Richard Harris, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers assistant head coach and defensive line coach, died Tuesday afternoon after collapsing at Canad Inns Stadium. He was 63.
A league source requesting anonymity said Harris collapsed in his office and was rushed to hospital where he was pronounced dead. Harris was in his sixth season with the CFL club.
Bombers president Jim Bell confirmed Harris's death.
“This has struck our entire organization from the top down,” he said in a statement. “We are all in a state of shock and first and foremost would like to express our deepest sympathies to his family.
“The Winnipeg Football Club has lost not only a great coach, but an even better man.”
Blue Bomber players immediately took to social networking site Twitter to express their sorrow and disbelief.
“Coach Harris was one of the best people I have ever met,” tweeted long-snapper Chris Cvetkovic. “Every man should strive to be the type of man that coach Harris was.”
“Hurtin so much right now ... lost a gr8 man, father figure to me ... man things will never be the same in WPG,” wrote defensive back Alex Suber.
Harris joined the Bombers in 2006 as their defensive line coach and was appointed assistant head coach prior to the start of this season.
Winnipeg's defence has played a major role in the club's resurgence this year. The Bombers (3-1) are tied with Montreal atop the East Division standings after posting a league-worst 4-14 record in 2010.
The club's defence is allowing a league-low 293 yards per game and is ranked second in fewest points allowed (19.2 per game). And the defensive line has terrorized rival quarterbacks, posting a league-high 15 sacks.
“I had the good fortune to chat with him on the sideline in Winnipeg only recently, and that experience confirmed for me what I had always heard about Coach Harris — that this was a man of tremendous warmth and knowledge, a true gentleman and a credit to our game,” CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said in a statement.
Harris arrived in Winnipeg after one season with the Ottawa Renegades as their defensive line coach. He had the same role for four years before that with the B.C. Lions.
Wally Buono, the Lions coach and general manager, appeared shaken by the news. Harris served as B.C.’s defensive line coach for Buono's first two years in Vancouver.
“When somebody passes away it's always shocking,” said Buono, who underwent heart bypass surgery in 2004. “Richard was a good man. Just the fact he's gone is almost discouraging.”
Buono also believes Harris might've actually saved his life during their time together with the Lions.
After B.C. beat Saskatchewan in the 2004 West Division final to advance to the Grey Cup, it was Harris who stopped jubilant Lions players from pouring cold water on their head coach. Buono knew at the time of his heart condition but had not told any of the coaches.
“I believe he did,” Buono said. “I felt something was going on.
“Richard being as sensitive as he is, he sensed something.”
Saskatchewan Roughriders linebacker Barrin Simpson, who played in Winnipeg for three seasons and was a CFL all-star under Harris, also took to Twitter to express his shock.
“No way, it can't be! To lose a great friend and close friend and a father like figure. I'm deeply sadden by this news,” said Simpson.
In 2000, Harris was head coach of the Portland Prowlers of the Indoor Professional Football League. And he won three semi-pro championships as head coach in the Northwest Football League, with the Eastside Express in 1989 and the Pudget Sound Jets in 1994 and 1995.
Harris, a defensive lineman, spent eight seasons in the NFL after being picked fifth overall in the 1971 draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. He was all-rookie that year.
He played three seasons with the Eagles before joining the Chicago Bears for two years. Harris finished his career by playing three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.
Harris played at Grambling State University under legendary head coach Eddie Robinson.
He is survived by wife Tami and children Kimberly, Chianti, Jennifer and Michael.