They were teammates for just one season, but it was more than long enough for Andrew Harris to positively impact Brady Oliveira’s CFL career.
Oliveira, 26, has registered consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons since Harris’s departure from Winnipeg following the 2021 campaign. And on Sunday, the 5-foot-10, 220-pound running back will make a third straight Grey Cup appearance when the Bombers face the Montreal Alouettes at Tim Hortons Field.
Oliveira began 2021 as Harris’s understudy but ran for 429 yards (4.6-yard average) and two touchdowns in 13 games with Harris (662 yards, 5.4-yard average, three TDs) being limited to just six regular-season contests. Harris returned for the West Division final, rushing for 136 yards and a TD in a 21-17 win over Saskatchewan, then helped Winnipeg down Hamilton 33-25 in overtime at Tim Hortons Field for a second straight Grey Cup title.
“My time with Andrew was great because I was really able to sit back and be patient knowing my time wasn’t there yet,” Oliveira said Wednesday during Winnipeg’s media day. “I wasn’t ready yet but to learn from a future Hall of Famer truly did benefit my career.
“Andrew’s strength, I think, is his football IQ and how he’s able to attack defences with his mental [approach].”
Harris would leave Winnipeg as a free agent, signing with Toronto. He helped the Argos beat the Bombers 24-23 in last year’s Grey Cup and was part of this year’s team that posted a record-tying 16-2 record before losing 38-17 to Montreal in the East Division final.
Harris, the top-rushing Canadian in league history, had said 2023 would be the final year of his illustrious career. But this season served as Oliveira’s coming-out party as he ran for a CFL-high 1,534 yards (5.9-yard average) with nine TDs, earning the West Division’s outstanding player and Canadian nominations.
But what drives Oliveira is winning championships, especially after last year’s heartbreaking loss to Toronto.
“Personally, I don’t want to feel that feeling again,” he said. “I definitely used that as added motivation [in off-season] as did a lot of other guys.
“We want to be on the good side again.”
Oliveira’s rushing season was the second-best by a Canadian in league history, surpassed only by the 1,813-yard effort registered in 2013 by Calgary’s Jon Cornish. The ‘19 Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductee not only earned the CFL’s outstanding player and Canadian honours that year but also the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s top athlete.
“It’s pretty elite company, I grew up watching Jon Cornish and it’s a dream,” Oliveira said. “I feel like there’s been a lot of dreams for myself this season and I’m extremely blessed.
“But at the end of the day, man, I want to win the Grey Cup. These individual stats, these awards, if we don’t win it, it’s a waste.”
Oliveira is a key cog in a Winnipeg unit that lead the CFL in offensive points (31.7 per game), offensive TDs (62), net yards (414.7), rushing (139.1) and stood second overall in passing (292.4). Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros, the league’s outstanding player in 2021-22, was second overall in passing (4,252) but first in TD strikes (33).
“I think our offensive co-ordinator [Buck Pierce] is more open to calling run plays because we have such an amazing offensive line,” Oliveira said. “And we have receivers who’re willing to come into the box and block and do the dirty work.”
Winnipeg (14-4) finished atop the West Division and advanced to a fourth straight Grey Cup with a 24-13 conference final win over B.C. Montreal (11-7) was second in the East and qualified for its first CFL championship game since 2010 with playoff wins over Hamilton (27-12) and Toronto.
Montreal enters the Grey Cup riding a seven-game win streak, with a stellar defence anchoring its playoff run. The unit didn’t allow a TD against Hamilton before registering nine turnovers (four interceptions, four times on downs, fumble) against Toronto, returning two picks for TDs.
Winnipeg swept the season series with Montreal 2-0 as Oliveira ran for over 100 yards in both games.
“They do a great job of creating turnovers and also get points off them,” Oliveira said. “They do a great job of capitalizing on mistakes and opportunities so we have to just play our style of football.
“Make sure we’re smart with the ball … make sure we’re not turning the ball over and just play our style. I think if we do what we’ve done this entire season and everyone believes that and is on board with it in all three phases, we’re hard to be stopped.”
Oliveira isn’t taking a third straight Grey Cup appearances for granted.
“It’s obviously very special,” he said. “Some guys play seven, eight, nine, 10 years and never go to one Grey Cup.
“I’m very, very lucky.”