When asked if he considers himself a superhero, former NFL player Joel Gamble laughs and says no. But he’s written a comic book featuring himself as a larger-than-life champion of kids who dons a magical jersey, fights bullies, and goes after urban villains such as gentrification and food deserts. He may not think so, but, in the eyes of many, he’s as close to a real-life superhero as it gets. At 6-foot-2, 257 pounds, with 18 percent body fat, the West Baltimore native is a commanding figure with a sculpted bodybuilder’s physique and a magnetic smile. It’s no wonder he’s so respected by the students and faculty at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Dundalk, where he is on staff as a special-education teacher.
And when he’s not teaching (or writing comic books), the 37-year-old Gamble—who was a two way player at the city’s Carver Vocational-Technical High School before going on to play tight end and fullback in the pros—runs The Joel Gamble Foundation to help boys and girls develop athletic ability and social skills. “It’s a passion of mine, helping youth be more successful,” he explains.
He wrote his comic-book series, The Justice Duo, with Tavon Mason, another former NFL player. Gamble doesn’t want to share too many details from the yet-to-be-published work. But he says the Black Panther movie inspired him to pursue the project after he saw the impact of the billion-dollar box-office blockbuster on Black youth. “Kids need positive role models of color,” he says. “Growing up, we didn’t always see it.”
The Hanover resident credits his father, Ricardo Gamble, who worked in the community and coached a basketball league at Mount Royal Middle School on the city’s west side, as his role model. “I saw my dad mentoring boys in gangs,” he says. “I took after him. I took the torch back up.” His mother, Michelle, was also an inspiration, reading bedtime stories to her kids and getting the family through tough economic times when they were on welfare. “I admire her,” he says. “She made everything happen to take care of my sister and me.”
Gamble remembers his mom teaching him his ABCs and how to count before he started kindergarten. She saved his progress on audio tapes, so he could listen to his younger self and take pride in his growth. “She started me early,” he says. “That was huge.”
“KIDS NEED POSITIVE ROLE MODELS OF COLOR. GROWING UP, WE DIDN'T SEE IT.”
And though his parents divorced when he was young, he appreciates the morals and values they instilled in him at an early age. “I’ve been blessed, coming from West Baltimore and seeing the things I’ve seen,” he says. “I had an opportunity to play for the NFL and a platform to give back to other people.”
His sports ability and family also kept him away from West Baltimore’s drug corners. When he was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, the neighborhood basketball courts were full of players, and kids tossed footballs in the streets. Everyone knew each other. The dealers left the athletes alone. The scene is different now, Gamble says: “It’s more transient.”
Still, he had friends who became gang members or did drugs. He estimates he’s lost about 10 people in his life to violence. One death hit him hard. A close high-school buddy was shot and killed. “I had to go to another funeral,” he sighs.
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