The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

November 12, 2012

Ashtabula County HOF Series: Laffey answered the call(s)

Harbor great answered the bell for his superintendent and his country

For the Star Beacon

— Brian Laffey got a call from above to become a football player.

A call from the superintendent of schools, that is.

“He asked me if I would play football,” Laffey said. “(Harbor) was coming off a losing season. I graduated in 1959, so I played (varsity) in 1956, 1957 and 1958.”

Laffey actually began his football career as a fullback and defensive linebacker, defensive back and defensive end in 1955, his freshman year. He and quarterback Bill Davidson led the Mariners to a freshman championship as Laffey recalls.

“He was a real good quarterback,” Laffey said of Davidson, whom he’ll join in the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club Hall of Fame when he’s inducted on Dec. 3 at Mt.Carmel Center. “He had a good arm. We threw and ran about half the time each.”

Laffey missed most of his sophomore year because of a knee injury, but got in several games at the end of that season. That prepared him for a successful season as a junior.

Led by Davidson at quarterback, Laffey at fullback, Gerry Gustafson at halfback and Fred Mannicola at wingback in Harbor’s wing-t, the Mariners went 7-2. Playing in the Western Reserve League against teams like Edgewood, Spencer, Jefferson, Madison, Chardon, Kirtland and Perry, that was not an easy task.

“I can’t remember if we won (the championship) or not,” Laffey said. “Those were all tough games. I think Perry beat us, I can’t remember who else.”

Laffey ran for about 600 yards that year.

That set a stage for a perfect, 10-0 Mariner season in 1958, with both Laffey and Davidson earning All-Ashtabula County recognition.

“That was a very successful season,” Laffey said. “Only two of us were returning from our junior year to our senior year who were starters. We had a completely new offensive line, since the old one  had graduated. Plus we had two new halfbacks and a new head coach. Our new coach, Norm Soltys, said, ‘You know Laffey, we may not win a lot, but we’re going to have a lot of fun.’ I think we surprised everybody when we went 10-0.

“Toward the end of the year, we added Ashtabula (to the schedule). That was the first time we played them in many, many years. Ashtabula was so much bigger. I think we beat them, 16-7. Conneaut was a low-scoring game. We had a couple of those in there.”

Laffey also played basketball and ran track at Harbor. Playing center at 6-feet, he admits to being “just mediocre” at basketball. But he was better than that in track. Running the 440-yard dash, Laffey made it to state. But his 52.9 time at Columbus fell well short of the winner’s 46.6.

“(My time) was good around here, but not at Columbus,” Laffey said.

After he graduated, Laffey joined the Navy, serving as a radio man, a second-class E-5.

“I spent three years, 10 months and 25 days in the Navy,” Laffey said. “I even had a calendar (to count off the days).”

When he got out of the Navy in 1963, he began a career sailing on the Great Lakes.

“I started as a deck hand and worked my way up to captain,” he said. “I retired as a captain. My last ship was the James R. Barker, a 1,000-foot (freighter), the largest ship on the Great Lakes. The Edmund Fitzgerald was smaller and had a different design. We were a self-unloader.”

Captains on the Great Lakes ships, which carry iron ore and coal, have great responsibility.

“Now they have satellites,” Laffey said. “Then, they had courses to follow, but if there were storms, you had to draw up a different route. I was on duty all the time. Sometimes you were up three days at a time as a pilot, going through the ice. When you were in rivers or confined waters, you had to be up.”

The captains received weather reports. When the weather got bad, they had to make the decision whether to hide somewhere and anchor. Apparently, the captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald made the wrong decision.

Laffey spent 35 years on the Great Lakes, 13 of them as a captain, shutting down most years between Jan. 1 and Apr.1, when the weather got bad. He retired when he was 60.

He and his wife, Mary, have now been married for 48 years. They have four children.

Stephanie (Kubec), the oldest at 47, is now St. John’s volleyball coach. Kirsten, 46, is a nurse at the Ireland Cancer Center in Mentor. Brian Jr., 44, serves as comptroller for the Illinois Technical Institute, working in Chicago. Amy, 41, is a nurse at ACMC.

Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.

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