For Salvatore Serpe, the longtime Great Neck South High School football coach, his players were part of his family, and family always came first.
Serpe coached the Rebels for 32 years, guiding the school to its only undefeated season in 1982.
David Gurfein, the quarterback on that championship team, said Serpe had a talent for bringing people together and building mutual respect.
"Coach focused on teamwork and one of his favorite quotes was, ‘I love you and you got to love each other,’ " said Gurfein, of Alexandria, Virginia. "He focused on bringing the team together like a family. It was a United Nations of all different ethnic backgrounds at Great Neck. We were Black, white, Latino, Persian, Asian, Native American, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, a real melting pot of a team and yet we were all colorblind. Everyone was respected as an individual because of Coach."
Serpe, who lived in Old Bethpage for 55 years, died Nov. 23 due to complications from congestive heart failure and kidney failure, his family said.
"He was all about family," said Julia Serpe, his wife of 62 years. "That was number one in his life."
Serpe was born in Brooklyn in 1933 and graduated from Manual Training High School in Park Slope. He was a star halfback who led his school to a league title, earning an All-City Award as a freshman in 1948.
He graduated in 1951 and turned down college scholarships to join the Marine Corps during the Korean War.
"My dad had scholarship offers to play football at UPenn and Adelphi University and chose to serve his country," said his son, Tom Serpe, of Middle River, Maryland. "He loved football, but his country came first."
When he returned home, Serpe played one year of football at Adelphi before the university ended the program. He remained at the school and earned his bachelor’s degree in education in 1956.
"He graduates and the perfect love story continues to unfold," Tom Serpe said. "My dad and mom knew each other since elementary school. But they were just close friends. But that all changed."
Serpe reconnected with elementary school friend Julia Lombardi on a Nassau County bus.
"He was the life of our first-grade class in Park Slope and I was crazy about him," Julia Serpe said. "We were friends from elementary school to high school. I bumped into him after he came home from the Marine Corps on a bus, and he asked me out on a date. He became my husband but was always my best friend — it was a friendship that lasted a lifetime."
They married on Jan. 18, 1958. They moved with their two sons, Thomas and Richard, to Old Bethpage in 1965.
Serpe was a teacher in the Great Neck school district for 38 years. He served as the head football coach at Great Neck South from 1966 to 1997 and compiled a record of 108-149-7. He coached the Rebels’ only NFL player, Quinn Early, who played 12 seasons with four teams, including one season with the Jets in 1999.
"He said he knew I’d be a Marine, and Quinn would be a pro football player," said Gurfein, a Marine for 25 years who served in the Gulf War and is the CEO of the nonprofit organization United American Patriots. "Coach Serpe helped facilitate our success and was very supportive of our dreams."
Tom Serpe remembers keeping statistics for his dad as a youth.
"I kept stats every Saturday afternoon and called in the results to Newsday," Tom Serpe said. "When I played varsity football for Plainview JFK, my younger brother kept dad’s stats. And when my brother played, my mother kept the stats. And my dad was so classy. When we won, he would say, ‘Do not report negative stats on the other team.’ "
Serpe is also survived by daughters-in-law Linda Serpe and Patricia Serpe, and five grandchildren. Internment is Monday at Calverton National Cemetery.