As a scrappy kid growing up in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia, like so many of his Irish neighbors, sports was life for a young Dave Lafferty.
And, while playing basketball at Holy Cross Academy in Delran and at Division II Indiana University (Pa.), sports still flowed through Lafferty like his life’s blood.
But Lafferty learned about real life from his father, Charles “Hank” Lafferty, when it was time to become a man.
In between sips, toasting his dad last week, Dave told the story of when he called home from college one Sunday night in the mid-1970’s … yearning for a crutch, to hear a sympathetic voice.
“When I complained about only playing four minutes,” Lafferty recalled the conversation with his father almost 40 years ago, “my dad said, ‘when I was your age, I was sitting in a trench in France.’ “
Hank Lafferty had reminded his son that when he was 20-years-old and only a few years out of Northeast Catholic High School in Philly and before graduating from Saint Joseph’s University, he served in World War II with the rest of America’s “Greatest Generation.”
But, as Dave proudly picked up his father’s story, boasting how he not only sacrificed for our freedom as a member of the 283rd Field Artillery Battalion, he landed at Normandy on Utah Beach, slept in trenches across France, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and marched into Germany to see the inhumane horrors at the Dachau concentration camp, where there were over 32,000 documented deaths.
“He witnessed history,” Lafferty said about his father, who he fondly and reverently calls “Big Hank.”
Sadly, Hank Lafferty passed away last week, but what a grand 92 years he lived. Truly, “Big Hank” was bigger than life in so many ways.
“I want to be more like him,” the son said softly between toasts.
Thankfully, though, in so many ways, Dave Lafferty is like his father.
Hank Lafferty helped other kids grow up - besides Dave and his seven siblings - teaching and coaching for 39 years at Father Judge in Philly and then at Holy Cross, where he served as the Lancers athletic director.
Currently, Dave is in his 41st season coaching basketball, which includes successful stints as the head coach at Holy Cross and as an assistant for 24 years and one national championship at Rowan University and now in his second year as an assistant at Georgian Court for one of his former players, Terrence Stewart.
Yes, although he didn’t earn five WWII campaign ribbons like his father, Dave is continuing his dad’s goodness and caring legacy with every kid he meets, with every encouraging word he gives and every time a player yearns for a sympathetic crutch, but gets a stern life-story.
You see, in all the years I’ve covered games that Dave Lafferty has coached, dating back to 1983 at Holy Cross, I’ve only seen him get mad once – in 1994 during an Elite Eight loss at Wilkes between the second and third overtimes after the Profs got served some old-fashioned home cooking.
After the game though, he was back to being the lovable Coach L, or the affable Laff. He certainly learned from his dad.
“He would tell me it was only a game,” said Lafferty, who also coached Seneca to a pair of Group III state championships in baseball and spent his career in education at Lenape and Seneca as a guidance counselor.
Up until last week, Lafferty called his father “after every game,” no doubt being reminded of life’s lessons as well as swapping strategy. You just know, that those post-game calls as a coach will be replaced by the same voice in his head that he heard calling home from college after playing only four minutes.
Lafferty said, if asked to describe his father in one word, it would simply be “humble.”
The greatest somehow always seemed to be the humblest. Like Bono sings, “If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.”
Hank Lafferty spent a lifetime kissing the sky by kneeling to serve others – and for a few months squatting in a trench somewhere in France.
Now it is our time to kneel.
So players and parents out there, if you can’t make it to the Sweeney Funeral Home in Riverside on Tuesday night for a viewing, or to the Mass of Christian Burial at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Moorestown on Wednesday morning, or to his internment at the BGWCD Cemetery in Wrightstown, be sure to bow in gratitude to Hank Lafferty the next time you are at Holy Cross where the school’s athletic complex is named in his honor.
And, if you see Dave Lafferty out and about, after a basketball game, buy him a pint of gratitude … and you surely will hear a grand story or two about Big Hank.
“Everyone called him Hank,” Lafferty said, “I don’t know how he got the name.”
Maybe, just maybe, Charles Lafferty was tagged with the name by another 20-year-old scared soldier who didn’t know his own name one frightful night while dug in a trench somewhere in France. Why not? Hank Lafferty has touched so many people’s lives and has left a better world from Normandy to Belgium to Germany and from Father Judge to Holy Cross, and from where ever Big Hank has served.