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The life story of James Monroe head coach Richard Serbay (WITH VIDEO)
Serbay gives a tour of sports mementos at his home
By ADAM HIMMELSBACH
James Monroe football coach Richard Serbay knows you’ve probably seen him screaming at teenagers.
Or maybe you’ve seen him screaming at football officials, veins popping from his head.
“I’ll probably have to fight the image of being a lunatic my whole life,” Serbay said quietly. “That’s something I worry about. But the people who think that aren’t the people who know me.”
Those people don’t know about Serbay’s hardscrabble upbringing as the eldest of four brothers in Yonkers, N.Y.
They don’t know that he became a garbage man and a hospital orderly and a slaughterhouse cleaner so he could pay for college and become the first in his family to earn a degree.
They don’t know that he buys new clothing for his football team. Or that he has brought players from troubled homes under his own roof.
“I was on the phone with him recently and he was at a JV game, and all of a sudden he goes, ‘Oh, sugar!’” said Serbay’s brother, Ray. “Some kid walking by had dropped a soda, and my brother was so upset to see this kid drop a soda. He had to hang up the phone so he could go buy him a new one.”
THE STREETS OF NEW YORK
Sam and Eva Serbay raised four boys in a small apartment in Yonkers in the 1950s. Sam was a construction worker, but there was no guarantee of employment during blustery New York winters.
“We always prayed for good weather,” Richard Serbay said, “and prayed he had a job.”
On weekends, Sam worked as a bartender and later as a television repairman. The family did not have much, but boys in New York City in the 1950s did not need much.
The Serbay boys would hop subway turnstiles and take the No. 4 train to Yankee Stadium, where bleacher seats cost just 75 cents.
Back home, they would gather discarded tennis balls from the neighborhood YWCA, take their mother’s broom and play stickball until sundown.
But Richard also knew that because his father was at work so often, he had to take on more responsibility at home.
He would do dishes and take out the trash and help his mother cook. He delivered The New York Times in the morning and The Herald Statesman in the afternoon, giving a portion of his earnings to his parents.
The family’s two-story apartment was one of the last in the neighborhood that had not been torn down and replaced by luxury high-rises.
Richard Serbay rarely went home before nightfall, because he did not want to be seen.
“I didn’t want people to know we were so poor,” he said. “I didn’t want people to know I lived there.”
He was determined to make it out of the neighborhood, to become the first in his family to attend college.
He enrolled at Saunders Trades and Technical High School and studied to become an architect. But when he twice failed calculus class, his guidance counselor told his parents he should pursue a different profession.
Serbay was a standout lineman on his high school’s football team. And during his senior year in 1969, he also coached a pee wee league team. He had no idea that was just the beginning of a life on the sidelines.
PAYING HIS WAY
Serbay and a few of his high school teammates planned to play football for Hiram Scott College in Scottsbluff, Neb. But Serbay severely injured his knee during his senior year of high school.
When he got to Hiram Scott, his coach helped him get a part-time job cleaning a local slaughterhouse.
For Serbay, it was a culture shock. After one semester, he returned to New York and worked the night shift as a medical orderly at Yonkers Professional Hospital.
“After I did that for four months, cleaning bedpans and things like that, I knew I had to go back to college,” Serbay said.
He enrolled at Concordia College, just five miles from his family’s apartment in Yonkers, and he joined the football and baseball teams.
On the night of Serbay’s first homecoming game, his teammates were making big plans for big parties. But when the game ended, the pee wee league team Serbay had coached ran onto the field to greet him. His mother was with them, smiling ear to ear.
Serbay told his teammates he’d be late to the parties that night. Then he went out for pizza with his mother and the boys.
“That was better than any party I could’ve been to,” Serbay said.
Serbay worked every summer to put himself through college. He was a groundskeeper at Yonkers City Hall and a stoker at the local incinerator.
But his favorite job was being a garbage man, when he would jog through the streets emptying one can into the truck after another. He worked quickly, because he knew the drivers wanted to finish their routes in time to get to the Yonkers horse track by 1 p.m.
“That got me in the best shape of my life,” Serbay said. “God, I really loved that job.”
After two years at Concordia, Serbay joined the football team at Towson State in Maryland, where he worked a night shift as a gas attendant.
He graduated in 1976 and spent two years as an assistant coach at two Baltimore-area high schools. Then he got a call from his former Towson teammate Terry Hoggatt.
A school in Virginia was looking for an assistant coach. So Serbay got into his Volkswagen bug and headed toward Stafford High.
