John Knebels
Sports Columnist

In Frank Capra’s holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” heroic character George Bailey is given a remarkable gift – the chance to see what the world would have been like had he never been born.

Like actor Jimmy Stewart’s famous alter ego, if Tom Flaherty had never been born, innumerable people would have been significantly shortchanged and their lives dramatically altered.

“Someone recently asked me how many people I have coached,” said Flaherty, 63, whose decorated 40-year career as a CYO basketball coach at Holy Cross Parish in Springfield, Delaware County, came to a close last week. “I haven’t a clue. But I know that I coached kids whose fathers I also coached. It’s been a lot, that’s for sure.”

Thanks to his most recent fifth and sixth grade boys’ team, Flaherty could not have finished his four-decade stint in better style.{{more}}

Against a rugged St. Anastasia’s of Newtown Square squad that entered the game with only one loss, Holy Cross jumped to an early lead and hung on for a Region 25 championship victory that punctuated a spectacular, undefeated record of 28-0. Including Holy Cross’ summer results, the team finished 45-0.

“I wanted us to win because I didn’t want any of our kids feeling that they let anyone down by missing out on a perfect season,” said Flaherty, a 1966 graduate of since-closed St. Thomas More High School who has coached both genders from fifth through 12th grades. “If they were feeling any pressure, I certainly didn’t sense it.”

At a parish celebration that followed Holy Cross’ storybook campaign, Flaherty was honored with a plaque and various certificates and gifts. Former players and coaching peers – not all of whom Flaherty recognized immediately thanks to Father Time – offered hearty handshakes and warm embraces. This past Monday at a grade school all-star game, Flaherty was presented with yet another keepsake and long ovation for his selfless contribution to CYO.

Flaherty’s coaching resume is packed with championships at every level, including two CYO high school state titles (and three others as runner-up), double figures in regional conquests and a winning percentage of better than 80 percent.

As showy as those accomplishments are, it’s the pearls of wisdom and the constant support provided to his players that explain why Holy Cross has a new banner in its gymnasium honoring Flaherty’s career.

Even when he was in high school, Flaherty was a winner. Two years before he would serve his country at Vietnam, Flaherty was the starting guard on the 1966 St. Thomas More team that captured the Catholic League title.

Jeff Toal, a 1990 graduate of Cardinal O’Hara, played on a high school CYO team that Flaherty coached. Toal said he and his teammates always felt confident they were going to win each game because the notion of Flaherty being outcoached was a foreign concept.

Toal added that the best part about playing under Flaherty was that he allowed players to use their instincts on the court and not have to worry about a micro-managing instructor. Now Toal’s talented nephew, Tom, whose father Richard also played under Flaherty, is a disciple, having played guard on this year’s Holy Cross unit.

“Generations of players have learned from Tom Flaherty,” said the elder Toal. “He’s a great coach and a great man.”

Flaherty’s life has not been without incalculable loss.

On March 29, 2001, Flaherty’s daughter, Sheila, died after giving birth to her and her husband Kevin’s only child, Kelly. The youngest of Tom and Eileen’s four children was 30 years old.

Sheila also left behind three younger brothers – Tommy, Brian and Kevin, now 39, 37 and 34, respectively. To say Sheila’s death was the most devastating trial (and there have been several, including two major health scares that came close to leaving Eileen a young widow) during the Flaherty’s 41-year marriage would be putting it mildly.

He doesn’t mind when people ask about his daughter; actually, he couldn’t be happier. He enjoys reminding people how closely his granddaughter Kelly mirrors how her mother looked as a 9-year-old. He loves when friends of Sheila will occasionally tell him something they remember about his daughter from many years ago.

Although he understands why many people would be reticent about bringing up Sheila’s name in fear of causing an unpleasant memory, he wishes they wouldn’t be.

“It keeps her memory alive,” he said. “I still talk to her all the time.”

The sexton at Holy Cross, Flaherty gets up very early every morning and before leaving the house adjusts the thermostat to a more comfortable level. Adjacent to the thermostat is a wedding picture of Sheila.

He gives it a kiss every day.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Overall, I have been very blessed, but my faith has been tested, and I still get angry. Sheila wanted to be a mother and a wife, and she had that cut short.

“It still hurts, and it always will. But I move on. I do my best. I try and live a good life. I want to see my daughter again. So there better be a heaven.”

Flaherty speaks about his daughter, and his wife, and his sons, and his grandchildren, with reverence. Now and then he sneaks in some dry one-liners, the kind that don’t really hurt but poke gentle fun at the idiosyncrasies that only a loving father and husband and grandfather would recognize.

Sometime in the near future, Tom and Eileen will once again sponsor an annual scholarship presented to an eighth-grader in the name of their beloved daughter. And then summer will come along, and then the fall and then the winter.

Flaherty will no longer be coaching basketball. His wife thinks he will be okay.

“It’s time to let the younger people take over,” Eileen Flaherty said. “He will miss it because it’s something that he has loved. It’s always been fine with me.”

Like George Bailey learned from the angel Clarence, Tom Flaherty now realizes what a great life he has lived thanks to the countless people who continually approach him with an expression of gratitude or send an occasional letter of appreciation.

“Ring them bells,” Flaherty said. “I want to get those wings.”

Not yet, Tom. There’s too much left to do.

John Knebels can be reached at