WINNIPEG - Doug Brown’s eyes were red and his voice cracked with emotion Wednesday as he talked about the sudden death of Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Richard Harris.
Harris, the CFL team’s defensive line and assistant head coach, collapsed Tuesday afternoon in his office and was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was 63.
The squad held its usual walkthrough in preparation for Thursday’s home game against the B.C. Lions (0-4), but it wasn’t the usual jovial affair.
Players were quiet on the field until they grouped in a circle at the end and did a bit of singing and dancing before finishing with a team cheer of “win.”
“It’s very difficult today,” said Brown, the veteran defensive tackle who had a special bond with Harris. “I think subconsciously, whether you realize it or not, you’re listening for him, you’re looking for him.
“We’re kind of a little lost right now out there, defensively, especially our (defensive line) group … We’re kind of without direction right now, without our leader.”
The Bombers (3-1) will wear stickers on their helmets with the initials RH as they dedicate Thursday’s game to Harris, the team’s longest-serving coach.
There will also be a moment of silence prior to the opening kickoff in Harris’s honour.
The Shreveport, La., native joined the Bombers in 2006 as defensive line coach and was promoted to assistant head coach this off-season. He began his CFL coaching career in 2001 as a defensive line coach with the Lions before taking a similar position with the Ottawa Renegades in 2005.
Harris had a reputation of being a very solid football coach who could relate to his players because he was a very good one himself. The six-foot-five former defensive lineman was a first-round draft pick of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles in 1971 and played eight seasons south of the border.
But Harris was more than just a coach. He was a very friendly man who was always smiling and went out of his way to hug players, coaches, staff and fans alike at every opportunity.
It was that caring nature players said they’ll miss the most.
“Words can’t describe the things he did for me, the love he showed me,” defensive end Odell Willis said. “He’s the true meaning of a players’ coach.
"You can’t deny his desire for what he did and the people he did it for. He loved us more than he loved coaching.”
On the day of home games, Harris used to take his defensive linemen out for breakfast, just one way he connected with the young men he treated as sons.
“I’ve spent as much time with him off the field and outside of here as I have playing football for him, and they’ve both been privileges,” said Brown, in his 11th and final CFL season. “It just happened too fast, and it wasn’t enough time.
"You just go from being in denial and then in certain situations the reality and the gravity of what’s happened overwhelms you.”
Centre Obby Khan said players were crying in meetings and in the locker-room prior to the walkthrough.
“I loved him. He was like a father to me,” Khan said.
Khan remembered the times in the off-season when he asked Harris why he stayed with the team.
“(Harris) said, ‘The only reason why I stayed was because of you guys,’ '' Khan said. “I love him. It’s been a huge shock, and to see him yesterday and the emotions running around here, it’s terrible.”
Long-snapper Chris Cvetkovic said the void will be hard to fill.
“This whole organization is like a family and that’s the father figure,” he said. “He’s the one who took everyone, coaches, players, people on the office side, under his wing.”
Quarterback Buck Pierce believes he and his teammates should be able to get up for the game despite their grief.
“I think at this point we have a unique opportunity,” Pierce said. “A lot of people that lose loved ones don’t have an opportunity to celebrate them.
"He’s a football coach and we have the opportunity to go on the field and celebrate him as a man.”
Lions head coach/GM Wally Buono said a number of his players and coaches knew Harris from his time with the club and he doesn’t expect B.C. will have an advantage on the field.
“It’s not something that is distant because he’s here in Winnipeg,” Buono said. “A lot of people have a lot of fond memories of Richard Harris.
“Whether you knew him or not, something like this has to affect you. It’s something that, unfortunately, still makes us have to go out and do our jobs.”
Lions quarterback Travis Lulay thought the tragedy might motivate the Bombers.
“I expect those guys to play inspired football,'' Lulay said. “I think they’ll come out and play hard for him.”
Lions receiver Geroy Simon remembered his time on the West Coast with Harris and felt the loss.
“This is a tough business, and at times coaches can be distant and you don’t get the emotional side,” Simon said. “He was a guy that gave you that good emotion and made you feel special.”
Winnipeg receiver Terrence Edwards said it was hard to walk into the Bomber complex knowing Harris wouldn’t be around to give them energy.
“It was quiet out here today because his mouth was louder than everybody’s, getting us in the right position, getting us ready for a game,” Edwards said. “He’s going to be sorely missed.”
Edwards also expects his teammates to rise above their grief.
“We can’t go out there and let up because then we won’t be honouring him, we won’t go out there and do the things he’s taught us to do,” Edwards said. “I think guys are going to go out there and give it their all for him.”
Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice was among those who tried to help Harris after his collapse. He described Harris as a “tremendous role model” for players and coaches.
“He’s almost a father figure to me,” said Police, 41. “He was always the most loyal guy.”
LaPolice and his coaches will pick up Harris’s duties for the game.
“I’m just going to miss being on the field with him, giving him a hug before a game,” LaPolice said.
In an interview a few years ago, Harris was asked about his habit of hugging people.
“I like for people to feel what I feel, and I feel pretty good most of the time," Harris said with his usual big smile. "To me, a hug is like a handshake, but I guess I take it a step further because of my personality."