A NEW BEGINNING
Serbay was hired as Stafford’s offensive line coach, assistant wrestling coach and JV baseball coach.
He moved into a tiny one-bedroom apartment on Augustine Avenue, spending his free time umpiring Little League baseball and coaching a women’s softball team.
One Friday night he was wandering through downtown Fredericksburg when he came upon Maury Stadium, where James Monroe was facing Park View–Sterling.
“I looked through the fence and saw the lights and the crowd,” Serbay said, “and I thought, ‘God, I’d love to coach here.’”
In 1982 he got the chance, and was hired as a Yellow Jackets assistant. Three years later coach Joe Lanford retired, and the players went to the school administration and asked them to promote Serbay.
The Yellow Jackets went 4–5–1 during his first season in 1985.
“We had tennis players on the offensive line,” Serbay said.
But the program’s fortunes turned quickly. In 1986, led by running back Eric Bates and George and Antonio Coghill, the Yellow Jackets improbably marched to a state title.
The following year, they stormed to a 14–0 record and won another state crown.
After each championship, Serbay went home to Yonkers and picked up huge tins of stuffed cabbage that his mother had made for the team. Then he turned around and drove the food to Fredericksburg.
Following the 1987 season, Serbay mailed letters to numerous area college football programs, looking for a position as an assistant coach.
One rejection letter after another arrived, and that dream was dashed.
A CONSUMING CAREER
In 1989 Serbay married a former college sweetheart, Alison Mitchell.
The couple had one son, Sammy, and Mitchell had another young son, Jesse Hogue, from a previous marriage.
Serbay said he let the life of a football coach and athletic director consume him. In 1993 he and Mitchell divorced.
“It was difficult for me, because I’m the one that blew it,” Serbay said. “I was so immersed in athletics that I wasn’t a good husband and I was never home.”
But the couple remained close. Mitchell still attends JM games, and Serbay still considers her his best friend.
Hogue went on to play tight end for Serbay at JM. Sammy Serbay also played for the Yellow Jackets and is now an assistant coach.
Although JM had extraordinary success, there were some lean years.
When the Yellow Jackets went 0–10 in 2000, Serbay heard calls that he should step down.
Some thought his coaching style was too abrasive, that he yelled at players and officials too much. Those close to him felt that those accusations were misguided.
“To witness how fiery he is on the sidelines, you’d never know how big of a heart he has,” Hogue said. “He pours his heart and soul into that team.”
The interview for this story was scheduled to take place at Serbay’s home on Monday at 6 p.m.
But he asked to push it back an hour because one of his players needed a ride home after practice.
When he arrived at the boy’s home, the boy’s mother was walking to the bus stop to go buy groceries for her family. But Serbay insisted that she ride to the store with him.
Talk to people close to Serbay, and stories like this one flow freely.
“He treats his players like they’re his own kids,” Sammy Serbay said.
Over his career at James Monroe, Serbay has taken in five players who were living in broken homes. He gave them food and a roof until their family situations improved.
“I don’t do it for sympathy or to be a hero,” he said. “They just needed someone’s help.”
He buys new socks and T–shirts for players who can’t afford them. He keeps breakfast snacks in his office for students who need them.
“He shows love for his players and shows that he cares,” said John Jackson, a quarterback on JM’s 2008 state title team who now plays for North Carolina Wesleyan. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in college right now. A lot of us wouldn’t. He goes the extra mile.”
FOOTBALL AS FAMILY
Richard Serbay lives alone in a modest home near the University of Mary Washington.
His house has the feel of a college student’s, except it is much cleaner.
An orange James Monroe flag hangs out front. In the living room, several Blues Brothers posters hang on the wall. There are a pool table and an air hockey table in the basement, along with a display case filled with New York Yankees memorabilia. There are also countless framed pictures of his favorite pro football players, along with others from his own career.
Each Thursday night before a James Monroe football game, he goes to the basement and watches the movie “Friday Night Lights.” Then he shoots a game of pool and goes to sleep.
He said he does not get lonely, because his other family is waiting for him at school.
Sometimes he thinks about retirement. He is 61 now, and his younger brothers worry that the stress of being a coach is impacting his health.
But he is not ready to leave, at least not yet. Now he cherishes seasons like this one, which has brought the undefeated Yellow Jackets into another state championship game.
On Saturday, as he goes for his fifth state championship, the stands will be filled with people who know what lies beneath Serbay’s hardened exterior.
And for this old football coach, that’s what truly matters.
“When I think about my legacy,” Serbay said, “I just want to know that I was loved and respected by my players. That’s all.”
Adam Himmelsbach: 540/374-5442