BY MIKE MEILER
Niagara Gazette — Sports lore is littered with inspirational stories of beating overwhelming odds, pushing through physical limitations and finding success when it had been all but ruled out.
Hollywood has Rudy Reuttiger. Basketball has Magic Johnson. Baseball has Jim Abbott, and Kerri Strug and Lance Armstrong are just a few of the other names that have captivated the country at one point through their courage.
In the annals of Niagara University is a story comparable to any of those. It’s of Phil Scaffidi, a star basketball player benched by cancer, only to return to the court and remind followers of the meaning of perseverance.
NU honored the memory of one of its most celebrated alumni Sunday when it handed out Scaffidi bobbleheads to the first 1,200 attendees at its men’s basketball game against Rider at the Gallagher Center.
Scaffidi was raised in the Town of Tonawanda, the fourth of six children to his father, Joe, and mother, Marie. He starred in football, basketball, baseball and track at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, captaining the first three and being named to the All-Catholic team in all four as a senior.
He excelled at seemingly every sport he tried. St. Joe’s 880-yard relay team, which Scaffidi was part of, set a national record in 1972. He started at quarterback for the Marauders over Billy Hurley, who eventually went on to play the position at Syracuse University before switching to defensive back to play in the NFL. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a shortstop in the ninth round of the 1974 MLB Draft and played two years of Class A pro ball before returning to basketball after being offered a scholarship by then-NU coach Frank Layden prior to the 1975-76 season.
“(Scaffidi) was probably one of the three best all-around athletes ever to come out of Western New York,” said Joe Wolf, who served as St. Joe’s athletic director from 1966-2008 and coached Scaffidi on the school’s baseball team. “Anything Phil did, he did well. If you were playing a game of pickup basketball in the back yard, he’d give it his all. There were few people I ever knew that were as intense as he was.”
Scaffidi began to show his extraordinary side early. Freshly graduated from high school, after receiving his bonus check from the Pirates, he made a “sizable” donation to St. Joe’s, according to Wolf. He also told Wolf how he had planned to build St. Joe’s new athletic fields had his baseball career worked out.
“Phil was loyal,” said Wolf, who also attended Niagara and graduated in 1962. “He knew where he came from, was grateful for what he got and returned it.”
As a freshman, Scaffidi made an immediate impact on the Niagara basketball team, helping to lead the Purple Eagles to a berth in the National Invitational Tournament in ‘75-’76. NU went 17-12 that season under Layden, then 13-13 the following year under new coach Dan Raskin. The Purple Eagles went 14-12 in ‘77-’78, Scaffidi’s junior season.
The Rev. Joe Hubbert, who taught at Niagara while Scaffidi was a student and watched many of his games, said Scaffidi was a calming presence on a middling team.
“There isn’t any particular moment watching a game (that stands out), which is part of what he was” said Hubbert, who now serves as the Purple Eagles’ team chaplain. “He was the sound basis to a team that wasn’t really strong but always held things together.”
David Lefeber, who graduated from Niagara in 1980 and started the website NiagaraSports.net as an online forum for alumni to discuss NU athletics, remembers Scaffidi as the “consummate point guard” and a “true team player.”
“Phil was not a prolific scorer but was tough as nails with excellent ball-handling skills and an excellent dribble penetration game,” he wrote in an email. “... He was the best point guard I ever say play for Niagara in my 35 years of affiliation with the school.”
Heading into his senior season in ‘78-’79, Scaffidi was well on his way to breaking NU’s all-time assist record and cracking the 1,000-point barrier. In early December ‘78, Scaffidi began to see and feel signs that something was wrong. He was diagnosed with adrenal cancer, and a month later was flown to Denver for an 8 1/2-hour operation that removed an adrenal gland, 60 percent of his liver and parts of other organs, according to an Associated Press article from 1979.
Scaffidi played only three games before being forced to drop out of Niagara for the year, according to Wolf. NU went 6-20 in his absence.
