James C. “Jim” Riss, an assistant football and lacrosse coach and alternative education counselor for more than 15 years at Oakland Mills High School in Howard County, who touched hundreds of lives through his work with athletes and at-risk students, died at a friend’s home in Ocean City on Aug. 22. The Columbia resident was 57.
The cause of death was complications from brain cancer, his wife, Sue Riss, said.
Riss was known for his trademark coaching maxims such as “Don’t just talk about it; be about it” and a perpetually upbeat attitude, mindsets he embodied during his more than yearlong battle with cancer. He was diagnosed in June 2021. The morning after his first brain surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Sue found him up and walking laps around his hospital floor.
“You’re like a superhero,” she said, and Jim soon purchased a pair of stars-and-stripes crocs against Sue’s fashion advice.
“He was always a great person, but after that surgery, he became an inspiration,” said Oakland Mills social studies teacher Matt Hipszer, who coached lacrosse alongside Riss for six years.
Riss soon came to embody the persona of Captain America in his fight against cancer, and hundreds of bracelets and T-shirts emblazoned with the character’s shield were worn by friends and family around the country and in the Oakland Mills community to support him and his family.
“A lot of people, given his diagnosis over a year ago, would have thrown in the towel and said, ‘Woe is me,’” said Troy Stevenson, Oakland Mills’ athletics and activities director. “He said, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna grab life by its horns, and I’m going to live my life to the fullest.’”
During his career at Oakland Mills, Riss was known for helping students achieve their potential on and off the field. He coached both of his sons, Jimmy and Evan, when they attended the school, and served as a father figure to many others, particularly through his role as an alternative education counselor, providing academic and behavioral support to at-risk students.
“His door was always open,” Stevenson said. “He always had visitors; he always had kids popping in.”
“He never judged anyone,” said Peter Petties, who was coached in football and lacrosse by Riss. “No matter if you were failing, no matter if you were just that guy who was always in detention, he saw the good in everyone and tried to help bring that out.”
James Clinton Riss was born March 12, 1965, in Rochester, New York. His parents were Carl J. “Jim” Riss, an engineer at US Gypsum in Boston, and Pauline Riss, a homemaker and an avid church volunteer.
Riss grew up predominantly in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and received his degree in business and marketing from West Virginia University in 1987. He met Sue while in college, and the two married in 1988 in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. They lived in Laurel for a short time before moving to Columbia, where they remained for the next 30 years.
After college, Riss worked as a manager at local retailer Woodward & Lothrop and BJ’s Wholesale Club until 2000, when he became a stay-at-home dad to his sons. During that time, he “volunteered for everything,” according to Sue, from Cub Scouts to T-ball. He embarked on his second career when he began coaching part time at Oakland Mills in 2005 at the suggestion of a family friend.
In addition to coaching, Riss worked as a substitute teacher before transitioning full time to alternative education. Having grown up only playing baseball and football, his decision to help coach the short-staffed lacrosse team embodied his can-do attitude.
“He was known not just in Oakland Mills,” Hipszer said. “His social network crossed all sorts of communities and sports and socioeconomic statuses. He truly was like a man of the people, and I told him if we had a mayor of Columbia, he would be it.”
Riss could be meticulous in his approach to counseling and coaching, as evidenced by the precision with which he placed decals on helmets or arranged decorations for his beloved Baltimore Ravens in his office.
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“Then there’s the laid-back Coach Riss, who is the life of the party, the most fun person to be around, [who] always has a smile on his face and is always cracking jokes,” reflected Oakland Mills head football coach Tom Browne.
Riss brought his sense of humor and love of life to everything he did, whether it was fishing on the bay, a night out with friends or one of his legendary Ravens tailgate parties. He was an original fan of the team when they moved to Baltimore in 1996 and a season ticket holder from their second season on.
“He didn’t do many things small,” Sue said.
A memorial service for Riss will be held Sept. 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Oakland Mills football stadium.
In addition to his wife, Riss is survived by sons Jimmy N. Riss of Catonsville and Evan C. Riss of Columbia; a sister, Lisa Riss of Melbourne, Florida; and his mother, Pauline Riss of Cornwall, Pennsylvania. He was predeceased by his father, Jim, in 2018.
“Everybody was impacted at our school and beyond by Jim’s passing,” Browne said, adding that his first thought upon hearing the news was how hard it would be to find a venue big enough to house everyone who wanted to pay their respects.
When Browne heard it would take place at the stadium where Riss had coached for nearly two decades, he said he “couldn’t think of a better place.”