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coach lake! football v. usd toreros San Diego trip Credit: Phil Leff

When the Quakers take the field Saturday against Bucknell, a major aspect of the Franklin Field atmosphere will be missing.

The players will go through their normal routines, the cheerleaders will continue to do pushups after every score and during the third-quarter break Penn fans will still throw toast.

But someone won’t be there, and for many Penn football fans, attending a game just won’t feel right without him. Dan Staffieri — better known as Coach Lake, or the guy who drives the football helmet-shaped golf cart — is currently battling an illness and will be unable to make this weekend’s game just as he was absent for Penn’s season-opener at home against Villanova.

And while the fan base certainly feels the absence of the plaid-wearing, cheer-leading, football helmet-driving Staffieri, the players themselves miss his presence on the sideline the most.

“There’s an emotional piece that’s just missing on the field,” senior captain Kyle Derham said. “He’s the guy that rallies us before and after games … he’s the spirit of Penn football and we just love him for it.”

A member of the 1953 Maryland National Championship team, Staffieri has been a part of the Penn football program for 33 years. His formal title — Game Day Coordinator — hardly expresses the impact he has on the program.

In seasons past, every Friday Staffieri would break down the team with some chants that have become ritual for the program. In his absence, captains Derham, Jake Lewko and Chris Wynn have tried to pick up the slack, though they know that Staffieri is irreplaceable.

“Now after every practice we start chanting ‘Lake’ a little bit to remember that he should be in there,” Lewko said.

Staffieri is among the primary leaders in generating excitement for Penn football. He could always be found on Fridays before home games driving around campus in that Penn helmet, leading cheers and encouraging students to attend the upcoming games. And on gamedays, his patented chants consistently liven up the crowd.

Though Staffieri wishes for his specific condition to be kept private, the entire Penn community feels the void that his illness has created. Various coaches and members of the athletic department, alumni and even academic administrators are all in communication with coach Al Bagnoli about Staffieri.

“We’ve had administrators from the engineering department calling and saying, ‘Is Lake going to be around?’ because they want to come and say hi,” Bagnoli said. “He resonates all through campus. It’s not just football, it’s not just the Athletic Department, it’s all through campus and all through the alumni base.”

Bagnoli has weekly conversations with Staffieri or his wife Suzanne to receive updates on his condition. Bagnoli passes on what he receives to his players, along with Staffieri’s consistent messages for the players to keep up their esprit des corps.

According to Bagnoli, Staffieri’s health appears to be improving from the beginning of the season. He hopes to have him make an appearance at practice in the next couple of weeks, and there is hope among the players that Staffieri may be seen on the Penn sidelines again this season. When asked how he conveyed Staffieri’s energy to the freshmen — many of whom have not met the legend — Lewko had only three words: “wait and see.”

In the meantime, though, the Quakers must do without the man who has been the emotional leader of the program for three decades. While the captains are trying their best to fill his shoes, they know they come up short.

“You can’t replace him at all,” Derham said. “The best thing you can do is try to rally the troops as captains and as seniors and have his spirit live through you to try to get the kids excited before games.”

But his presence is still felt. From the statue to which players give high-fives before every game to the pre-game motivational talks, Staffieri is ever present among the team. The Quakers have dedicated their season to him, and hope that they can deliver him his 13th Ivy League title.

“It would mean the world,” Derham said, “to be able to go to his house and bring him another ring… To be able to bring him one more home when he’s sick and not able to be here would be extremely special.”

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