Rather than focus on solely beating the disease, Scaffidi had other goals in mind — like returning to the court for the Purple Eagles.
“Following the surgery, he made it his goal to completely recover,” said Joe Scaffidi Jr., the oldest Phil’s siblings. “He fought the disease in every way that he could, and once the doctors gave him the OK, he began to work his way back to regain in strength and stamina and return.
“He got himself in a position where he could. He only needed a few assists for the record, and he knew he wasn’t going to be able to go out and play 40 minutes. He set a goal to get back and help the team.”
Niagara petitioned the NCAA for an extra season of eligibility for Scaffidi, and he was able to return to action less than a year after his surgery on Dec. 15, 1979. The Purple Eagles beat Buffalo State 93-76 at the old Niagara Falls Convention Center (now the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel), with Scaffidi playing the final 4 1/2 minutes.
Scaffidi took the floor that night with the cancer still alive in his body. The surgery and chemotherapy had weakened him physically, to the point where he was short of breath and was forced to wear heavy knee braces and a flak jacket to protect his ribs, according to multiple accounts.
“I don’t exactly feel like the Incredible Hulk,” Scaffidi told the Associated Press after the game, “but I feel pretty good.”
In facing the disease, Scaffidi described his challenge in a way too perfect to summarize.
“There’s no cure for it right now, or they’d give it to me,” he told the AP. “But it’s like a game. We’re going down to play in the Bluebonnet Classic (Dec. 21, 1979 in Houston) and we’ll probably be underdogs. But I would never go down there thinking we were going to lose.”
On Jan. 21, 1980, Scaffidi tallied his 408th assist as a Purple Eagle in a 105-91 win over Cleveland State at the Convention Center, breaking the record of 407 set by Al Williams in 1973. It was the final assist of his career.
“I can remember him taking the ball,” Wolf said. “He got a standing ovation, took the ball up into the stands and gave it to his dad, which was touching.”
Hubbert recalled a short article published in Sports Illustrated on March 9, 1998, painting a picture that the record was artificial and asserting that his competitors took it easy on Scaffidi. Both he and Joe Jr. strongly disagreed.
“Maybe I’m just a loyal Niagara fan, but I didn’t see anybody give him anything,” Hubbert said. “He played as best he could, and any record he had, he earned.”
“He wasn’t completely back, but he was certainly strong enough to be out there,” the younger Joe Scaffidi said. “It wasn’t a ‘gimme’ where the other team got out of the way. He still had to compete.”
Over the next few months, the cancer returned. Scaffidi was in and out of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute before passing away on March 23, 1980, just months before he set to graduate and be married. He was 23 years old.
“What he went through, I don’t know many people that could do that,” Wolf said. “He never gave up.”
“I don’t think he ever pitied himself,” Joe Jr. said. “He felt anytime something came up that it was temporary and he’d fight it off. Eventually he would win out.”
Lefeber remembered constantly seeing Scaffidi in good spirit on campus.
“I still recall seeing him around campus during his treatments with a bald head, a baseball cap, but with a terrific smile on his face,” he said. “Phil became a very popular figure on campus and fought his disease right to the very end.”
Scaffidi was honored posthumously by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, which named him recipient of its annual Most Courageous Award in 1980. Niagara retired his No. 3 jersey, which hangs at the Gallagher Center, and presents an annual award to a member of the basketball team in his name. Scaffidi was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.
“He’s certainly worthy of remembrance in terms of somebody who was greatly appreciated by the university community,” Hubbert said. “To look at something like the illness he received and how he dealt with that, it left a great impression upon people his age in terms of facing those kinds of things.”
“He was a good guy, a tough, young guy who enjoyed all sports,” Joe Scaffidi Jr. said. “He played them to the fullest, and he packed a lot into his years. He came up short, but he never felt like he got shortchanged.”
Mike Meiler in a sports reporter at the Niagara Gazette. Follow him on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.