In the dream he once had, Joel Gamble might have spent Sunday afternoon on a football field somewhere. He might have been in his 10th year as an All-Pro tight end for the Cleveland Browns or the Philadelphia Eagles, maybe even the Baltimore Ravens. He would have been nearing the end of his National Football League career.
But things didn't work out that way.
So Gamble spent the first Sunday of the new NFL season kick-boxing and dancing in a converted warehouse just off Falls Road in Bare Hills, outside Baltimore. At the Believers Fitness Bootcamp, Gamble joined a group of energetic men and women in a workout fundraiser to benefit Gamble's efforts to help boys reach heights that once had been his dream.
"We definitely need something positive for boys in Baltimore," said Howard "Coach" Falcon, owner of Believers. "And Joel is one of the few people I know who does exactly what he says he's going to do."
Gamble wants to identify five talented boys from Carver Vocational Technical High School, Gamble's alma mater in West Baltimore, mentor them, tutor them and prepare them for college and beyond. Part of the project includes providing the boys with homework help and individualized off-season training they could not otherwise afford.
Training and raw determination are things Gamble knows a lot about. It's what got him to the NFL, if only in a limited way and for a short time.
He was a 196-pound wide receiver at Carver who ended up as a 250-pound all-conference tight end at Division II Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. As good as he was at his position, by Gamble's senior year, Shippensburg's offense had been styled almost completely for the run. Gamble was not selected in the NFL draft of 2005.
As disappointed as he was, Gamble did not give up.
With a degree in criminal justice, he took a job as a corrections officer in a Pennsylvania juvenile facility. The experience tested his interest in criminal justice and in a career of service to at-risk youth. Still, Gamble had not given up on his NFL dream.
Three years after college, he signed up to play in the Arena Football League with the Tennessee Valley Vipers. "We got paid $175 for a loss and $250 for a win," Gamble says. "It was rough." And rougher when the Vipers cut him.
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But the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz picked him, and he played there.
After that experience, Gamble drove back to Baltimore. Determined to get a tryout with an NFL team, he went into daily training with Troy Jones, another Carver graduate and owner of a gym in Eldersburg. "He became a big brother and mentor to me," Gamble says of Jones. "He gave me the key to his place, and I drove there every day to work out. You know, being a professional is what you do when no one else is looking."
The training paid off. Gamble never played in an NFL game, but he made the practice squads of the Philadelphia Eagles and Tennessee Titans. He played preseason games with the Cleveland Browns in 2010.
Now 32, Gamble, a big man with a big heart, works as a student behavior specialist at a Baltimore County elementary school. He expects his foundation work to hit full stride after the football season. He wants to share what he learned about college, football and life with high school athletes who have the same ambition he had as a teenager.
"It was hard for me and my dad as we visited colleges when I was in high school," Gamble says. "We didn't know the process. And there were a lot of guys from West Baltimore — talented guys who just fell by the wayside, got into drugs or mediocre jobs. ... I want to help create the path to college and not waste all that talent, to help boys use sports to get an education."