Twelve-year-old Paige Colston is something of a “big sister” on her West Baltimore flag football team.
This past spring, she was the only girl who played. She was a mentor for some of the younger boys on her team, but she had something to prove, too.
“People say girls are really different from boys in sports and I feel like that’s not true,” she said. “I tried my best to be a little better than the boys.”
Paige was the MVP of her team last year, in a league sponsored by former NFL player Joel Gamble. It’s just one part of his foundation that’s been using sports to educate young boys and girls in Baltimore.
This summer, Gamble expanded his reach, sponsoring a training camp for the Woodlawn High School women’s track and field team where they learned about workout techniques and healthy living.
Once a week, young women from the Baltimore County school gathered for a grueling training session of squats, pull-ups and sprints. Gamble often joined in, whether to demonstrate a move, encourage the athletes or offer a joke.
Gamble also made a point of bringing in high-achieving women to speak to the team, including financial advisers and counselors focused on college and career readiness.
“We always were about empowering youth, period,” Gamble said. "This is the first time that we specifically had a program where it was all girls.”
Gamble, 36, grew up in West Baltimore. He was a standout football player at Carver Vocational-Technical High School before going away to college in Pennsylvania and eventually making his way into the NFL, where he played for the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans.
He now works as a social emotional learning teacher at Patapsco High School in Dundalk, and started his foundation in 2013. In addition to the flag football league and program for the Woodlawn team, the foundation hosts other football training camps and mentoring programs for city youth. And with the help of donors, the foundation awarded $16,000 worth of college scholarships over the past two years, Gamble said.
Eric Conaway Jr., an 18-year-old freshman at Goucher College, received one of the foundation’s scholarships. As a high-schooler in Baltimore, he’d been a referee for the flag football league for three years.
Gamble surprised him at an awards ceremony at his high school. “I just got a scholarship for doing stuff that I love,” Conaway said.
In 2016, Gamble’s foundation distributed dozens of Under Armour-donated football pants, shirts, gloves and other accessories to youths at more than 25 city schools and recreation programs in exchange for participating in cleanup projects around the city.
Patrick Nixon, athletic director and head football coach at the city’s Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, said his students were “ecstatic.” Gamble hosted the school’s football players for a training session last summer, and Nixon said it made a big difference when the season got started.
“The way he communicates, because he was right there hands on with the players, I think the kids came back more confident,” Nixon said. “He made my job a lot easier.
“Sometimes kids might not get it the first time or the second time,” he added. “They got it once they started working with him.”
The foundation was a long-held dream for Gamble, who started working with troubled youth at a correctional facility in Pennsylvania after he didn’t get drafted to the NFL directly out of Shippensburg University.
“It was such an easy job because I connected well with the kids,” he said.
His road to the NFL wasn’t easy.
After a brief stint playing arena football, Gamble dedicated himself to training full-time. He recalled borrowing a friend’s car to drive to the Philadelphia Eagles training camp to drop off his film to a coach he knew. He didn’t have a car of his own at the time, nor did he have money to spend the night in a hotel to await an opportunity to train at camp, so he slept in the car, too.
In 2009, after he was able to join an Eagles training session, he was signed to the team’s practice squad, and he later played for the Cleveland Browns and the Tennessee Titans.
But during the NFL lockout in 2011, Gamble and others struggled to join a team.
It was a tough transition out of football, Gamble said, because he still wanted to play. But soon enough, he fell back on his love of working with youth and started to hold football training camps.
He was reminded of his high school days in the city.
“There were so many ... kids that were talented coming out of these neighborhoods," he said. “I could name off guys that I grew up with that got shot and killed who fell victim to the streets."
His efforts grew. After the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, Gamble started the flag football league and enlisted city police officers to serve as coaches.
“You’ll see a lot of officers sitting in the cars and not able to connect with the community that they’re policing,” he said. “And I feel it’s huge for officers to be able to connect with the community."
Baltimore Police Officer Rashad Hamond has coached a team in the league for several years.
“Once the kids learned that I was a police officer, they were taken aback,” he said.
Since then, he’s written recommendation letters for players applying to private high schools, stopped by their parties and kept in touch with as many as he could.
For Gamble, the foundation is a way to show others that making it big time doesn’t have to be a one-way ticket out of Baltimore.
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“You don’t have to become successful and just leave,” he said.