The Mascot in an Old Man’s Suit

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Rest well, Coach Lake.

By Dave Zeitlin 

A few years ago, I covered a football banquet of some sort for the newspaper I work for. I can’t remember very much about it, other than the fact that I didn’t really know anyone and felt uncomfortable and out-of-place throughout the cocktail hour.

But then I saw him. 

He looked just as I remembered, which is to say, ridiculous. He wore brightly colored plaid and had a ring for each finger. But, as was his habit, he was surrounded. That was Coach Lake for you: always standing out, always drawing a crowd.

Mustering up a little bit of courage, I decided to walk over and reintroduce myself. It had been about three years since I’d written a long profile on the Penn football team’s gameday coordinator/campus motivator/all-around Quaker legend for The Daily Pennsylvanian. I wasn’t sure if he remembered me.

Waiting until there was a lull in the conversation, I gave an awkward wave and muttered something along the lines of, “Hi, Coach Lake.” Immediately, I could see the wheels in his head turning, almost as if he was sifting through the YellowBook that also served as his brain, trying to place me among all the other people he’s known through 30 years of coaching, teaching, and loving.

“I’m Dave,” I said. “I wrote a story—”

He cut me off mid-sentence and slapped me in the back harder than anyone in their 80s should be able to. The straw went flying out of my gin and tonic. He beamed.

“Dave! How are you doing? How’s your family?”

I can still see him smiling.

On April 8, Coach Lake died. He was 85.

His death didn’t come as much of a surprise to those who knew Lake had been battling bladder cancer, which forced him to, in his words, “redshirt” last fall’s football season. But it was still a devastating loss for the entire Penn community.

Beloved for his wild clothes, funny catchphrases, and tireless spirit, Lake had been part of the Quakers’ football program for 33 years. He was hired as an assistant coach, but somewhere along the line his actual coaching duties transformed into creative morale boosting.

Lake—whose real name was Dan Staffieri but evolved into “Lake” when he told people, “Stafierri, like Lake Erie”—screamed into his bullhorn on Locust Walk to encourage students to come to games, even when his voice hurt. He postered the Franklin Field corridors with favorite sayings like “Brown is a terrible color: Mop it up” and “You can always tell a Harvard man but you can’t tell him too much,” even when his eyes hurt. He gathered players for his “esprit de corps” with everyone hollering “Best!” over and over again, even when his ears hurt.

He was a good luck charm, a grandfatherly figure, a mascot dressed in an old man’s suit. And from the mailmen to the dining hall workers to all of his players over a third of a century, he found a way into everyone’s heart, mine included.

I first met him in 2002 as a shy college senior with ordinary clothes and a hand without any rings. We were nothing alike, but Lake took me in immediately. He met my parents once, at an awards dinner where I was honored for the feature I wrote on him, and from that day forward he always asked how they were doing. Sometimes, like at that football banquet, I’d have to refresh his memory. But it never took him long to place me—and then hug me.

I saw Lake a few more times in his last few years, usually at Penn football luncheons for local coaches and reporters. At the end of those, Lake would go to the front of the room and lead the same chants he did with his players. Sometimes I would put my head down or nervously glance around the room, unsure how people would respond to this sort of thing.
My trepidation was silly, of course. They all joined in, every time.

It was bitterly ironic that I found out about Lake’s death from my Twitter feed, because the man with the bullhorn was about as old-school as they come.

For many months after I wrote that feature on him, he would send letters to my college house, cramming as many words into the margins as humanly possible. I guess paper was kind of like his time on Earth. He didn’t want to waste it.

After hearing he was sick, I decided to return the favor and write him back. So a few months ago, I emailed former Penn safety Kevin Stefanski C’04 for help. Stefanski, who’s now an assistant coach with the Minnesota Vikings, was featured prominently in my 2002 piece. I knew he was always one of Lake’s favorites. Here’s what he wrote to me.

Dave- I talked to Lake this afternoon. He was happy to hear that you were asking about him. He doesn’t sound very good and Buttercup [his wife] said he fell a few days ago and had to spend some more time in the hospital. He is “disappointed, but not discouraged” in his words. I would recommend dropping him a note until he feels a little bit better and gets his voice back. He’ll love it. Take care, KS

Encouraged, I took out a piece of paper. I started to write, then stopped. I couldn’t think what to say, how to word it, how to condense all my feelings into one sheet of paper, the very trick Lake had mastered over the years.
It went on my to-do list.

I never finished. 

I hate myself for it.

Coach Lake would have forgiven me, of course. He would have forgiven me because he’s Coach Lake and I don’t think he had a mean or spiteful bone in his creaky old body. 

Yes, he was beloved at Penn for his crazy clothes and crazy antics … for his rides up and down Locust Walk and the helmet golf cart that carried him … for “Do better than your best” and “Setbacks pave the way for comebacks” … for “How youuuuu doing?” and “Oh, very well!”

But mostly he was beloved because he cared.

He cared about Penn football—not necessarily about winning, but about each and every player that ever came through the program. He also cared about a student journalist, even as years passed, memories faded, and his health deteriorated.

Rest well, Coach Lake. You will be missed more than any letter could have ever expressed.

Dave Zeitlin C’03 edits the Gazette’s sports blog, where a shorter version of this essay originally appeared.

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