Think back to the first time you encountered Dan “Coach Lake” Staffieri walking — maybe driving — around campus, interrupting your lunch with a cheer or prowling the sidelines at a football game.
I can almost guarantee your initial reaction: utter bewilderment.
That amazement is more than justifiable. After all, it’s not every day you encounter an elderly, plaid-wearing Penn football fanatic cruising around campus in an oversized football helmet and leading cheers through a megaphone.
But to those who immersed themselves in Penn football — either as members of the team or as fans — that original confusion quickly abated.
As senior wide receiver Kyle Derham told me in the fall, “Coach Lake is Penn football.” And even though he will no longer roam the Franklin Field sidelines on Saturdays, Coach Lake, who passed away yesterday at the age of 85, still remains the essence of Quakers football.
Even this year, with the Quakers in the midst of a phenomenal title run, something was missing. Without Coach Lake belting out his signature chants on the sideline, student cheering was noticeably lacking.
But to focus on his official role as “gameday coordinator” or unofficial role as the team’s biggest cheerleader is to downplay what he truly meant to the program.
Those of us who never huddled around him after a Friday practice will never truly know how valuable Staffieri was to the Quakers. For over 30 years, he was the emotional center of one of the nation’s most storied football programs.
“Lake was truly the enthusiastic motivator,” said Gary Vura, quarterback of the 1982 Ivy Championship Quakers, in an e-mail this fall. “His presence with [the 1979] freshman class propelled us to the championship in 1982 … and beyond. It is not lost on anyone who has played for the Red and Blue, his impact on the program.”
Even into his eighties, Lake continued to motivate Penn to victory.
“He’s been there for so long and he’s meant so many different things to so many different people,” Derham said. “It’ll be Tuesday afternoon, 40 degrees outside, raining, and he’ll be out there in his poncho. And you’ll feel like Franklin Field is the last place you want to be sometimes, and he can change your mood and turn it around.”
Coach Lake, you will be missed. But most of all, you will be remembered.
I’ll remember your plaid ensemble. And I’ll remember the Ivy Championship rings that adorned all ten of your fingers.
I’ll remember you riding your helmet-cart down Locust Walk, leading your infamous cheers. And I’ll remember the amazement of passers-by, who couldn’t quite figure out just what was going on.
And I’ll remember responding to your cheers as we willed the Quakers to victory, whether I was yelling “Fight! Fight! Fight!”, “Champs!” or “Oh very well!”
But most of all, I’ll remember the way the football players spoke about you. Tough football players, wide-eyed with their voices cracking as they described how important you were to their college experiences.
The 133-year history of Penn football is filled with legendary names. But just this once John Heisman, Chuck Bednarik, George Munger and the rest all must take a backseat.
No one has meant as much for as long as the man whose statue and outstretched hand will forever greet the Quakers as they take the field: Dan “Coach Lake” Staffieri.
NEIL FANAROFF is a senior economics major from Potomac, Md., and is former Design Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be contacted at email@example.com.