JDHS coach Reilly Richey dead at 51

Crimson Bear football coach was with program since its inception

Posted: Tuesday, March 08, 2005

As coach of the Juneau-Douglas High School football team, Reilly Richey instilled in his players the motto RIENG - Respect Is Earned, Not Given.

No one followed that principle more than Richey himself.

Richey, 51, died Monday afternoon at his home in Juneau after a prolonged battle with cancer and hepatitis. Plans for a memorial service were not finalized Monday night.

He is survived by wife Kathi Yanamura, principal of Harborview Elementary School, and son Naash, a senior at JDHS.

In addition to his coaching duties, Richey was a physical education teacher at JDHS. Counselors will be available at the high school today.

Richey was a powerful force in the lives of a generation of Juneau youths as a football coach, teacher, mentor and friend.

"Football is a true team sport (and) he was the ultimate team player," said Karen Lawfer, past president of the Juneau Youth Football League and mother of JDHS player Brian Felix. "He made everyone belong to that team. He always would take someone under his wing and make them the best they could be.

"He made Brian grow from a boy to a man. It wasn't just on the field, but off the field through his work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. ... He led by example, and everyone wanted to be like him.

"Coaching wasn't a job. It was a mission and a passion he had."

Richey moved to Juneau in the late 1970s after attending Humboldt State University in California. In the 1980s, he was a teacher at Mendenhall River Community School and - with his dog, Taco - a member of SEADOGS, Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search.

In December 1988, Richey and two fellow SEADOGS handlers traveled to Armenia to assist in search and rescue efforts after a catastrophic earthquake. Richey, Taco and the others spent 12 days looking for survivors amid the rubble, returning to Juneau on Christmas Eve.

At the time, Richey was coping with personal tragedies. His first wife, Kathleen Isturis, was battling breast cancer to which she would succumb in January 1990. Richey himself was diagnosed with lymphoma and faced treatment in the months following his return from the devastation in Armenia.

"I hope flashes of how these people were struggling yet persevering ... will come to me when I'm at my lowest times and maybe help me get through it," he told the Empire upon his return home. "Because of them I try to look beyond the hard times that I'm going through now and see that there's something on the other side of all this."

In fall 1990, Richey joined the Juneau Youth Football League's fledgling high school team as its first defensive coordinator. With Richey guiding the defense, the Crimson Bear program won its first game over a visiting team from Colorado.

Richey became head coach of the Crimson Bears in 1997, a year that brought great change in his personal life. His marriage to Yanamura was stressed at the time, and his cancer returned that year. Faced with mounting challenges, Richey found renewal and strength by becoming a Christian.

"I'd hit bottom and now I really feel God's put me here for a reason," Richey said in 2001. "I felt this is where I belong, coaching here, and God wouldn't want me anyplace else. It put a passion in my heart."

Richey persevered and led the Crimson Bears to the state playoffs in 1999. He was named Alaska coach of the year in 1999 and 2001, and guided Juneau to second place at state in 2003.

"To him, football was a game that imitated life," said Chugiak football coach Duncan Shackelford, who knew Richey for many years. "What was important was the kids and the morals, ethics and relationships that young men build through the game. Teaching kids there is a higher ideal, something more than scoring a touchdown - that's what he was about."

Last fall, Richey's health took a turn for the worse. He had contracted hepatitis C during a bone marrow transplant in 1989, which, over the years, caused irreparable damage to his liver and necessitated a transplant.

Richey went to Seattle for treatment last month, but a liver transplant could not be arranged. He had returned to Juneau with his wife and son Sunday night.

"He was an amazing man," JDHS activities director Sandi Wagner said. "He built Juneau football into what it is - an outstanding program. ... He had an amazing impact on people around the state."

• Andrew Krueger can be reached at andrew.krueger@juneauempire.com.

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