Doug Brown can recall exactly when he made the decision to end his days a defensive tackle for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
It happened after practice on July 26, 2011, when assistant coach Richard Harris collapsed and died in his office from a heart attack. Harris had been the Bombers’ defensive line coach for six years and he had a close relationship with Brown.
“When Richard passed last season I knew I would never play another season of pro football,” Brown said Wednesday after officially announcing his retirement from the Bombers. “Up to that point I had said this year was going to be my last anyway, but that was definitely a defining point.”
Brown finished the 2011 season with some of the best play of his career and he led the team into the Grey Cup, which the Bombers lost to the B.C. Lions 34-23. But he never really recovered from the death of Harris. The two had a unique bond, one that had helped make Brown one of the top linemen in the Canadian Football League and Harris a highly-recruited assistant coach. “We had developed such a relationship, we had actually made a promise to one another, a pact between us, that we thought we started our career together we really should end it together.”
The two joined the CFL in 2001. Brown arrived in Winnipeg after spending three years in the National Football League with the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills. Harris joined the B.C. Lions’ as a defensive line coach after coaching in a semi-pro league in the U.S. They didn’t work together until Harris joined the Bombers in 2006.
“I have to say 2006, 2007, 2008 were probably the three best years I had as a professional athlete NFL or CFL and that was all due really to the handiwork of this gentleman,” Brown said. “My legacy in Winnipeg is tied to his and what he did for this football club and I think it’s fitting and appropriate that 2011 was both of our best seasons.”
Brown, who grew up in the Vancouver-area, enjoyed a remarkable career with the Bombers. He was a seven-time CFL all-star and was nominated most outstanding Canadian three times, winning that award in 2001. He was also runner-up for the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player in 2008. He missed just 12 games in his CFL career and never suffered an injury serious enough to require surgery.
He became a fan-favorite in Winnipeg, mainly for making the city his year-round home and for doing seemingly unending community work. He also wrote a column in a local newspaper and was a regular on the radio. “This place grows on you and there’s no where else I’d rather be right now,” he said Wednesday.
But Brown acknowledged there was a hole in his career. He played in three Grey Cup games -- 2001, 2007 and 2011 -- and never won. The failure to win a championship “will haunt me for quite some time.” Brown said. “But you can’t just assess or evaluate your time here in Winnipeg based on championships.”
Now 37-years old and a retired 6 ft. 8 inch-football player, Brown said he was not sure what he will do next, although broadcasting seems likely. Filling the hole left by football won’t be easy. He has been playing the game for 15 years, first at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. and then as a professional. “There’s a big void right now in my life,” he said. “When you play football for a decade and a half, that becomes part of the fabric of your identity. And when you retire that’s a big hole, that’s multiple layers of things you need to replace as a person.”
He added that he is almost dreading watching the start of the CFL season. “I don’t know how I’m going to react, or how I can predict the kind of emotional upheaval I’ll have watching that,” he said. “That’s the thing about retirement. You are no longer a part of the franchise and you really have to understand and get over that as a player and make that break.”