” said Benevides. “I also see the athletes, the ones that have the skill sets to potentially play in the CFL, will now look at things and say I have a dream and there’s a possibility. I think the impact will be the resources an organization and the CFL is willing to put in to researching those men and giving them training camp opportunities.”

For Harris, he’s still that same kid just trying to make the team and get noticed. “It’s just like yesterday, and every week I just want to make a play and help this team win.”