Words by Terrell Manasco
Eyes squinting into the sun, he stands at a three-quarter angle with hands on hips, chest out. The padded shoulders of his football jersey are thrust back, and his 1940s-styled hair is combed neatly in a side part. Beneath the scratches in this faded photo, even the white “36” on his chest is obscured by the superstar smile on a face yet untouched by time.
Daniel Joe (“D. Joe”) Gambrell was born in Talladega in 1920. By high school, he was already carving a name for himself as a three-letter athlete, making All-State and All-Southern. Although he excelled in football, basketball, and baseball, he also loved to play golf. “As a kid he would caddy a lot,” says his son Danny Gambrell. “He became a great golfer, and could have gone professional. In fact, when he first moved to Jasper, there was a time when he held the scoring record at Musgrove.”
In 1942, Gambrell signed on to play football at Alabama under Head Coach Frank Thomas. “Thomas was one of the famous coaches,” Danny says. “He played at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne.”
After playing at Alabama for one year, Gambrell enlisted in the Marines. “I’ve got a picture somewhere, there’s a group of about eight or so players on the sideline of an Alabama game, being sworn in to the Marine Corp,” Danny says. “One year, I think it was ‘43, Alabama didn’t have a team. They didn’t have enough players because of the war, so that year they didn’t play.”
With D. Joe’s return to Alabama in 1945, the Tide ended the season undefeated at 10-0. “At that time the National Championship was given to Army,” Danny says.
Alabama went on to defeat Southern Cal 34-14 in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1946.
On October 12, 1946 against Southwestern Louisiana at Denny Field, Gambrell scored on an 87-yard interception, one of three Tide touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Unable to manage a point, the Bulldogs were shellacked 54-0 by the boys from Tuscaloosa. “At one time my dad held the record for the longest touchdown from an interception,” Danny says, unfolding an old piece of paper. “Of course, Dad was a center and played linebacker. Kiddingly, Coach Thomas sent him this note. He said, ‘D. Joe, you carried that ball in the wrong arm.’”
Mirroring his high school days, D. Joe’s athletic prowess was equally as impressive in baseball. “The coach at that time was Tilden ‘Happy’ Campbell,” Danny explains. “He had been there for years, and picked Dad as one of the players on the All-Time Alabama Baseball Team. He was Most Valuable Player in the NCAA Tournament and made NCAA Semi-Pro All American as a catcher. After graduating in 1946, he signed with the Boston Red Sox minor league team, but after two years he decided the money wasn’t good enough so in 1948 he left to coach football at Russellville High School.”
After a four-year stint at Russellville, Gambrell came to Walker High School in 1952, initiating what some consider a new era of high school football in Alabama. Under his tutelage, Walker remained a top ten team for ten consecutive years. The 1957Vikings won the State Championship after they shut out seven teams and gave up only three touchdowns the entire season, making Gambrell one of only three coaches in Walker’s history to bring home a state championship trophy in football. Gambrell retired from Walker in 1967. His combined overall record in his twenty years of coaching was an impressive144-40-12.
Danny, who played football under his dad and later became head coach, athletic director and principal at Walker, says his father inspired respect. “He was a big disciplinarian, and he had the respect of all the kids who played for him,” he says. “I remember one guy said, ‘When your dad came, I used to smoke all the time. It only took one meeting with him to know that if I’m gonna smoke, I’m not gonna play.’ He ended up being a good football player.”
Danny admits his dad didn’t pressure him to play football, but he didn’t make it easy. “The thing that made an impact on me was when he said, ‘You’re my son, but the only way you’re gonna get to play is be three times better than the other person,” Danny says. “If you’re even just a little better than the other guy, he’s going to be playing because I can’t afford to let people think I’m playing you because you’re my son’. That made me work a lot harder.”
Because of his years at Alabama, D. Joe maintained a good relationship with many of the coaches. One coach who occasionally visited the Gambrell home may ring a bell: Gene Stallings. “As a kid growing up, Coach Stallings was an assistant coach there,” Danny says. “He recruited this area, and it wasn’t unusual for him to stop by the house and take a shower prior to going back to Tuscaloosa. That was constant.”
Gambrell served on the Jasper City Council until his death from cancer in 1989. Dr. Buddy Thorne once worked for him in his youth and was a close friend. “D. Joe was my boss for about ten years at the swimming pool,” Dr. Thorne remembers fondly. “He was in charge of the park and recreation area, and he put me in charge of the swimming pool. Wednesday was his golf day, and he’d say, ‘Buddy, I’m going to play Bernard Weinstein and I’ll bring you back some shorts or a new shirt because I’ll whip him.’ He’d bring me back something every Wednesday. The first person that I saw at my dad’s funeral, and the first person who called me after my bypass surgery was D. Joe Gambrell. We were close. He may be the finest man I’ve ever known.” 78