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Harry Gamble, a football lifer, dies

1/28/2014

PHILADELPHIA -- During a tempestuous decade in Philadelphia Eagles' history, Harry Gamble was the decent man at the eye of many storms.

Gamble, the father of current Eagles personnel man Tom Gamble, died Tuesday. His was a football lifer as improbable as any, and would be unimaginable today.

In 1980, Gamble resigned as the head football coach at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1981, he took a job as an unpaid assistant coach working for Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil.

By 1985, Gamble was the team’s general manager. A year later, after the Eagles were purchased by Miami-based auto dealer Norman Braman, Gamble was promoted to team president and chief operating officer.

As Dallas Cowboys legend Tex Schramm told the Philadelphia Inquirer in a 1989 profile of Gamble, his rise was “one of the damnedest things I've seen in this business. Meteoric is an understatement."

The key to Gamble’s success in the NFL was his role as a buffer between the volatile Braman and his equally mercurial head coach, Buddy Ryan. Braman was committed to holding the line on rising NFL salaries at the time, while Ryan openly took his players’ side in the contentious 1987 strike and in salary negotiations.

And these were some talented players with outsized personalities: Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, Mike Quick, Keith Jackson, Seth Joyner, Jerome Brown, among many others.

Every training camp, it seemed, would open with at least one of the team’s stars holding out in a contract dispute. Braman -- dubbed “the guy in France” by Ryan -- would indeed be at the French villa he told reporters he’d “bought on a whim.” Ryan would meet the media every day after practice, making it clear he wanted his players in camp and happy about it.

That left Gamble to sand off the edges, to prevent too many sparks from flying. He did it in his congenial, back-slapping way, occasionally sprinkling in a malapropism when trying to make his point.

“I don’t want to beat a dead horse to death here,” Gamble said after being asked one too many times about a contract negotiation.

Another time, asked how the Eagles handled a similar situation, Gamble paused before replying, “I believe we did in fact do what we did.”

In those days, the media room was a converted storage closet at the back end of the Eagles’ fourth-floor offices in Veterans Stadium. Reporters might run into Gamble or other team executives on the elevator or in a hallway. Gamble would stroll back to the press room for informal sessions with the beat writers who covered the team every day.

Ultimately, Gamble couldn’t prevent the relationship between Braman and Ryan from becoming untenable. The owner fired Ryan after the 1990 season and a third consecutive first-round playoff loss. Over the next few years, the Eagles found themselves in the midst of the legal battles that resulted in free agency, and they wound up losing White, Jackson, Joyner and other stars.

By 1994, Braman sold the team to Jeffrey Lurie and Gamble’s unlikely and eventful tenure as team president was at an end.

His son Tom started out in the family business with the Eagles in the 1980s. But Tom Gamble went on to build a long career in the NFL by slowly working his way up. After eight years with the San Francisco 49ers, Tom Gamble took a job as vice president of player personnel with the Eagles last year. His desire to get back to the East Coast was partly fueled by his father’s failing health.