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Heading into the bye week of the 2011 season, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are sporting a 6-1 record and are off to their best start in decades. After going winless on the road in 2010, the Bombers have won all three of their road games so far, with their next road game coming against the last-in-the-West Saskatchewan Roughriders on Labour Day weekend.

And while letting the Calgary Stampeders come back to win by one point in a week three match-up was hard to handle, it paled in comparison to the loss the Bombers have had to overcome on the sidelines.

On July 26, sometime after the team’s daily meetings, defensive line coach and assistant head coach Richard Harris collapsed in his office at Canad Inns Stadium, passing away suddenly at the age of 63. Harris had been a coach with the Bombers since 2006, making a home in Winnipeg and remaining a coaching staff mainstay despite several drastic head coach changes during his tenure.

Harris’ sudden passing devastated the Bomber organization and was felt throughout the CFL. While players and coaches around the league mourned the loss of a great man, the news rocked the current Bomber squad the hardest. To many players — especially those on the defensive squad — Coach Harris was more than just a coach; he was a mentor, a loyal friend and a father figure.

Complicating the traumatic event more so was the cold fact that the Bombers were scheduled to host the British Columbia Lions a mere two days after the incident. In what was an incredibly emotional game, the Bomber defense paid tribute to their fallen coach, recording six sacks and keeping the Lions out of the endzone in the second half as the defense willed the Bombers to a 25-20 win.
The loss of a cherished member of the team can drastically affect the mentality of the locker room: it could drain the team emotionally and create a huge distraction, or it could bind the team closer together in a way that only a shared tragedy can.

For the Bombers, it would appear that the latter has occurred. The Bombers continue to have the most dominant defense in the league, and followed up their emotional win against the Lions with a 28-16 victory over an undefeated Edmonton Eskimos, securing first place in the East. The following week, the Bombers waltzed into Vancouver and spanked the Lions 30-17 to head into the second half of the season as the top team in the CFL.

When you consider what the players have overcome off the field, what they’ve accomplished so far this season is nothing short of inspiring.

The Bomber defense, or “Swaggerville” as they now refer to themselves, has become the heart and soul of the 2011 Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Their dominating style of play has taken pressure off of the offense by holding teams to an average of 18.6 points a game, accumulating 29 sacks on the year, picking off 11 interceptions and only allowing 10 touchdowns, all of which are league-leading stats.

Defensive coordinator Tim Burke, who won the last two Grey Cups as a member of the Montreal Alouettes coaching staff before he was hired by the Bombers, might just turn out to be the best signing made during the offseason. For all the glory and praise the players receive on the field, equal praise must be given to Burke for creating defensive schemes that have maximized his players’ potential.

Right now, the Blue Bombers have everything going their way. Quarterback Buck Pierce is still healthy, the defense is playing lights-out, and they’re playing in front of sold out crowds at Canad Inns Stadium. While it might be too early to start planning any late-November parades, it’s time to celebrate good times in Winnipeg (AKA Swaggerville).