The nice thing about a yearbook is it keeps the memories young. It freezes us in our awkward adolescence, in our boundless optimism. We can slip inside its pages and be kids again.
That's the only way people are able to remember Phil Scaffidi -- as an athlete forever young. He was not quite 24 when he died in 1980, having fought cancer with all the will and determination that made him one of the most admired athletes ever in Western New York.
The public's last, most vivid memory of Scaffidi was his emotional return to Niagara basketball in 1979. But when people gather to reminisce about high school sports, he is remembered as a matchless competitor who starred in four sports at St. Joe's in the early '70s.
It's odd, the things that stick in people's minds. Matt Hellerer was a year behind Scaffidi at St. Joe's. As a sophomore, inspired by the school's track program, he gave up crew to run. In time, he became a top marathoner, good enough to run in the Olympic Trials.
More than a quarter century later, he recalls the day Scaffidi made a scrawny sophomore feel like a vital part of St. Joe's sports.
"I had returned to school from Delaware Park after a cross country meet," said Hellerer, now a chemistry teacher and coach at St. Joe's. "Phil was coming off the field after a football practice and he knew my name. I was third string at best. He was a football star. But he cared. You were his fellow athlete.
"He had tremendous charisma, tremendous team spirit," Hellerer said. "He made it very clear what our goal was. We're not screwing around; we're here to win, to do our best. He raised everybody's energy level."
Scaffidi set a high standard in his senior year of 1973-74, which earned St. Joe's the No. 6 spot on our list of the best high school years. There have been years when the Marauders won more titles. The Catholic league, with 20 teams in two leagues, was far more competitive in those days.
St. Joe's never had more talented athletes in school at one time than in '73-74, and Scaffidi was the best of them all. He was all-Catholic in football, basketball and baseball. When baseball allowed, he was a sprinter on Bob Ivory's track colossus of that era. "Phil was easily the best athlete in the school," said Mark Spitler, who was a basketball player and long jumper that year, and is now a lawyer in Buffalo. "He was the best competitor, the guy who wanted to win the most. He certainly had a lot of self-confidence. It's fair to say he was cocky, in a good way. He went on the court and field and he felt that he would find a way to win."
Scaffidi was an all-America wishbone quarterback for coach Tucker Reddington. He was good enough to relegate Bill Hurley to backup QB. Hurley became a star quarterback at Syracuse and played several years in the NFL.
The Marauders had four all-Catholic linemen that year -- Tom Freedenburg, Peter Mendola, John Gibney and John Quinn. Gibney, who had a tryout with the Jets, and Quinn both played at Colgate and Freedenburg at Cortland State. Ron Laux made all-Catholic as a defensive back, Tim Paxson at halfback. (University at Buffalo football coach Craig Cirbus was on that team, too).
St. Joe's was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state with two weeks left in the season. Then it ran into archrival Canisius on a rainy day before a crowd of around 5,000 at Rotary Field. Phil McConkey, who would go on to win a Super Bowl ring for the Giants, ran 78 yards for a touchdown on the first play and Canisius won, 36-12.
"I said for years that was the best football team we ever had," said St. Joe's athletic director Joe Wolf, who was an assistant in '74. "I always call them the best team that never won the title."
The basketball team wasn't expected to win the Manhattan Cup that winter. They weren't as deep and talented as the team that won it in 1973. St. Francis, which had a 6-foot-9 center named Chris Patton, was the favorite. Timon, under Mel Palano, had Ricky Williams, who averaged 32 points a game and went on to play in the NBA. Baker-Victory had Billy Truitt.
St. Joe's had solid basketball players who knew their roles. Spitler was a defensive stalwart. He and Mike Naples, who was Scaffidi's best friend, both played college ball at Canisius. Greg Witherspoon, a track star, was an emerging big man. They also had Scaffidi, who elevated his game in the Catholic playoffs.
The Marauders, coached by Dick Bihr, beat St. Francis in the semifinals, 61-56. Scaffidi had eight of his 20 points in the decisive third quarter. In the final against Timon, he scored seven of his 26 points in the final two minutes as St. Joe's won by five. He also switched onto Williams in the final minutes and shut him down.
"Phil just took the game over," said Bihr, who has coached for 20 seasons at Buffalo State. "He just wasn't about to be beat. He made one play after another. There was no way Phil Scaffidi was going to lose. All these other kids, they just caught his energy and unwillingness to lose. His heart was so big. All the years I've been coaching, there wasn't a kid who had as big a will."
Scaffidi was an all-state baseball shortstop, good enough to be drafted in the ninth round by the Pirates. He played two years in the minors, with the Niagara Falls Pirates of the New York-Penn League. Competitor that he was, Scaffidi also wanted to run track. Ivory remembers the day he asked him if he could help out.
"He was a sophomore," said Ivory. "I had run out of runners. It was a Sunday and we were running Turner on Tuesday. I called him in and said, 'Can you run the quarter?' He went out on track and said 'I'll be ready on Tuesday.' On Tuesday, he led off the relay and ran a 51-second quarter."
"Bob knew he could run fast," Hellerer said. "He didn't know how fast."
Ivory could have gotten by without Scaffidi. Between 1967-75, St. Joe's won eight straight Catholic outdoor track titles. In his last nine years, they lost one track dual meet and one cross country meet. Overall, the 1973-74 teams were the best Ivory ever had. They had no weaknesses.
The cross country team, led by Mark Mistretta, Ken Krajewski and Mike Maryan, won the Catholic title. It finished second in the Eastern States Championships in New York City -- out of 190 teams!
They won the all-Catholic track meet in the spring of 1974 with 77 points, the highest team total in league championship history to that point. The next-highest team had 28.
Mike Wyatt repeated in the 880 and anchored the winning mile relay. Witherspoon won the triple jump. Pat Glynn won the 440. Mistretta was second in the 880. He ran track at Rutgers. Hellerer, who blossomed a year later as a senior, ran the two-mile at Syracuse. Witherspoon became a track star at Cornell.
Wyatt, who was a tennis player until his junior year, became a two-time All-American at Penn State and tried out for the 1980 Olympics.
Scaffidi finished third (Paxson was second) in the 100-yard dash. It's hard to know how good he could have been if he had devoted all his time to track.
"He just wanted to win," Ivory said. "He wanted to be on the mound with the bases loaded, or he wanted the ball for that last shot. They don't make too many like that anymore."
Bihr said people were so accustomed to seeing Scaffidi come through, they were convinced he would eventually beat cancer. If it was a matter of will, the disease had a worthy adversary.
"I still consider Phil the best all-around athlete ever to come out of Western New York," said Wolf. "Phil was such an intense competitor. His level was above everything I ever saw. You could see that even when he was bald from chemotherapy. I used to walk out of Roswell and cry like a baby some days. He was such a fighter."
THURSDAY: Small town, grand results.
The dynamic dozen
6. 1973-74 St. Joe's
7. 1967-68 Lackawanna
8. 1996-97 Orchard Park
9. 1981-82 Bennett
10. 1951-52 Canisius
11. 1980-81 Medina
12. 1969-70 Amherst