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Inside the CFL: A horrible wake-up call

Ted Michaels, CFL Editor

Hamilton, ON (Sports Network) - The news hit like a thunderbolt.

Last Tuesday, the CFL was rocked with the news that Richard Harris, Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive line coach and assistant coach, died of heart failure at the age of 63.

Harris, who played at Grambling under the legendary coach Eddie Robinson, and later was a first-round pick of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, stood 6-feet-5 and weighed 270 pounds.

Yet, everyone who knew him said that while his frame was big, his warmth was even bigger.

Edmonton Eskimo general manager Eric Tillman was the GM of the Ottawa Renegades when Harris was the defensive line coach.

"Richard was the larger version of Michael (Pinball) Clemons" he told Inside the CFL. "He had that vivacious, outgoing personality, that when he met you, it made you feel like you had known him for a lifetime. It's an unspeakable loss."

Those comments were echoed by Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach, Marcel Bellefeuille.

"In my 11 years in the league, I never heard anyone speak an ill word about that man. Richard was one of the first calls I received when I became the head coach in Hamilton. He had so much time for everyone else. He always had a big bear hug when he saw people."

Tillman said with Harris, it clearly was a case of what you see is what you get.

"As a fellow southerner -- I grew up in Mississippi, he in Louisiana -- he epitomized southern culture: the warmth, the friendliness the goodness of the people. Richard had every attribute that we attach to southern culture, a caring, good, decent, fine man."

The football world, in many ways, is a small world. Coaches talk with their counterparts across the league, and one of the things that no doubt was discussed in the hours and days after Harris' death was the wake-up call it gave everyone.

"We basically work seven days a week for six months, from training camp right through to the end of the season," Bellefeuille pointed out. "Most days during the season, we go from 5:30 in the morning till 8 at night. The hours are pretty standard all the way across the league."

The Tiger-Cat head coach also noted that there are other factors that can lead to possible health problems.

"It's not just the hours we put in. We don't take an hour for lunch, or get coffee breaks. We end up eating whenever we can, and in some instances, we eat junk food, while watching film at our desks. So the nutrition aspect is a bit part of our lifestyle as well. And, a lot of guys get anywhere from 4-6 hours of sleep a night, every night for six months. I try to encourage our guys to get some exercise three or four times a week. I run three to four times a week, and I find that 35-40 minutes helps me quite a bit."

Bellefeuille added, the average fan may not understand the pressures that coaches are under.

"It's obviously a competitive business," he said. "The stress levels are high, and coaches are working on one or two year contracts. Everything's based on performance. Everyone's trying to do what they can to be competitive on the field. But you do have to take stock and ask yourself, am I doing the right thing as far as spending time with family."

Tillman agreed with Bellefeuille, and said in Edmonton, his head coach, Kavis Reed, is sending the message to his assistants: time away from work is paramount.

"Kavis has been great that way and (former BC Lion head coach Dave Ritchie) was also the same way. Dave wanted his coaches to be home every night to have dinner with their families. Many of the guys are at their desk by 6:00 in the morning, and Dave wanted them to have balance in their lives. Just last week, Kavis sent the guys home early, telling them, just turn off the lights, go home and see your families."

The Eskimos GM hopes that Harris' death makes all football people take stock of their lives.

"It's an all-consuming business. When 18 days a year (regular season games) determine the quality of your life, your ability to take care of your family, pay the mortgage and provide for your children's education, given the competitive nature, we're all guilty of pushing the envelope. It cuts both ways. We're blessed to be in a business we love, and to do something that as a child you dreamed of doing, compared to people who truly work for a living.

"But on the flip side it's important for coaches in particular to remember, that they're not machines. At some point they have to have sleep, they have to have rest, they have to have hours to decompress. It's a delicate balancing act and far too often, probably 99 percent of the time, we're on the wrong side of the balancing beam."

As emotional as the news was, Bellefeuille, a man of faith, took some solace afterwards.

"It took me a couple of days to put it in perspective. I know he's in a better place. His work here is done and he touched so many lives."

Thursday night, the Blue Bombers played a home game against the BC Lions.

Many wondered how the Bombers would react.

They beat the Lions 25-20.

Before the game, members of both teams gathered at center field, to view a video tribute to Harris, and to observe a moment of silence.

Tillman said the life lessons that Richard Harris taught flowed through his mind as he watched the tribute.

"Compete, love the game, but remember than there are two games: the game of football and the game of life. Have balance and embrace both. Football seasons come and go, wins come and go, but family, the people you love, the people you cherish the most, they're the most precious commodity. We all need to spend more time being better human beings and walk away from the game when we can."

Ted Michaels is the host of the Fifth Quarter, on AM 900 CHML.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Ted Michaels at ted@900chml.com.

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