Gabbo Gavric, one of the great pioneers of American professional soccer and a placekicker of distinction in the NFL, died on Saturday after a long illness.
Gavric was lured from his native Yugoslavia when pro soccer was launched in 1967. He won championships with the Oakland Clippers and Dallas Tornado and later played for and coached the San Jose Earthquakes. He earned co-MVP honors of the first NASL indoor soccer championship in 1975 and later coached the Earthquakes to their best NASL season in 1976.
In 1969, Gavric was a placekicker for the San Francisco 49ers, becoming the oldest rookie in NFL history.
Tom Mertens, Soccer America's first editor and later p.r. director of the Earthquakes, remembers Gavric.
I met Gabbo first in 1972 when a mutual friend, Derek Liecty, introduced us. Gabbo had come from Yugoslavia in 1967 and played for the Oakland Clippers team, of which Liecty (still around and a great guy) was the general manager. The Clippers were short-lived, folding in 1969, after winning the National Professional Soccer League, one of the two original pro leagues in 1967, and playing in the North American Soccer League and as an independent team.
Gabbo played for the 49ers as a place kicker in 1969. The team was abysmal, and he once told me -- verbatim -- "Tom, the team was not so good. If they got within 40 yards of the end zone, I would need try a field goal. Not many tries were close."
He got criticized for not making many field goals. Back then, 40 yards was a reach.
Gabbo made a living installing carpets between about 1972 and 1974 and had been playing semipro Bay Area soccer (I was a referee -- a linesman -- in one of his 1974 games) when the original San Jose Earthquakes started in March 1974.
When the original Quakes started, he was among the first players signed by then-owner and fellow Yugoslav Milan Mandaric. (Yes, the same Milan Mandaric who's still involved in soccer, running Leicester City.)
I had been hired as the third person in the franchise -- PR Director. I became Assistant GM in '77. I had co-founded Soccer America magazine in Berkeley in 1971 with a wonderful soccer-loving guy -- as you know -- Clay Berling, who also knew Gabbo, so I knew of Gabbo before I met him).
Gabbo was player-coach of our North American Soccer League (remember Pele here?) Earthquakes when they started play on May 11, 1974, until former Yugoslav national team coach Ivan Toplak (also a Clippers alum) joined us mid-season that year.
Gabbo is perhaps best-remembered for his incredible soccer athleticism and damn-the-torpedoes play -- once in 1974 he hit the wall with his head after making a cart-wheeling defensive play at Spartan Stadium, was knocked out, came to, insisted on returning to play and only got us to take him out when he was obviously a bit "lost" on the field.
I was on a walkie-talkie on the field at the time, between my press-box duties, and I think I called up to the security guys to get down to the bench and get him out. Back then we had sellout and sometimes SRO crowds at Spartan Stadium.
He retired from playing and became coach in 1976. He and I laughed a lot because I usually called him Momcilo and not always Gabbo -- his given name (Momcilo Gavric) as it appeared in his passport.
He was coach of the most successful Quakes team, in 1976 when we went to the championship semifinals and lost at Minnesota.
His wife later died suddenly and he raised his two sons, one of whom needed life-threatening brain surgery as a teenager.
My wife Barbara by that time also knew Gabbo, who was our insurance agent but also came to me (I'm still honored!) for advice on things from his wife's immigration here in the 70s (I testified and signed the immigration forms) to how he might handle his son's surgery. I remember him and Barbara once sitting at a table over coffee as this extremely tough guy told her about his wife's passing away with tears streaming down his face.
Last August at the Earthquakes' 35th reunion, Gabbo was wheeled in a wheelchair by his son to the anniversary scrimmage at San Jose State. The scrimmage stopped cold, and every one of the players came over to say hello (and goodbye) in a tearful reunion that was more special than the actual reunion taking place in town.
I looked into his eyes, which had tears, and although he couldn't speak (he tried, dammit, Gabbo always tried hard no matter what), he knew what I was saying: Gabbo, we all care about you, we all love you, Barbara says hello, thanks for being here. It's important.