NFL in London lost our ‘grandfather’ this week, as my father Harvie McElwain passed away at the age of 84.
There would be no NFL in London if it weren’t for Harvie, so I hope you’ll join me in raising a glass in toasting Harv this week as you watch the games.
Fred Harvie McElwain was born in Toronto, Canada in 1936. He attended the prestigious Upper Canada College, where he excelled at football, theatre and popularity.
Harvie was en route to the University of Toronto on a football scholarship until a tragedy struck his father, and Harvie was forced to abandon uni to take care of his family.
Football was life to my dad. As a geeky, friendless kid growing up on a farm in Canada, my love of the NFL came from my father, or rather being in his presence while we watched games together.
Every Sunday I would settle in for the games with my father, beaming from being in his company to watch the NFL with my dad. I learned to love the NFL by watching and learning from his incredulous reactions to the beautiful game.
He was patient with me to explain every rule, watched like a ref, he could anticipate plays, loved Madden & Summerall, fair play, hated racism, and never shied away from revealing his emotions during the games.
‘That’s bullshit ref!’, ‘offside you idiot’, and ‘is that any good?!?’ would resonate through the house on Sundays, as I revelled in his passion and ability to swear in front of my mom and get away with it.
In 1985 my feeling for the NFL changed thanks to the Chicago Bears. I never had a ‘team’ prior to the Bears, as I navigated which of the NFL clubs I most identified with.
When the ’85 Bears burst on the scene, bullied the opposition then devastated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, I knew I had my team.
I was a Bears fan.
My dad was quick to enlighten me on the history of the Bears. How they helped build the league, how they helped the US try to overcome things like racism, and how they helped the Green Bay Packers as a pseudo big brother to them to get into the league.
Harvie was originally a Packers fan, but due to my allegiance, he chose to support every team that was ‘the little guy’. He never said this to me outright, but I knew that he wanted me to love the Bears, and didn’t want to ever compete or find a rivalry with me.
That’s the kind of guy he was. A gentle giant who stood up for the little guy, and encouraged fair play all the way.
My dad would go on to support every little guy team that needed support. Given that we lived on the American border, Harvie would support the Buffalo Bills during their 90s push as ‘Canada’s team’, often bringing us across the border to grab loads of Bills gear from the outlet stores.
He liked the Lions because ‘Barry Saunders is one of the classiest guys ever’, the Bucs because ‘they never win, and those are the worst uniforms ever’, and would always talk about how much he loved Washington FB John Riggins for being a ‘tough son of a bitch.’
Harvie also thought Howie Long was one of the dirtiest players that ever played, and would mutter under his breath every time Long and the Raiders made another dirty play.
Harvie was a high school football referee in Kitchener, Ontario. Twice a week during the season, my dad would travel to local high schools with his ref buddies to encourage the local youth to love the game. After the games, all of the refs would gather at local watering holes like the Edelwiess Tavern or the like for football banter, ribaldry, a few too many beers and sloshy drives home that would make newspapers today.
Often after school my dad would pick me up, then I would be given a handful of quarters for table top video games, while he and the refs talked high school football, 80s culture and grown-up bs.
I remember on one occasion when I was 13, the beer was flowing and the tensions were rowing between my dad and a particularly odious other large ref who was not well liked by his peers.
Even at that age I knew what a bully was, and this doofish was the grownup version.
Quicker of wit, my dad angered the large lout to the point he wanted to ‘go outside’ for a rumble to settle his public offense, and Harv was happy to oblige the loudmouth.
He told me to stay put as he and the refs headed to the patio for the big dust-up. As Harvie took off his sports jacket, the younger ref ran across and sucker punched my father in the mouth, which sent him back a few steps into the corner. I cried out in protest, as my dad looked over at me with a sly, secret smile.
That would be the only punch the man threw.
Harvie was 6′ 2″ 240lbs at the time and a former boxer.
I watched my dad steady himself after the sucker and deliver a series of combinations that snapped the man’s head back several times like a speed bag before he collapsed into a humble pile of injury.
As all the refs headed back inside leaving the man in a shameful heap, my hero dad leaned into me and said ‘let’s not tell your mom about this’ with a wink and nod.
I never did…until now. Sorry mommy.
While in uni, Harvie brought me in to make some extra cash as a high school football referee, despite me not having taken any training or accreditation. In my first game, I worked with my dad and was nervous as hell (as well as incredibly hung over). Trying to justify my presence, I called an early ‘too many men on the field’ penalty, which sent one of the coaches into such a tizzy, ran onto the field to address me.
