WINNIPEG--If anyone had reason to hate it was Richard Harris, but instead he chose to love, and that will be his lasting legacy.
Harris was once forced to sit in a car eating peanut butter sandwiches with his black teammates while white team members dined on steak inside a hotel. He faced prejudice for many years of his too-short life, but wouldn't let it turn him to hate.
Instead, Harris became a giant both physically and emotionally as he helped others his entire life.
A memorial for Harris held in Winnipeg on Sunday drew the entire Blue Bombers organization, as well as players and coaches from around the CFL as his colleagues came to say goodbye.
Harris died of sudden cardiac arrest on July 26 following a Blue Bombers practice. He was the team's assistant head coach and defensive line coach in his sixth season with the team. The church was filled with giant men uncomfortable in their suits and with the heat, but not with their emotions. Professional gladiators openly wept, giggled and hugged as they celebrated the life of Harris, famous for a silly giggle, deep baritone voice and hugs that conveyed love and not false bravado. Harris was genuine and his people returned that sincerity on Sunday in their words, tears and embraces.
"The thing about Richard that you can see today is how many lives he touched and how easy it was for him," said Blue Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice.
"In a game like football, where it is cut and dried and all about wins and losses, you always say, 'Jeez, I should be doing more of the other things in life.' He always did the other things. I try to do it as much as I can.
"A player came into my office last week to say he wanted to bring a kid down to the field after practice and when he walked out of my office I said, 'Richard. That's Richard imparting his knowledge on these players,' " said LaPolice.
Growing up black in 1960s America and fighting racial bias from a predominantly white college coaching fraternity turned many athletes bitter and filled them with anger. But Harris had a heart that would not allow him to turn against others. Sure, he had moments of anger and frustration, but he always came back to love.
Marshall was one of Harris's best friends in coaching and he told a winding tale of friendship, loyalty and laughter. Marshall and Harris met at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and later worked together with the Ottawa Renegades and then the Blue Bombers. He told one of Harris's favorite stories that centred around the young man and a coach who wouldn't employ black players. Harris was a standout at Grambling State under the legendary Eddie Robinson. At the end of his senior season Harris was invited to play in the College All-Stars game against the NFL champion Green Bay Packers. Harris did not want to play because the coach of the all-stars did not use black players on his college team. Robinson convinced Harris to go and he did.
"Richard ran up to the coach, as only Richard could do, and shook the man's hand and said, 'I'm Richard Harris and so long as you call me Richard we won't have any trouble,' " told Marshall. "Richard then used to smile and say, 'I held his hand a few minutes longer so he would get the message.' "
Harris was 63.
By Gary Lawless
SOURCE: Winnepeg Free Press