O’Leary: Family mantra powers Harris through season like no other

Nearing the conclusion of his eighth season in the CFL, Trevor Harris thought he was done with waiting.

He spent the first four years of his career in Toronto as a backup to Ricky Ray. He signed with the Ottawa REDBLACKS in 2015, only to play behind Henry Burris for two years, when many around the league knew that Harris was good enough to be starting for a team.

He’s lived up to those expectations over the last three years, starting for 2017 and 2018 in Ottawa, before signing with Edmonton in free agency for this season. He was in the MOP conversation in his first season with the Esks when he found himself having to wait again.

An injury to his throwing arm sidelined him from Sept. 7 until Oct. 21. He played in just one of his team’s final six games of the season, watching his backup, Logan Kilgore, man the QB spot in his absence.

“In a way, you kind of feel like a jealous boyfriend,” Harris said. “You’re watching somebody else run your huddle.”


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Harris sat alone in a meeting room in Commonwealth Stadium on Monday, taking advantage of some prep time ahead of Sunday’s Eastern Semi Final game. The Esks took him off of their six-game injured list on Oct. 21 and he played in their loss to Saskatchewan on Oct. 26. They opted to rest him last week, in a regular-season finale with no bearing on their playoff positioning.

It was humbling, he said, to have to step aside. Everyone knows the Wally Pipp story, about the first baseman for the New York Yankees that missed a game in 1925 with a headache. His replacement was Lou Gherig. There’s a well-documented risk that comes with not being able to play.

But when you physically can’t throw the ball, you’re not much use to your team and Harris knew that.

“(Football) is the biggest team game ever. If I’m not willing to let everybody do their part and I’m not being the team guy that I need to be,” he trailed off. Being a good teammate is helping your replacement, even if the ghost of Wally Pipp floats around the room.

“I did everything in my power to help Logan and get him ready, to give him any tips I could because we’re in this together. That’s really the bottom line,” Harris said.

“If you can’t grasp that concept yet, then shame on you. So I did all I could to be the best teammate that I could during that time.

“But it was the most difficult, challenging time…emotionally and mentally that I’ve had in my career.”

It takes a lot to take Trevor Harris out of a game. Now 33, Harris grew up watching his father, Tom, set a bar for toughness so high that it might still be hard for him to reach today.

He remembers his dad telling him stories when he was little about how one day a week in their hometown of Waldo, Ohio, he’d go and box prisoners at the Marion Correctional Institution.

“Maybe it was just a different time, in the ’80s he’d just go box prisoners for fun. He’s just kind of that blue collar guy. He’s obviously older now so I don’t know that he could do that anymore, but that’s just kind of how he’s wired.”

Trevor was a great athlete in high school, obviously excelling as a quarterback, but also played basketball and baseball. There are two things that his dad instilled in him that are very evident in his CFL career. Toughness and work ethic.

Tom runs his own construction business, Trevor says, quickly adding that it’s not like he’s driving a truck around a worksite overseeing things. It’s his dad and one employee. Tom Harris works, every day. Trevor calls him solar powered. Up at the crack of dawn and working until the sun goes down.

“I just remember from my childhood growing up, he would come home and I’d be watching The Simpsons,” Harris said.

“He’d be like, ‘Did you shoot any baskets? Were you shooting hoops today?’ I’d say, ‘Nah, I just got home from school.’ He’d list a couple people, ‘I bet you Person X, Person Y, I bet you they’re shooting hoops and that’s why they’re going to succeed.’

“My whole life I’ve had this mantra in my mind that (someone’s) always working and if you’re not then they are and they’re going to get better than you. He just instilled that mindset in me.

“That and toughness.”

By the sounds of it, there could be an entire chapter of Tom Harris Toughness written into Trevor’s life story. He’s seen his dad get shot in the hand with a nail gun, seen Tom pull the nail out, rub dirt on the wound and keep working. Trevor worked alongside him during summers when he was in college at Edinboro, doing everything from digging basements with him to shingling roofs under sweltering summer suns where it can feel like 40-plus degrees Celsius.

“As much as I take football insanely serious, probably a little bit more serious than most, family and faith are the pillars of my life”.

– Eskimos QB Trevor Harris

When Trevor was in his first training camp in the CFL, with the Argos in 2012, his parents were in a motorcycling accident. They made it through, but it was bad. Tom had 75 stitches on his face, had a concussion and had broken a bone in his neck and his back. His mom, Suzanne, broke a bone in her face, broke a finger and her wrist and a bone in her ankle. This came three years after Suzanne had successfully fought off cancer. It’s a story that Postmedia’s Tim Baines detailed with great attention in 2017.

That chapter in Trevor’s life story should actually be Harris Family Toughness.

“As much as I take football insanely serious, probably a little bit more serious than most, family and faith are the pillars of my life,” Harris said

“It’s hard for me to realize that but the older I get, the easier it is in terms of having that perspective, because it is difficult on me after losses. I don’t take them very well, I’m not very good at it.

“But seeing what my parents have gone through and just realizing, they’re still here, you know? Realizing that my son is still here my dream woman is my wife. Those are things that kind of give me the perspective and help prioritize things in terms of what’s truly important.”

Football remains as close to those two top priorities as possible He’s relentless in his training, always looking for an edge in the offseason, whether it’s tap dancing in his mom’s dance studio in Waldo like he did last winter, or reading books on leadership, or doing army-style mental combat training courses.

“You get to a certain point, you’re never going to improve 15 to 20 per cent in the offseason,” he said.

“What really what separates the good from the greatest is that one per cent, that one and a half percent. I’m always looking for that.”

 

Through this recent injury, Harris has been in contact with a mental performance coach that he met while in Ottawa. That’s helped him cope with being away from the game and helped him prepare for his return. On Tuesday, he took first-team reps in the Esks’ first practice of the week.

He says it took him a good month before he stopped thinking and dreaming about coming up short in the Grey Cup game last year against Calgary. It’s been a long wait for this moment, to be able to take those first actual steps back on that path to a championship. He’s won Grey Cups in Toronto (2012) and Ottawa (2016) but both were as a backup. He’ll never be content with anything less than a championship as a starter.

“(The Grey Cup loss) was one of the tougher things for me to get over,” he said.

“Once I did it was motivation to get back there and whatever team that I was trying be a part of to get that team back there.”

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