Members of Sayville High School's 1974 Suffolk championship golf team, who gathered for a reunion Monday, said that coach Tony Gamboli's influence has had a ripple effect on people all over the world. Except they realized that was selling him short.
"There's also space,'' said Leo McMahon, now general manager of Lawrence Yacht & Country Club. "We have a guy who works for NASA.''
That is true. Rob Kempinski lives in Melbourne, Florida., is an engineer for the space program and still is a scratch golfer. He shot 69 at West Sayville Golf Course Monday, playing in a group with Ralph Howe III (Sayville Class of '82), a former tour pro who shot 68. Both were there for the Zeller/Gamboli Golf Outing, a charity event held every year in memory of Bill Zeller, who died in a car accident months after he helped Sayville win that 1974 title.
The outing was especially "in'' this year, with a special effort to celebrate the 40th anniversary. Ken Barnes came from England, where he lives now. Jack Williamson came from Orange County, California, where he is a lawyer. It was a celebration of the title: The golfers remembered how all of them got up and down for par on the tough 18th at Rock Hill for a three-stroke victory.
Mostly, though, the occasion turned into a tribute to Gamboli, who coached for 42 years (through 2008), started the girls team at Sayville in 1998, made the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame and National High School Athletic Hall of Fame and has remained an influence in his players' lives.
"Coach just knows how to motivate people. He just gives himself to his players. He says that what he gives out, he gets back 40-fold, in seeing the accomplishments in people,'' Kempinski said.
Like his former teammates, the NASA engineer remembered the subtleties of Gamboli's coaching: holding a seminar on using the rules of golf to your advantage and demanding that the worst-dressed golfer at every match buy a burger for the best-dressed teammate.
Williamson, during a layover on his flight home to California Tuesday, recalled that the coach encouraged intra-club chipping and putting contests, also for burgers. At the dinner Monday, guys were needling each other over who still owed whom hamburgers.
"He would take kids from all walks of life, and they would fit into the team like a hand in a glove. He's a competitor, and he instilled that in us, as well as a much bigger picture, a picture of friendship,'' Williamson said. Duane Postupack, from upstate Kingston, added that he used Gamboli's philosophy when he coached his daughter's Catholic high school team: "His approach was, 'We're going to build character first, then we're going to win a championship.''
None of this might ever have happened if the Yankees didn't have Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Tom Tresh and other capable outfielders in the early 1960s. Gamboli was a prodigy from Mount Ivy, New York, who survived a beaning in the Florida State League (a priest gave him last rites) and roomed with Mel Stottlemyre in the Carolina League. But he saw the writing on the wall, took a job with his then-future wife at Sayville and coached the basketball and golf teams.
Now 75 and a grandfather of 12, he still does private coaching. He loved getting together with Terry Reilly (Class of '84), an agent who represents Rickie Fowler, J.B. Holmes and other tour players. He got choked up hearing Howe, who has played in the Masters, say he would choose the Zeller over a round at Augusta.
Gamboli was proud that the outing's proceeds went to Sayville High's Athletes Helping Others charity and fearful that too much of the focus was on him. But, as McMahon said, "We all feel like his sons, basically."