OBITUARY: Gabbo Gavric (1938-2010)

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.

3 comments about "OBITUARY: Gabbo Gavric (1938-2010)".
  1. Robert Ehrlich, March 15, 2010 at 9:56 a.m.

    Mr Mertens:

    Thanks for a wonderful article. There were so many great people who kept the game going before it was really popular that it is tough to acknowledge them all. As the son of immigrants who was coached by my dad (a player for Rennes and Ujpest), playing in the anonymity of Met Oval, I experienced first-hand the love of the game and generosity of such people.

    My dad was the founder and first coach of the Pennsylvania Stoners (old ASL side) and the effort he put in, essentially for nothing, was more than it (or we) deserved. He's stiil around, watching games and is amazed that the USA is better than his native Hungary.

    I didn't know Gabbo Gavric, but I'm sure his story is similar. It's truly a shame that there aren't more stories like his told, as they have been repeated thousands of times and in thousands of locations nationwide.

    Thanks again for passing it on.

    Bob Ehrlich

  2. Carol McMahon-Bender, March 15, 2010 at 1:54 p.m.

    Our family was deeply saddened to get the call re: Gabbo's passing this weekend. Gabbo and his family were our neighbors in the 70s. Lovely, lovely people. I was a senior in high school in 1976 (which was the Earthquakes' best NASL season). My mother became their children's adopted Grandma. She fondly remembers helping to teach them English by going through the house and/or going through drawers while simultaneously repeating the English word for each item. I remember countless conversations over cups of coffee at the kitchen table. My father was a die-hard 49er fan from way back and he loved that Gabbo was "the oldest rookie" in NFL history. The two of them were quite a pair...and shared many good times. Gabbo generously shared tickets with my family who were able to attend many games during his coaching days with the Earthquakes. Gabbo and his son came to Southern CA where we now live to attend my father's funeral about 4 years ago. He could still walk, but with difficulty. His speech was limited. I can't tell you how much that meant to us. Gabbo never complained. He wore his signature smile and his eyes were brimming with tears. Words were not necessary. Although soccer fans may most remember his athletic ability and history....I will most remember a very thoughtful and loving man. He worked hard and overcame many hardships. He was a strong man who loved his family and truly cared about all those around him. And to the boys:
    Ta-Ta is at peace, now. He was so very proud of the both of you.

  3. Chris Conroy, March 18, 2010 at 2:22 p.m.

    Gabbo coached our Amateur Mens team Portola Valley Soccer Club (PVSC) from 1995-1998. While he was firm and resolute in his coaching he was gentle and kind as our friend. He expected complete commitment from all of us the same way he committed himself to the team, as a volunteer. He maintained friendships with soccers most elite, Milan Mandaric came to our games on several occasions and Bora Milotinovic would come to our team Christmas Parties. As a team we were fortunate to find him through our dear friend Tony Pirslin who passed away 3 years ago, who was also a champion to the game of soccer in his own way. Gabbo gave us an amazing insight in to the game of soccer and even more generously an insight in to life. He is dearly missed.

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