Long Read | The King, the Prince and the Duke

HAMILTON, Ont. – It was a one of the indelible images from the 107th Grey Cup two years ago as the clock ticked down to zeroes and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ championship drought came to an end: There were Andrew Harris and Nic Demski – two Winnipegers from the same high school – grabbing each other by the shoulders, head-butting their helmets together and letting out simultaneous screams of joy to mark a historic moment in franchise history.

That story is about to come just that much more compelling and that much more improbable this weekend as Brady Oliveira – another product of Oak Park High School and a guy who was on the injured list in ’19 – will also suit up for the Bombers on Grey Cup Sunday. Three players, all on offence, all about five years apart in age, and all from the same high school with a student population of less than 900 in Charleswood.

What are the odds?

Consider this: the last time the Bombers had three players from the same high school in their lineup was way back in 1946, when Doug Gauthier, Harry Hood, Bud Irving and Don Smith – all Kelvin products – were on the roster. That was post-World War II and a dozen years before the Canadian Football League had even been officially founded with the merger of the Western Interprovincial Football Union and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union.

And so to now have three players from the same high school on the same team – their hometown team – in this day and age of free agency and one-year contracts?

“That right there, that’s a nice story,” said Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson. “That’s a homegrown part of the organization. To have Andrew, Demski and Brady on our team and all from the same school… that’s the King, the Prince and the Duke of Winnipeg right there. Andrew’s the King, Demski’s the Prince and Brady’s the Duke.”

This is a tale of The OP Three – The King, The Prince and The Duke…

THE KING

As a future hall of famer, a three-time rushing champ and five-time CFL All-Star, the story of Andrew Harris has been told multiple times before but certainly deserves a recap here. Harris took an unusual route to his place on the throne. As a kid playing hockey and football in Steinbach, he went from the Eastman Raiders to Grant Park Pirates to Oak Park to the Vancouver Island Raiders junior team to the B.C. Lions. He’s earned his place at the top through talent, sure, but also by a sheer will that had him push down walls and climb over the many barriers put in front of him along the way.

“He’s just a gamer. He’s a baller, He’s a football player,” said Demski of Harris. “He understands the game mentally and he’s also built for the game physically as well. When it’s his time to go I always know he’s always going to be prepared physically and mentally.

“The most I’ve learned from him is just having that mindset. He’s definitely a physical player and physically is built for the game of football. But what I believe takes his game to the next level is just his mindset. That’s something I’ve tried to take away from his game and add it to my own. It’s just not going down on the first tackle, breaking tackles, running hard, keeping your feet moving, even blitz pick up – all that sort of stuff – just to take my game to the next level as well.

“Our friendship… we kind of came from the same place. Obviously being from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Our family background is even a bit similar. There’s just a respect for one another. I can definitely call that guy my brother and I know he can do the same. He’s just somebody that’s always going to have my back and I’m going to have his. It goes beyond football. It definitely started with football, but our friendship definitely goes beyond football now.”

Harris came to Oak Park after running into, in his words, ‘the wrong crowd’ at Grant Park and following his head coach, Stu Nixon, to the Raiders.

“Here’s what’s unbelievable with Andrew Harris – a hall-of-fame CFL player – we didn’t win a championship with that guy,” said Nixon in a chat with bluebombers.com. “We did with the other guys, Nic and Brady, but we lost to Churchill in the finals with Andrew. It was totally coaching.

“Justin Kazak, who was our second-best player, was injured with 17 seconds left in the semi-final and we didn’t adjust properly. Total coaching blunder. I should have just given Andrew the ball 35 times and we would have won. Andrew sent me a really touching text when I said I was retiring this year. I sent him back a note saying, ‘I’ll always feel like I let you down because you should have a high school championship ring, too.’”

THE PRINCE

Harris graduated from Oak Park in 2005 and coming up behind him into the Raiders backfield was a kid from the school’s neighbourhood – a solid hockey player who also played football in the summer and fall with the Charleswood Broncos before high school and then later with the University of Manitoba Bisons.

Demski was a first-round draft choice of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2015 and returned home to Winnipeg as a free agent in 2018. His ’21 season was the best of his career, as he was named the Blue Bombers’ Most Outstanding Canadian.

“He’s an exceptional human being,” said Nixon, who saw his next star tailback graduate in 2011 before heading to the Bisons. “Here’s a story about that: I remember the Bombers were playing on a Friday night and I guess I had accidentally pocket-dialled Nic. It’s late after the game, maybe after 11, and I get a call. It’s Nic and he says, ‘Coach, what do you need?’

“I’ll tell you what,” added Nixon with a laugh, “I never made the same mistake with Nic and Brady that I did with Andrew in the championship. Those two guys got 30 touches a game.”

“I feel like I’m an older brother to both Nic and Brady and trying to bring those guys along,” said Harris. “It’s been moreso with Nic over the last few years… we’re in a different position, but it is about that mindset and preparation side of things. And with Brady, I have more influence with him day in and day out because we play the same position. It’s been awesome to pass along some of my experience and wisdom on to him. It’s definitely exciting to see what he can do in his career going forward. He’s a great kid.”

THE DUKE

Brady Oliveira is still just 24 and his ’21 campaign represented a breakthrough of sorts. A second-round draft pick by the Bombers in ’19, his rookie season ended in the home opener with a leg injury. He was with the club in Calgary at the Grey Cup in 2019 after working diligently to get back after his rehab, but officially ended the season on the six-game injured list.

After losing a year to the pandemic, Oliveira came into training camp inspired and when Harris was injured on the first weekend, the proud product of the North Winnipeg Nomads football program – before he arrived at Oak Park – opened the year as the Bombers starting tailback, rushing for 126 yards in his debut.

By season’s end, he had cranked out two 100-yard rushing games and finished ninth in the league in rushing.

“Andrew and Nic… they’re both like big bros to me, but all our relationships are different,” Oliveira said. “I’m closer in age to Demski, so he and I worked together with Recruit Ready and when he was leaving Oak Park I was coming to Oak Park and we kept in touch when we went to college. When I was younger, I worked out sometimes with Andrew. He was at B.C. at the time, and I was just leaving the Nomads and going on to high school. I remember thinking, ‘Wow… I’m getting to work out beside Andrew and have a conversation with him.’ That felt like a real big brother thing to me.

“Now I’m in the same locker room with him, I’m playing beside him and he’s always giving me these little tidbits of knowledge that I’m soaking up all that I can to hopefully benefit my career. We have this brotherly love thing going now. It’s special.

“This story… it says a lot about Oak Park and their football program. But it says a lot about Winnipeg, too. I mean, think about it – if we were all just from the same city and played on different CFL teams that would be something on its own. But to all be on the same team, from the same high school, that’s super cool. We all get to play for our hometown and that’s something truly special.”

There will be an assembly at Oak Park High School on Friday to celebrate The OP Three – the King, The Prince and the Duke – and their faces will also be displayed on the football field’s scoreboard. And settled into his couch on Grey Cup Sunday, Nixon will slide to the front of his seat any time Harris, Demski or Oliveira get their mitts on the ball.

In other words, he likely won’t be sitting still at all.

“Those guys were all dominant high-school players,” he said. “But what really separated them was they all wanted to learn, they accepted coaching and they worked their butts off on and off the field. They were just driven.

“But to see them be dominant now at the highest level of football in Canada is, well, it’s just mind-blowing. Just think of all the things that have to happen in order for that to occur. Everything has to be done the right way for them to be that good. It really is an amazing, amazing story.”

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