Gamble never forgot his S.J. roots

Harry Gamble (Ron Cortes).

There probably isn't a Thanksgiving rivalry in South Jersey football more "small-time" than Pitman vs. Clayton.

These are two Group 1 programs that have struggled for years to field consistently competitive teams. Over the last 11 seasons, they've each been .500 once and neither has posted a winning record.

But that kind of stuff never mattered to Harry Gamble.

The former Eagles president and general manager, who died Tuesday at age 83, might have been best known to the general public for his time as a front-office executive with the NFL team.

Or perhaps for his coaching career at Lafayette and Penn.

Or for his role as an NFL ambassador who helped bring the sport to Russia.

But to generations of football folks in Pitman and Clayton, Gamble was the guy who regularly appeared at the annual pregame breakfast on Thanksgiving morning.

He was the guy who spoke of his love for football. And little towns. And how those two intertwined things helped make him the luckiest guy around.

"How neat is it that a guy could go as far as he did and always come back to where it started?" asked Woodstown coach John Adams, a former Pitman star who played at Temple.

"For people in Pitman, he always was that example that even if you came from a small town, you still could do big things."

Gamble was as good a guy as I've met in 34 years of covering sports. But the best thing about him was that he never forgot his roots.

He was a South Jersey football guy, through and through - and that was true while he was president of the Eagles and an executive with the NFL, while he was the head coach at Penn, and while he was retired and living in Haddonfield.

"To me, he was the epitome of an old-time football man," Shawnee coach Tim Gushue said. "He had time for everybody. He would help anybody. This game has such great history, such great traditions, and we need to embrace those traditions."

Gamble never forgot his days as a player at Pitman and as a coach at Clayton and Audubon. To the end of his life, he was a steadfast supporter of the Brooks Irvine Memorial Football Club.

I got to know Gamble during my years as an Eagles beat writer in the 1980s and early 1990s. That was probably the most tumultuous time in the history of the franchise - from the near-flight to Phoenix to the so-called "scab" games during the players' strike to the franchise's starring role in the creation of modern free agency to the internecine warfare between owner Norman Braman and coach Buddy Ryan to the death of Jerome Brown.

Gamble was a human Switzerland. He was neutral ground, a demilitarized zone, a voice of reason. He was a man of seemingly limitless patience when all the others in that era seemed particularly proud of their short fuses.

I had a lot of conversations with him about contract issues and player personnel and the Braman-Ryan feud and NFL matters. But he often turned our talks back to South Jersey football.

He wanted to know how Pitman and Clayton and Audubon - his old teams - were doing. He wanted to know about Pennsauken and Cherokee, about Haddonfield and Haddon Heights, about Washington Township and Paulsboro.

One of the best things about these sports over which we sometimes obsess is the way they tie us together: linking the past with the present, generations with generations.

Gamble came of age at a time when Pitman vs. Clayton was a big game. He made a game-saving tackle in the Panthers' 19-18 win in 1946.

He played at Rider - yes, Rider had a football team back then - and coached at Clayton and Audubon in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before moving to the college level.

He went from Lafayette to Penn to the NFL - a sure and steady rise fueled as much by his integrity and character as by his win-loss record.

But he never forgot about Pitman. And Clayton. And Audubon. And all those bonds with all those people in South Jersey football.

That was Gamble's greatest lesson. He rose to the top of his profession. He literally traveled around the world for football, helping the NFL run clinics and workshops in Russia.

But he never forgot where it all started, in two little towns that still pause every Thanksgiving morning for a little football game - albeit forever forward without a breakfast chat from a local legend who always made it a point to stop back home.