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Jimmy Gabriel: The Gift of the Lift

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Our resident historian tells one of his favorite stories: When Gabriel went from coach to player while fighting through injury and scoring a goal against a massive rival.

My adoration of Jimmy Gabriel is founded largely on a single half-hour shift and, really, just the first 10 minutes. My profound admiration of our first true Mr. Sounder lasts to this day.

Jimmy Gabriel may no longer walk this earth, but without question, his legacy lives on. Every time Brian Schmetzer fills out a lineup sheet or delivers his team talk. Every time Bernie James addresses his kids. Every time Dean Wurzberger or Lesle Gallimore conduct a clinic. And so on and so on.

Our state soccer community thrives on so many fronts: Professional, college, amateur, youth and, of course, our legion of fans. For 20-25 years, Jimmy Gabriel was instrumental in the development of all those. Head coach, coaching director, assistant coach, volunteer: No matter the role, he found a means to contribute, sometimes forcefully, oftentimes quietly. Not much for pomp, he led with his heart, and that’s when he won me over.

It was 1977, Jimmy’s first year after being elevated to head coach, and the Sounders were stumbling mightily out of the gate. Never mind that they lost the first three matches, they didn’t even score, and down 2-0 at home to Portland, Gabriel and the lads were staring at 0-4. Then everything changed.

Never to be Replicated

As a kid watching on TV some 90 miles away, Jimmy’s next act was unforgettable. It will never be replicated, either. Against our fiercest rival, he pulled off his track jacket, un-retired, inserted himself into the match and imposed his will upon the outcome.

Within a minute or two, Jimmy went flying into a midfield tackle on the hard, unforgiving Kingdome turf. He got mostly ball, and he also got himself a rugburn and an obviously painful muscle pull. Might’ve been hamstring, maybe groin. Whatever it was, he was hurting. But he was running, he was contributing, and he wasn’t coming off. The tackle sent a message to all the other 25,000 players and fans in the Dome — and the kid watching faraway — that this fight was far from over.

Seven minutes into his shift, Jimmy headed a cross back across the crease for Davey Butler to score. A Paul Crossley penalty tied it, and with five minutes left Butler did it again, scoring the winner. The Sounders would go on to reach their first league final, and although Jimmy’s teams could be up and down, my belief in him never wavered.

That’s my Jimmy Gabriel story. I’ve listened to many more, although rarely from his lips.

The Obvious Leader

Bob Robertson, the original Voice of the Sounders, recalled how Jimmy might explain through his thick, Scottish brogue the use of physicality: “It’s a man’s game, is it not?”

FC Seattle owner Bud Greer credited Jimmy not only with the impetus for launching the team but later adding the nickname. “He said, ‘Look, we’re seeing some pretty good players (and) it’s time we fielded a team of good American players. Interestingly enough, the Storm nickname was his. He had this fixation on naming teams after weather.” So, Jimmy’s only quarrel with our NWSL team might be that it’s not spelled Rain.

Dave Gillett and John Best were among those who noted his instant credibility and command of respect once Jimmy brought a player to the Sounders. “He’s obviously a leader,” said Best. Added Gillett: “Players like me really looked up to him … you just learned the game from him.”

Jimmy McAlister played for Jimmy with the Sounders and San Jose, where his biggest feat may have been getting the notoriously troublesome yet immensely talented George Best to play 30 games after missing a combined 17 the previous two years.

Jimmy Gabriel resigned from that job. He did the same with the Sounders and FC Seattle. Never fired, he had the strength and conviction of character to know when either he needed a change of scenery, or the club did. One of his greatest gifts was working with young, emerging talent. He could tailor his message to motivate American kids, as opposed to a less gentle approach to British kids. He could lift the level of those players because he truly believed in them, oftentimes more than they believed in themselves.

‘Are you kidding, in a reserve game?’

His commitment to the team was never in question. McAlister told the story of Jimmy, at age 40, playing in a reserve game with the younger players. “He broke his nose and had to have it strapped to his face for the rest of the game,” recalled McAlister. “People in the stands are going, ‘Are you kidding me, he’s doing this in a reserve game?’”

McAlister played in that ’77 Portland game and could immediately see Jimmy was injured. “On the field, he was as animalistic as anyone, but he was also very intelligent. Most guys who get stuck in — like the goon on a hockey team — there’s not a lot going on with them. Jimmy was different from them.” Which takes us back to that night in 1977.

I’ve talked to Jimmy about that game several times. His memory of it remained sharp. “I knew that if I could get out there and show them we needed more effort, more energy; if we did that, we would get the crowd behind us, even though we might not win the game.

“I told myself I had to stay on,” he continued. “Then I got in a few tackles and a few things happened. The kids and the new players got a bit lifted, and they started to play better.”

The Greatest Guy

“He’s probably the greatest guy I was ever around, for feeling confident and good about yourself,” said McAlister. “Jimmy was the best coach in terms of motivating players and you wanting to play for your coach. He’s just a great human being. He cares about everything.”

In some ways, Jimmy Gabriel was a man of the times, in terms of his courageous play. But he may have been ahead of his time as a coach. His caring, sympathetic and rejuvenating ways play much like Pete Carroll’s.

It’s a man’s game, yet Jimmy appeals to your heart, and when players exhibit heart, everything gets lifted. The challenge to all of us who knew Jimmy or knew stories of Jimmy, is to find new and different ways to lift others up, to make them their best.

What’s your Jimmy Gabriel story?

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.