A 1985 graduate of Saugerties High School, John Gambino was a very good football player on some not very successful varsity football teams. Gambino, who will be inducted into the Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame next month, still played every down like it was the Super Bowl.
The Saugerties High School varsity football program wouldn’t taste the pinnacle of success until 1990, when they won the Mid-Hudson Athletic League title for the first time, as well as the Class B championship in only the second year of Section IX.
In the mid-‘80s, the Sawyers were in a state of flux, with the JV program inactive during the 1981-82 school year. Gambino, an offensive and defensive tackle, played varsity as a freshman that year before the JV program was reinstated and he was sent down again as a sophomore.
“I think there were three or four of us, and it was great,” said Gambino of his freshman season on the varsity squad. “It was an eye-opening experience, because you’re obviously not at the maturity level of a senior. The couple of us who went up held our own.”
The return to the JV team the following year was difficult for Gambino.
“You thought like a kid,” he said. “You’re up at that level, so why the heck would you go back down? Looking back now, I absolutely understand. They probably wouldn’t have had a JV team if they’d kept us up at varsity.”
By the time Gambino returned to varsity, the team’s effort was there, but the results on the gridiron were not. Still, his memories, especially of his senior year, are meaningful, from the photo of his mother standing on the blocking sled while he pushed it, to a win over Onteora in a game that may have only meant something to everyone on the field.
“I kind of look at it as though I enjoyed every game,” Gambino said. “That sounds a little hokey. But every game was a challenge. If anything, the one game against Onteora stands out. It’s a bad way to say it, and I hate to say that this was the best game I played in Saugerties, but it was kind of a battle for the cellar. We were very prideful. We did not want to be in that position. It only sticks in my memory because we weren’t competitive in a lot of games, and that certain game we had to win and won.”
Gambino grew up on Rt. 212 near Snyder’s Hill, and because of redistricting he bounced back and forth between Mt. Marion and Grand D. Morse elementary schools before moving on to the Jr./Sr. High campus. As a kid he was very sports-oriented, playing Little League and Babe Ruth baseball before hanging up his mitt. In high school he wrestled, as well as excelling in discus and shot put on the track and field team in the spring.
But football was his favorite sport, and he first got a chance to play the game during Saugerties’ brief time with a Pop Warner youth program.
“There was one team in Saugerties and one team in Glasco, and we used to play in Dietz Stadium (in Kingston) when it was a dirt field,” said Gambino. “We’d play against Kingston teams.”
Gambino continued playing football after high school as an offensive tackle for Moravian College, an NCAA Division III program. He chose the school primarily because of its biology program. In addition to football, he was also a shot put expert on Moravian’s track and field team.
Next stop for Gambino academically was Beaver College — since renamed Arcadia University — in Glenside, Pennsylvania. But before that, he did a little coaching.
Between his undergrad studies and grad school, Gambino coached the Saugerties High School JV football team alongside Brian Dooley for a year before taking the reins at Ulster County Community College in Stone Ridge for a season. It was especially difficult to manage expectations as a JV coach.
“Even though I played Division III, we played at a high level,” Gambino said. “We had a real strict coach, pretty much by the book, and that attitude that you put everything into the sport. And then going back to high school, it’s a lot less disciplined. And I don’t mean that as a negative. It’s just the attitude. It was hard to bring my intensity down so I could relate to the JV kids. But by the second or third week we had a ball.”
During the his brief stint as a coach, Gambino worked at a physical therapy office in Kingston, returning to the practice after grad school. He’s since moved over to Optum, where he works in utilization management and patient care services.
“I’m not really practicing (physical therapy) anymore,” he said. It’s more the administrative side of the job.”
Gambino’s wife Alexandra is an elementary school teacher at Cahill, and his daughters — Sophia, a senior; and Gabrielle, a freshman — attend Saugerties High. His daughters have been involved in competitive cheerleading and dance, an experience he’s thoroughly enjoyed as a father.
“To me it’s amazing,” he said. “You always live a little vicariously through your kids. Football, wrestling, shot put, those were kind of the testosterone sports. And then I had two daughters. What do I do now, right? I coached for four or five years AYSO soccer, and they played. And then they found competitive cheerleading. For me, it’s just the pride of watching my children excel and be competitive.”
He’s also found the time to reconnect with the Sawyers’ football and wrestling teams, this time as a fan.
Gambino said he’s honored to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, especially as he knew so many of his predecessors through their athletic exploits while he was growing up. He’s also thrilled to be able to make the cut with his parents in attendance.
“My dad was never allowed to play sports as a kid,” Gambino said. “His brother broke his leg, the coach made him play through the whole game. For me, getting the call and having my parents still alive to see this, it means a lot. I was raised very family-oriented.”
Gambino also credited his former Sawyer football coach Dennis Sheehan, who nominated him for the Hall of Fame; and his sister Maria.
“She was kind of the rock behind my mom and dad,” Gambino said.
HOF banquet is April 13
John Gambino joins Robert Dodig, Jr., George Beisel, Gregg Jones and John Parker in the Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame Club’s 2019 class. The induction banquet is scheduled to take place on Saturday, April 13 at Diamond Mills in Saugerties. Tickets are $30 and can be secured by contacting Mike Hasenbalg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-388-2348.