Love of the Game a Family Affair for Female Football Icon Lisa Harlow

Mark Staffieri@@MarkStaff100Contributor IIJune 11, 2013

Harlow (#16) scrambling for yardage against the Capital Area Lady Gladiators
Harlow (#16) scrambling for yardage against the Capital Area Lady Gladiators

Only 28 years old, Lisa Harlow has carved a career in football that embodies the spirit and determination that makes women’s football worth watching. Currently serving as the president of Football New Brunswick and the commissioner of the Maritime Women’s Football League, Harlow’s star is shining brightly, with a promise of even greater things to come.

Approaching the game with tremendous alacrity, her love of the game comes from her father, Larry Harlow. Her journey in football started at his side at the tender age of six. While both of their careers have intertwined along the way, both have redefined the landscape of football in New Brunswick.  

I started going to the football field at the age of six years old with my father. At the time, he coached a bantam boys’ team (aged 14 and15). My mom worked evening shift, so my older sister and I went to football with dad every night. I immediately fell in love with the game. I used to run beside my dad on the sidelines and get so excited.

With a fire that was unable to be extinguished, Harlow showed an enthusiasm and wisdom for the game that was years beyond her age. In her preteens, she would start officiating games, bringing her one step closer to the action that defined her growing years.

Today, I still have players from this team that dad coached come up to me and call me coach Lisa, even though they are grown adults now. At the age of 11, I became an official and started officiating peewee and bantam football. I quickly grew as an official and moved into high school football. I also played a number of sports growing up; basketball, field hockey, rugby, track and field and badminton.

In 2004 when the MWFL was founded, I began my playing career. I have also coached minor football for years. After dad stopped coaching minor football for a few years, I coached a peewee boy’s team and then a bantam boy’s team. When we introduced the Junior Girls league (14 to 17 years old) in New Brunswick, I moved to coaching females.

While Harlow continues to establish herself as one of the greatest ever to have competed in the MWFL, she has also worked tirelessly in helping to run the game. A great point of pride for the remarkable Harlow occurred in April 2012 when she took the helm at Football NB.

Having previously served on the Board of Directors, Harlow understood the responsibility of the position. With the torch of leadership passed to her, she is quick to acknowledge her predecessors and the legacy that she wishes to build upon.

I was elected as president of Football NB in April of 2012 for a two-year term. Being the first female president of Football NB and one of very few female football presidents in Canada is a great honor, but it is not the reason why I took the position. I took this position as many people over the years have held the presidents role and they have all worked hard to keep our sport growing and moving in an upward direction.

These individuals have watched me grow as a young kid to an adult now. When the opportunity came to be able to continue what has already been started, I knew I could do this role. Having worked on the Board of Directors for four years, it was a natural transition for me as I knew our organization and what needed to be done.

Football NB is successful because of all the countless hours that our volunteers, staff and coaches put into our program. This organization is successful because everyone is working together with the same goal in mind and that is to get as many people in our province involved in our sport in some capacity. Football not only teaches you have to play the sport, it teaches you life skills that you will use every day in your life.

Currently serving as commissioner of the MWFL, Harlow’s executive position is reminiscent of NFL legend Jim Thorpe. In addition to a remarkable career with the Canton Bulldogs during the NFL’s Rag Days, Thorpe was also commissioner of the growing league. Similar to the legendary Thorpe, Mather was also an elite player, earning seven MWFL All-Star selections.  

As commissioner of the MWFL, I oversee the running of the league and make sure that we are following our constitution and by-laws. We have a very strong executive within the MWFL and everyone shares the roles and responsibilities to ensure that we operate day to day. 

To be honest, it is just a title, and I do not like titles; in order for any organization to be successful it takes a number of people including executive, volunteers, coaches, officials and players. The MWFL has a dedicated group of individuals striving to make our league successful year over year.

Even with the success in her storied career, Harlow has also had her obstacles to overcome. Before the Saint John Storm carved a dynasty with three SupHer Bowl championships, there was desolation before there could be jubilation. With her father (who was coaching the squad) by her side, a career defining moment occurred driving back from a demoralizing loss.  

Leading the Saint John Seagals (now the Saint John Storm) to its first title will always be a memory in my life. All championship wins seem to be a little bit better than the other one, but there is one in particular that I will never forget. In 2006 and 2007, our team struggled with players. We finished last and got beat quite bad in a number of games.

Despite the troubles that seemed all too chronic in 2007, there were signs of encouragement. Michelle Young-Mather was named the MWFL’s Most Outstanding Player. Mather’s skills were complemented by a group of rookies (including Trina Graves, Sue Moore, Nicole Richard and Alanna Waberski), that provided the promise of better days ahead.

“It was at the end of 2007, driving home from very bad loss in Halifax, that I remember looking at my dad (our coach), and we both said enough is enough. We have to change the outlook of our team. We need to get better at our fundamental skills in order to be successful in this league.”

The result was a makeover of epic proportions. Gone was the Seagals name, and Jim Mather would join the coaching staff. Having rechristened the franchise as the Saint John Storm, the franchise turned the page. Implementing a new training regiment, the franchise would transform the culture into one that would soon be the envy of their peers in the MWFL.

When the Harlows set a goal, we never give up on it! So we started recruiting more players and we found a great new coach to assist dad (Jim Mather). We started preseason training in the gym focusing solely on the fundamental skills, and we changed our name to the ‘Saint John Storm’. It was like we were a brand new team.

I will never forget that season [in 2008], especially the championship game against the Moncton Vipers. It was a wet foggy day and the score was back and forth all game. I remember saying to the defense, ‘We need a stop to get the offense back on the field’. They came out big and caused a fumble which allowed us to get in the end zone again.

That championship win was the sweetest win I think I have ever had in my athletic career.  It showed that no matter what adversity your teams face year over year, if you put your mind to it you can overcome anything.

Her resuscitation of the Saint John franchise speaks volumes about Harlow’s spirit of seizing the moment and not giving up. While it was a monumental event that led to the beginning of a championship chapter in her storied career, history would cross paths with her again a few years later.

“In many different ways, 2010 will always be very close to 2008. I say that because it was a just a very successful year; we won silver at the Worlds, we won the MWFL Championship and my Jr. Girls team (Jr. Storm), which I coach, won the first ever New Brunswick Jr. Girls Championship.”

When Canada fielded a roster for the inaugural 2010 Women’s World Tackle Football Championships, it was only fitting that Harlow was included. As part of a silver medal effort, the opportunity to represent her home country was a cherished one.

Joined by her father Larry (who was a member of the coaching staff), there were also 14 other women from the Saint John area. Ironically, four of those 14 women also worked for the same company (Irving Oil) as Harlow; Lisa Rogers, Jaclyn Brewer, Trina Graves and Ashlee Clements.

Statistically, Harlow ranked third on the team in tackles, while leading the team in sacks, respectively. The highlight of the event for her may have come in a Canada Day (July 1) victory over Germany. Not only did Canada clinch a berth in the gold medal game, but she registered a sack. 

It is every athletes dream to put on their country's jersey and represent Canada at the World Stage. The world tournament was an amazing experience that I share year over year with young athletes and I will share someday with my kids. 

Football has allowed athletes that would have never made a national team in their other sports such as basketball, hockey, soccer etc. the opportunity to play at this level. My jersey hangs in my house and I proud and honored to say that I was part of the first ever national women’s team. You cannot take that feeling away from anyone on the 2010 team!

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”