Sherman’s Boys: How Grown Men Honor the Youth League Coach Who Imparted Lasting Life Lessons

Media contact: Tom Hughes, 984-974-1151,

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If you need proof that a coach makes a life-long impact on his players, look no further than Sherman’s Boys.

The “boys” are five men, at or near the big 5-0 birthday, who gather six times a year to cook dinner at SECU Family House, the hospital hospitality house, where their beloved youth league and volunteer middle school coach, Sherman Riggsbee, 68, is the night manager.

“For us to get together and cook and engage with those struggling and coping with serious illness is the very least we can do to pay forward some of the life lessons we absorbed so many years ago on those dusty fields and indoor courts influenced — unbeknownst to us at the time — by Sherman,” said John Perry, who organized his buddies after being part of another team of volunteers who provided a home-cooked evening meal for Family House guests.

Now approaching its seventh year of service, Family House offers safe, affordable and comfortable accommodations to seriously ill patients being treated at UNC Hospitals and their families. A community of support forms among staff, volunteers and guests once they cross the threshold of the 40-bedroom house minutes from the hospitals.

Besides Perry, Sherman’s Boys includes fellow Chapel Hill natives Morris Fine, Bill Kempf and John Lovingood. Britt Irwin, a Burlington native who has lived in Chapel Hill 19 years, is an “adopted” member — with Sherman’s blessing.

“I’m proud to be honorary,” Britt said. “If I’d lived in Chapel Hill, I would have been right there with them, playing baseball, football and/or basketball for Sherman.”

Sherman’s Boys cooked their first Family House dinner on March 26. Members of Sherman’s family attended as did children of the cooks. “Hey Coach” and “Meet Grandpa Sherman” echoed through the meal prep.

“It was like old home week,” Sherman said. “Even though some of my family and the boys had never met, they took up like they’d known each other all their lives. My daughter, Yolanda Riggsbee Hamer, was so inspired she started serving dinners one Saturday a month.”

And as the schedules of 15-year-olds allow, Lundy Fine and Eliza Irwin, Morris and Britt’s daughters, respectively, who were already close friends, help out their fathers in the kitchen and earn community service credits required for graduation from Chapel Hill- Carrboro Public Schools.

Sherman’s Boys don’t have a go-to menu for which they are known, but tailor their offerings to the seasons. Hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill were perfect for July 23. Chili with all the fixings and cornbread welcomed fall on Sept. 24.

“I think this is awesome,” declared Betty Hollingsworth of Fayetteville on July 23, referring both to the food and how Sherman’s Boys choose to honor their coach. “But then Sherman is awesome.”

And Betty would know. Since 2012, Betty has been a Family House guest numerous times, either as a patient herself or as the caregiver of a long-time friend. In gratitude, Betty made her signature strawberry lemonade cake to add to the desserts offered Sept. 24.

“It’s always a joy to bake that cake and especially so tonight,” Betty said. “It’s the least I could do to give back to this wonderful place.”

“We had also recruited a friend who’s a chef to join us, but then we realized he might raise the bar on what we serve and take us to a level we couldn’t sustain,” John said. “Cooking these meals is a forever thing for us.”

And forever also applies to those life lessons that took root years ago.

“I keep coming back to the metaphor of ‘sports as an embodiment of life’,” John said. “It’s referred to often, but seldom is it executed with the precision we witnessed when we played for Sherman.

“Chapel Hill was a much different place when we played for him. Sherman was able to transcend any boundaries and whatever rancorous hesitation either whites or blacks brought to the field. In short order, we put away any prejudices that might have been lingering, and we always prevailed as a team, together. When Sherman coached there were no color boundaries, and his teams were always winners, literally and figuratively.”

“He treated every one of his players with respect, and he never wanted to be called Coach Riggsbee,” Morris said. “He was simply Sherman, and he was cool. We felt like we were being coached by a professional, and we always had the best uniforms.”

Those well-dressed teams — many championships among them — are documented in Sherman’s thick picture scrapbooks that inevitably make their way to the Family House kitchen when his boys are cooking. The photos also document lots of smiles, a few matching those around the stove.

“We marvel that 35+ years and thousands of kids later, Sherman can still name 95% of the kids who played for him,” John said. “Furthermore, he is able to remember the numbers we wore and recall specific plays and attributes that specific players possessed. He tells the stories — and stories on us — like he just came from the game.”

“In September, he told us a story about a particularly tough loss when he was coaching,” Morris said. “He said, ‘after the game I told the kids what I always say: You’re going to get beat. That’s life. Get used to it’.

“That’s Sherman. Still wise, still cool, and why we delight in what we do here.”