Grandparents & Grandchildren


by Carol Abrams & Ferne Margulies

Tacked to a kitchen wall in his New Jersey home is a newspaper clipping about Harry Gamble-the football coach, the man, the grandfather. The article's headline, which probably caused more than a few double takes, reads: HARRY GAMBLE RETIRES FROM NFL TO SPEND MORE TIME WITH GRANDSON

An unusual sports-page story? Indeed. But then, Harry Gamble is an unusual man!

In early 1997, the former general manager and president of the Philadelphia Eagles was an executive with the National Football League in New York City. His long days started with a wake-up alarm at 5:10 a.m., then a two-hour-and-15-minute rush-hour train ride into Manhattan. After a busy eight-hour day, he'd head home, facing another two hours and 15 minutes gone from his life.

At the same time, Gamble's wife and perennial cheerleader, Joan, happily spent a lot of her time at home caring for their grandson. "I had begun watching Tommy several days a week while his parents went to work," says Joan. "I love doing it! Maybe it's because I have more patience and more time than I did when our boys were young. I'm also more confident, knowing that I did a good job, because we have such great kids."

Harry, meanwhile, was missing out on the grandparenting experience. "Every morning, when I'd leave for work, I'd call out to Joan, 'Try and keep Tommy up so I can see him tonight,'" says Gamble. "Then one morning, I'm sitting on the train riding into the city, and it hits me. I'm Tommy's grandfather, and he's the only grandchild I have. He's only going to be little for a brief period of time, and I'm missing it. This child is getting away from me. I ought to be spending my total time, or a whole lot more of it, with him, my sons, and their families. I realized that I had my priorities all screwed up."

Joan agrees, paraphrasing a favorite song of hers: "A child is a child for just a moment. Hold on to that moment, you'll never see it again." That's why she so strongly supported her husband when he acted on his epiphany.

"Two or three days later, I walked into the commissioner's office and told him that I wanted to quit," Gamble says. "He asked me if I'd consider working three days a week, but I didn't even have to think about it. 'No,' I said, 'I'm done.'"

So these days, instead of Astroturf, Gamble, 66, contends with the real green stuff; and instead of running for commuter trains, he runs a G-scale outdoor train set that chugs through his fantasyland backyard.

"I've always loved horticulture," Gamble says. A big teddy-bear-of-a-man, better known for his winning record on the field than for his green thumb, Gamble and his landscape architect son, Harry Jr., have turned a suburban backyard into an outdoor wonderland where the former coach can share the joys of nature with Tommy.

When the energetic toddler runs into the yard to join his grandparents, Gamble instinctively offers instructions on navigating the steps. "Atta boy, Tommy, atta boy, you're doing it. Just watch yourself, don't go too fast!" The little towhead descends with agility, a testimony to his inherited athletic genes and the confidence instilled by his doting family. He stops briefly at the fishpond, watching the darting golden fish that Gamble maintains all year round. Then, scampering onto the lawn where he's dwarfed by the towering oaks, Tommy considers what to do next.

"Let's feed the birds, Tommy," Gamble suggests, ambling over to one of several birdfeeders suspended from the overhanging branches. "We installed these pulleys so that Tommy can put in the seed himself," Gamble says as he lowers a feeder to the ground. He helps the 2-year-old pour in the seed, explaining how hungry the birds will get in the coming winter. "We keep a list up in the kitchen of all the birds that come and feed," says Gamble. "I think we're up to 40 by now."

Birds fed, Tommy's short attention span is diverted by a shrill sound coming from the grass. He and his grandmother investigate and find the noisemaker-a cicada nestled in the blades. But so are acorns, and Tommy is soon on a mission to collect them all. When his tiny hands are filled, he scatters them and starts all over. Gamble, relaxed and approving, watches from the sidelines.

"I never took a vacation in all the time that I was coaching," says Gamble, who began his outstanding career in 1954 as football coach for Clayton High School, "the smallest high school in New Jersey." Later, while coaching at Audubon High, Gamble led his team to a state championship. "Coaches get too much criticism, and too much credit," he says. "It just so happened that we had great players on that team." In 1967, Harry was named head football coach at Lafayette College, and four years later moved on to a decade as head coach at the University of Pennsylvania. From there it was the pro leagues and, ultimately, the top job with the Eagles. "I gave up golf so that I could be home with the boys. I've always tried to spend whatever free time I had at home with my family."

Family is paramount to Gamble, who has such strong memories of his own childhood that remembering his maternal grandmother reduces him to tears. "We were very close," he says, giving what little explanation he can muster. "When you are, it's a gift."

That same gift is what he realized he wanted to give Tommy that fateful morning on the train. "I hope that Joan and I can pass on to our grandson the values about family, respect for people, and love of fun that we passed on to our boys," Gamble says.

Then, in a sudden burst of energy, Tommy runs toward his grandparents. Joan picks up an ever-present football and throws it to her husband. Harry tosses it gently to his grandson. He catches it! Then Gamble tries to center him the ball, as if Tommy were a quarterback. But the toddler refuses. Standing tall, hands on his hips, the youngest Gamble asserts himself. "When I'm older!" he says, simply and emphatically. It takes a moment for the child's wisdom to sink in. Then Harry and Joan throw back their heads and roar with laughter.

From Grandparents & Grandchildren: Shared Memories by Carol Abrams and Ferne Margulies. Copyright 1998 Carol Abrams and Ferne Margulies. Excerpted by arrangement with General Publishing Group, Inc. $24.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.