By Mike Still for Football Manitoba
The late Neville Scarlett was many things to many people. A father, coach, teacher and mentor, his reassuring presence was felt whenever he stepped on the field or in the classroom.
“Neville Scarlett the coach and Neville Scarlett the teacher were the same. I think that stems from him being a great teacher, that’s why he was a great coach,” said Russell Wallace, head coach of the West Kildonan Wolverines football team and Scarlett’s long-time friend.
“In the classroom, I was very exposed to him. We taught multiple classes together and shared a desk together. He was this scary guy coming down the hallway, but you knew as soon as you talked to him, he was willing to listen and do whatever he could to make your experience at West Kildonan better. We saw that when he did pass away and all the stories that came out from students posting on their social media. You really saw the length of his reach in this building. He was the one go-to person for a lot of students.”
A high-level football player, Scarlett suited up for North Dakota from 1989-1992 and later played for the Manitoba Bisons in the mid 90’s. Following his playing career, he followed his passion and became a teacher.
From 1999-2007, he taught and coached at Sturgeon Creek, leaving a massive impact on many. Then, in 2007, he was called upon to help create the football program at West Kildonan. Just two years after their debut, the Wolverines were Division 3 champs, going undefeated en route to the title.
“He was always willing to give somebody a second chance, and a third chance. He didn’t care about your skill level,” recalled Wallace. “He wanted you to buy into what Wolverine football was. A lot of time, he was very humble. He didn’t talk about hey I went to the Bisons, hey I went to UND. He didn’t talk about that. He talked about the lengths he was willing to go for each player and for this program.”
Off the field, Scarlett was a warrior. One year prior to West K’s provincial title, he suffered a series of strokes that went largely undetected. When he got checked, doctors discovered that he’d had a virus which attacked his heart and caused cardiomyopathy. Scarlett was put on the list for a heart transplant and also had a defibrillator and heart pump put in, as his heart was functioning at just seven percent.
Despite his condition, Scarlett continued to put on a brave face. In his time off from teaching, he helped out as running backs coach for the Winnipeg Rifles. “When he was with the Winnipeg Rifles, he had asked me to help guest coach at some of their rookie camps. I was happy to learn from one of the best running back coaches that I know. He was chugging along with his equipment, and he didn’t make excuses,” said Wallace.
“The players knew what he was going through, but he was still coming to practice early and putting on a brave face. I’ve never heard an excuse come out of Neville Scarlett’s mouth about his illness. Our last season together, he was showing drills and getting right in the mix of it.”
After waiting seven years to get a new heart (he had a rare blood type of B+), Scarlett finally had a heart transplant in 2017 in Edmonton. Just three weeks later, he was back coaching with the Rifles, and not long afterwards was back on the sidelines with Wallace.
One of the pair’s final memories together was on a cold November night, as West K took on St. Norbert in the WHSFL Bowl.
“It was snowing, it was cold. Anyone who knows Neville Scarlett knows that he hates the cold,” chuckled Wallace. “Coach [Adrian] Huntley from St. Norbert, we actually talked before the game, and him and Neville were teammates with the Bisons, and before anything, the first thing that Huntley said was ‘Scarlett I can’t believe that you’re out here.’ It’s minus one. The last picture I have of coach Scarlett in a football capacity is him standing at the end of the bench. He has seven layers on, and I’m here just in a sweater. He looks miserable, but you know that he’s having a blast out there.”
On March 19, 2020 Scarlett passed away due to complications with his kidneys. They were just lining up specialists for him when his heart went into rejection. He was 50 years old.
Scarlett leaves behind a wife and three children that he loved very much. As a proud husband and father, his biggest concern was to work full-time to provide for his family.
“He was very, very proud of his kids. Two of his daughters are high-level athletes in volleyball and basketball and we’d always have conversations about the games and how they were doing in it,” said Wallace.
“The reason he came back to work, was because he wanted to provide a university opportunity for his kids. That was his goal.”
Pandemic restrictions left the community unable to properly celebrate Scarletts’ life. In an effort to honour his legacy and support his family, long-time colleague and friend Mikki Grouette, with support from West K, is proud to establish a post-secondary trust fund for Scarlett’s three high school children.