The Tragic 2001 Death Of Steve Harwell's Son

Purely in career terms, 2001 would look like a sunny year for Smash Mouth and its lead singer, Steve Harwell. The band's hit song "All Star" was featured in two films that year, "Shrek" and "Rat Race," with the latter even including Smash Mouth themselves in a brief cameo. "Shrek" let them cover the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" for a double feature of Smash Mouth on the film's soundtrack. They had an album drop that year, the self-titled "Smash Mouth." And, of course, there was a tour schedule.

But that schedule and Harwell's personal life were horribly scrambled that July when Harwell's son Presley Scott died at just six months old. Harwell and his partner, Michelle Laroque, welcomed Presley into the world on January 26 according to Billboard. He was, at first, a normal, healthy baby. "I usually tickled him and he'd crack up," Harwell told USA Today. But Presley's stomach hardened, and he began crying when handled. Suspecting it was only an infection, Harwell left his son with Laroque while he went out on tour.

Smash Mouth was in Minot, North Dakota when Laroque got a hold of Harwell. Without going into detail, she told him he needed to hurry back to their home in Las Vegas. Per MTV, Harwell told his bandmates to continue the tour, with the next date set for Great Falls, Montana. That, and the next few summer dates, were never played; Presley, who had been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, died July 28, 2001.

Harwell formed a foundation to fight leukemia after his son's death

According to the American Cancer Society, acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a rare, rapidly progressing form of cancer that begins in a patient's blood marrow, affecting the early form of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Infected cells spread into the bloodstream and then onto other parts of the body, potentially affecting the central nervous system, liver, and lymph nodes among other organs and systems. The majority of cases of ALL develop in children under the age of 5, and without rapid diagnosis and treatment, it can be fatal within months.

Despite being more common in children, ALL is usually more fatal to adults. Presley Scott Harwell's case was unusual in both the age at which ALL affected him and how rapidly the disease spread. "ALL is the most common leukemia in children ... but very, very few of those, maybe about 100 to 200, are infants," Dr. Jonathan Bernstein told USA Today. Onset during infancy usually points to a poor prognosis, but even by those standards, Presley declined rapidly. His white blood cell count reached as high as 400,000 before treatment. "The doctors were thinking maybe he was going to turn around," said Steve Harwell, but within hours of his reaching the hospital, Presley died.

After their loss, Harwell and his partner Michelle Laroque founded The Presley Scott Research Foundation for Leukemia, and Harwell volunteered in a leukemia ward. His work in establishing the foundation drew most of his energies in the immediate aftermath of Presley's death, though Laroque expressed interest in running it. According to Open Corporates, the foundation was dissolved in 2008.

Harwell mourned but worked to stay positive

The death of his son punctured the bubble that fame and fortune had enclosed Steve Harwell in. "I thought I was invincible until that happened to me," he told The Morning Call. "It happened to Steve Harwell, lead singer of Smash Mouth, the rock star. All the money in the world couldn't save [my son]." After canceling theĀ Great Falls, Montana tour date and a few others, Smash Mouth continued on without their lead singer while Harwell mourned. He rejoined them before the summer was out, but his own health woes took him off the road again; he needed surgery on a ruptured disk. While he was recovering, Harwell learned about the terrorist attacks on September 11, which revived all the grief he'd just passed through with his son.

Smash Mouth was not a band known for deep or emotionally complex lyrics, but Harwell turned philosophical in interviews after his loss. "It's even hard to talk about this," he said to The Morning Call. "It's hard to believe something so evil could happen, but it did. We have to recover." To USA Today, he said, "You have to put it in God's hands ... We saw how hard the doctors worked to keep Presley alive, but God had much bigger plans for him." Presley Harwell's death was not directly expressed in his father's music, however. Smash Mouth's next release was deliberately upbeat, to try and lift national spirits.