Running back Harris to remain with Argos as leader, mentor in spite of injury

Toronto Argonauts running back Andrew Harris (33) attempts to hurdle over Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Nelson Lokombo (21) during the third quarter of CFL football action in Regina, on Sunday, July 24, 2022. (Heywood Yu/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

A torn right pectoral muscle ended Andrew Harris’s season but the Toronto Argonauts running back doesn’t believe it will ultimately end his illustrious CFL career.

Harris, 35, said Thursday he’ll undergo season-ending surgery next week. The five-foot-11, 202-pound Winnipeg native was injured in last week’s 34-27 home loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

“I’m devastated,” Harris said following Toronto’s practice. “Just kind of a fluke injury but hopefully I can go through surgery and all goes well and if I’m deciding to play next year, I’ll be healthy to do that.”

This isn’t the first time Harris has dealt with this injury. He tore his left pectoral muscle in 2011 preparing for his second season with the B.C. Lions.

Harris said he was able to resume playing football in roughly 3 1/2 months and ultimately was named the top Canadian in the Lions’ 34-23 Grey Cup win over Winnipeg. Harris remains confident he’ll be able to continue playing football, if he so chooses.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I mean, I was 24 years old when that happened (in 2011) so it was a little different.

“But I keep my body pretty healthy and take care of it pretty well. It’s not a knee, it’s not something that’s really going to set me back as far as running. If I can get strong enough I should be good to go.”

Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie is confident Harris can overcome his injury and said he’d like to have Harris back in 2023.

“I’d love to have him back,” Dinwiddie said. “I think he can get it done (overcome injury) but it will be up to him if he wants to.”

Harris had three carries for 19 yards in the first half versus Hamilton. Harris is in first season with Toronto following a successful five-year tenure with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2016-19, 2021).

Harris led the CFL three times while with Winnipeg and helped his hometown team win consecutive Grey Cups.

Harris said he was injured when struck in the chest by Toronto fullback Declan Cross’s knee while being tackled. Initially, Harris felt he could rehab the injury without surgery and return later this season but opted for the operation after seeking a second opinion.

“Once surgery happens then you’re out for the season,” said Dinwiddie. “We were hoping it was a partial tear and he could rehab and get it strengthened and make a go for it at the end.

“It’s tough. I feel bad for him at this stage in his career and this happens.”

Harris is the CFL’s third-leading rusher with 490 yards on 114 carries (4.3-yard average). Earlier this year, he became the first Canadian-born player in league history to crack the 10,000-yard career rushing plateau and also surpassed Hall of Fame receiver Milt Stegall (15,209) for fourth on the league’s all-time yards from scrimmage list.

With Harris out, third-year American AJ Ouellette moves into Toronto’s starting lineup.

Dinwiddie said Toronto reached out to former running back D.J. Foster but he’s intent on exhausting all of his NFL opportunities.

“If he gets one more year in (NFL) he’ll get his pension,” Dinwiddie said. “I haven’t talked to him in a while but I know the scouting department has been in contact just seeing where he’s at mentally and physically.”

The five-foot-nine, 208-pound Ouellette ran for 47 yards on 10 carries against Hamilton and is Toronto’s third-leading rusher this season with 57 yards on 23 carries (5.2-yard average). The former Ohio University star has appeared in 12 regular-season games with the Argos, having accumulated 314 yards on 57 carries (5.5-yard average).

“I think AJ is up to the challenge,” Dinwiddie said. “I wouldn’t say he’s Andrew Harris but we all know A.J. is a younger guy who’s very capable of playing football.

“He’s very good at breaking tackles, has good vision and he’s a very patient back in the backfield so I’m looking forward to seeing him play.”

Harris will remain with Toronto this season to provide leadership for the team and serve as a mentor for Ouellette.

“He’s going to fill in great,” Harris said. “You saw flashes of it last week and with a full week of taking the reps with (starters) I have 100 per cent confidence in him.

“I’m excited to watch him play and help him on the sidelines.”

Ouellette said he’ll appreciate having Harris nearby.

“I pride myself in being a knowledgeable guy in the game, knowing what the defence is going to throw at us and always being prepared and he’s a step ahead of that,” Ouellette said. “It’s going to be huge having him out there with me.

“He’s going to be another coach on the sidelines for us.”

Even with Harris, Toronto stands last in the CFL in rushing (82 yards per game) but second overall in passing (282 yards). Quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson is the Argos second-leading rusher with 85 yards on 20 carries (4.3-yard average).

“I told No. 4 (Bethel-Thompson) before the season every time he runs it seems it’s for a first down, he should do it more,” Ouellette said with a chuckle. “But he doesn’t need to be taking those hits, we need to step up our game and start running the ball.”

And even with Harris out, Dinwiddie said Toronto’s offence will continue to run the football.

“The pass game has been pretty decent for us,” he said. “But if we start throwing the ball all the time, the defence is going to catch on and we’re not going to see a lot of man coverage.

“So we’ve got to run the football as well.”

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