Needless to say I never continued to ref, but Harv always had my back.
Harvie was always proud of all of the great high school footballers the region produced, and would often keep clip outs of their achievements.
One local athlete who went on to do well was a boxer named Lennox Lewis, who played football for Cameron Heights Collegiate. When other refs would bemoan that Lewis ‘didn’t like to get hit’ when he played football, my dad would counter ‘that’s what’s going to make him a great boxer. Look out for him.’ If you’re reading this Lennox, my dad kept loads of your newspapers and proudly announced you as ‘Kitchener’s own.’
When I moved to the UK in 2007, I lamented to my father the lack of the NFL viewing in London, he simply responded ‘do something about it.’ I wanted the NFL in London experience to be like what watching football with my dad was like. Good food, great banter, and a feeling of family. No matter who you supported, you were always welcome, and it was all about everyone together.
As much as the NFL is about competition, it’s also about inclusivity.
Harvie attended an NFL game with me and some friends when he made the trek over to England. As dementia crept onto his playing field, Harv was determined that he would make the most of his remaining memories, and everyone who sat near us at Wembley Stadium for the Bucs vs Bears were treated to a true Harvie McElwain experience. He explained the rules to British newcomers to the game, encouraged children to cheer and make some noise, and even tried to keep up pint for pint with some gregarious fans. Thanks to everyone who got us home safely that night.
When I was asked to host some the NFL UK festivities over the years, my dad always wanted to know who was there and what was happening. Any time I met one of his heroes he asked me what they were like. Guys like Joe Montana were happy to indulge me with a photo, Jerry Jones telling a press conference Hollywood scandal stories at my behest ripped my old man to pieces with laughter, and then there was Jerry. The Jerry.
Jerry Rice is one of my dad’s all time favourites as a player, as a person, as a role model. Harvie was all about spotting ‘class’ in a player, and Jerry Rice had class and then some. As much as he pushed the little guy, he also promoted the big guy with the even bigger heart.
When I was hosting an NFLUK event at Wembley, I was told that I was going to be given a press opportunity with Jerry Rice & some fans. In a mock stadium in front of a few thousand UK fans, Jerry runs out onto the pitch with the swagger of an NFL great.
We do a few Q&A’s and my heart is pumping in front of this family icon, who is not only so calm and sweet, but is incredibly handsome up close.
As the interview is coming to a close Jerry Rice does something that changed my life forever.
He asked me him to throw him a football.
Watch the video below to see it in its glory.
Jerry Rice came up to me after the play and said ‘that was a hell of a pass, you could play in the NFL.’
I knew he was joking, but I knew it didn’t matter. I just threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice. Jerry Rice is amazing. Jerry Rice has class. Harvie.
After this happened I immediately called my dad back in Canada and told him ‘I just threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice.’ he paused for the joke.
I explained in broken hysterics what had just happened nearly breaking into full on tears into recounting this lifetime milestone. The pause of emotion that followed still lives with me today. I didn’t just throw the pass, Harvie was there too.
The NFL remained one constant in his life, despite his inability to focus on games in his latter years, he was just happy to be in the presence of fellow NFL fans.
Though an ocean away, my dad and I still kept in touch with all the NFL news. His memory for the game may have struggled, but his passion never did.
Often I would encourage NFL in London fans at events to give a shout out to my father Harvie which I would film. My mom would play them for my dad, causing him to well up with emotion.
You may not have known what an impact you had on an old NFL fan and his family, but it was tremendous, and my whole family thanks you. UK NFL fans are the best.
This is the first Super Bowl without my father in my life, and it sucks huge. Knowing all the new NFL friends I have met in the UK and beyond has been a real blessing, and I know that in someway he’s a catalyst for it all.
Setting up parties at the Sports Bar, Hippodrome, hosting NFLUK events, and helping promote the game in the UK for me is as result of my dad’s love of the NFL, and his knowledge that gathering together to watch the games is more about sport.
It’s about family.
So many of us in the UK have found new kin & collectives thanks to our love of the NFL, and if the events I and the team have helped set up have helped you make new NFL friends and family for life, then you have Harvie McElwain to thank for it.
So this weekend, and for the Super Bowl please do me a favour and raise a glass to my father Harvie McElwain. Those who knew him miss him fondly, and those who didn’t would have loved to watch a game with him.
Safe travels Harv…and fuck dementia.
Here is an obituary to my father Harvie McElwain. A true legend.