To Lisa Harlow, football is more than just a sport; it is her life’s work. Employing great organizational skills and insight, Harlow is one of the most fascinating figures in the game. She brings an encyclopedic knowledge of the game while working as president of Football New Brunswick to ensure the foundation is laid for the next generation of football stars.
Merely 28 years old, Harlow is in the prime of her life, and her hard work is paying remarkable dividends. As commissioner of the Maritime Women’s Football League, she has overseen the growing league enter its 10th anniversary, while earning well-deserved sponsorships with Papa John’s Pizza (a sponsor of the NFL) and Moosehead Breweries (the original proprietor of the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads).
Having shattered the barriers in a once male-dominated activity, Harlow is a pioneer to her sport. Her tireless work in women’s football is reminiscent of Fran Rider (former president of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association), one of the first pioneers of women’s hockey. Rider helped lay the foundation for that sport in the 1970’s and 1980’s and is still active today.
Of note, Angela James, the first Canadian woman in the Hockey Hall of Fame, credited Rider with the success in her career. There is no question that future members of the Canadian women’s national football team will one day pay similar tribute to Harlow and her efforts in overcoming obstacles so that women were allowed the possibility of competing on the gridiron.
One of the great mentors in her career is her father, Larry Harlow. Having served as a coach with the Saint John Storm, Team Atlantic and the Canadian National Team in 2010, he has been at her side as he has watched her career grow. He will be the first to proudly proclaim that all her success was gained through dedication and perseverance.
“Not many fathers get to say ‘his daughter is a great football player’ but I also get to say she is a very respected coach, official and executive member and serves well as a mentor to women in sport and to the junior girls she coaches.
"It has been hard for Lisa sometimes because people say ‘Oh, her dad is the coach,’ but she has earned her football status from her passion and knowledge of the game. When she was six and I would leave her with the defensive players to run a drill, she not only made sure they did it right but sent them for down-ups when they did not listen.
"I knew then she had the passion and love for football, but not to the extent she has served the football family. Lisa and I are usually in trouble at family events because we discuss and analyze games, practices and rules (laughs).
"I am very proud of what Lisa has done and continues to do (in order) to grow the game of football and make a difference in the community.”
In 2012, Harlow was bestowed as recipient of the WISE Fund (given by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport). Recognized for her work in coaching and conducting player development camps for girls aged 14 to 17, the fund helped finance her trip to the 2012 Football Canada Coaches Association Convention.
“It is funny. I am 28 years old and have coached longer than I have played. Football is my life, I absolutely love coaching. I tell my players that I am in every play with them on the sidelines. Coaching has been a great experience for me and I will continue to coach our athletes and maybe even someday coach Team Canada.
"The WISE grant allowed me to attend the Football Canada Coaching Association (FCCA) conference in Burlington, Ontario in 2012. This clinic has a number of high performance and professional coaching speaking on a number of topics. It was a fantastic conference that gave me new insight to coaching.”
As one of the few NCCP certified female coaches that attended the event, it was a milestone in her career. There is no question that her father was a huge influence on her desire to coach. Of note, he was also a builder for women’s football in the province. His contributions included serving as the co-founder of the New Brunswick Women's Football League, the New Brunswick Junior Girls Football League and the Maritime Women's Football League, respectively.
“Being a coach has its good and bad moments. You face challenges as a coach and it is how you face the adversity and move your team through it that shows your coaching abilities. For me, coaching is about giving back to young athletes what was given to me as an athlete. It about more than teaching them how to play the sport of football, it is about teaching them life skills to help to them along their ups and downs on and off the football field.”
Having established herself as one of the first, great female coaches in New Brunswick, her role in building women’s football throughout the province holds the same prestige as pro football pioneers George Halas in Chicago and Paul Brown with Cleveland. What Harlow has accomplished in such a short period makes her a remarkable role model and a key figure as women’s sports gains prominence in Canada.
“As a coach, you always have rewarding moments with your teams. I have a couple. One was winning the first ever championship for the New Brunswick Junior Girls League in 2010. The other moment for me was when I was able to start playing (in the MWFL) with the players that I had coached for years in Jr. Girls.”
The opportunity to compete at the MWFL level with a player that she helped develop was testament to Harlow’s skills as a coach. Absorbing Harlow’s knowledge of the game, the student suddenly became a teammate. Like a proud mother, the chance to line up on the Saint John Storm beside a player that she groomed for this level provided Harlow with her greatest reward as a coach.
“Robyn Richardson, one of the girls that I coached for four years in Junior, started playing with us (the MWFL team) in 2011. We were in Fredericton playing in a very tight back-and-forth game. I was playing outside linebacker and Robyn was playing middle linebacker.
"Fredericton threw the ball in the middle and Robyn picked the ball for an interception touchdown. I remember running down the field to meet her in the end zone thinking, ‘I am so proud to say I coached her.' Now, after three years in the league, she is one of the hardest hitting middle linebackers and is growing every day playing in the MWFL.”
Having cultivated her love of the game into a body of work that symbolizes the great character and leadership that has helped shape the culture of women’s football, Harlow is the incarnation of women’s growing influence in sport.
As women’s football shatters stereotypes about the role of women in sport, Harlow is an endearing figure whose indomitable spirit has led to others sharing in her glories. As an icon of football in New Brunswick, her penchant for success will one day result in an unforgettable story of triumph as her golden touch helped ensure equality on the gridiron.
Harlow’s growing legacy is one that goes beyond the realm of women’s sports but the entire Canadian sporting landscape. Having cultivated her love of football into a body of work that included coaching, playing and managing, Harlow extols all the qualities of dedication, perseverance and leadership.
Helping to push women’s football into the bigger sporting picture, Harlow has not only changed the lives of many female athletes, but improved it. In recognition of her tireless contributions and superlative efforts on the gridiron, she will be the first person inducted into the Saint John Storm Wall of Fame on July 20, 2013.
An authentic sporting hero, once her spectacular career reaches the end of its journey; it shall be one worthy of honors such as the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Order of New Brunswick.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated