Florida Gators football: Gamble family trying to motivate him while dealing with tragedy

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
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Florida tight end Kemore Gamble dives to score a touchdown Saturday against Samford at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Kemore Gamble entered Florida’s meeting room in the south end zone, slipped on a blue knit Gators polo and walked to a lectern positioned in the front of the room. 

Just 11 minutes into Florida’s 70-52 win over FCS Samford, Gamble had eclipsed his career-high receiving total — he would finish the game with a team-high 122 receiving yards and two touchdowns on six catches Saturday. 

Gamble grinned from ear to ear when asked how he was feeling in the immediate aftermath of Florida’s first win at home in more than a month. 

“It felt good,” Gamble began. “My mom got to watch me today, you know.”

His eyes welled up and softened, his smile fading.

Gamble's mom battled COVID

“I had to learn to walk again, but I did it,” read the message from Keiva Rodriguez, the mother of Kemore Gamble. 

Rodriguez contracted COVID-19 in late August, just several days after getting vaccinated against the virus. 

More:Emory Jones has a career day as Gators outlast Samford, 70-52. Here are our takeaways.

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Before Rodriguez’s mother passed away on June 28, she had implored Rodriguez in January to get the vaccine as soon as possible, and Rodriguez did so less than two months later, with the college football season just around the corner. 

Save for a trio of trips to Jacksonville for the annual Florida-Georgia contest early in Kemore’s UF career  — she’s terrified of the Hart Bridge, though she finally did make the journey last season — Rodriguez rarely missed her son’s games. She intended on watching him play out his final season in Gainesville as often as she and her husband could travel north on the weekend.

However, seeing Kemore compete for the Gators suddenly became inconsequential. 

Rodriguez would soon be fighting for her life. She was hospitalized for two months, including 37 days in the intensive care unit, as she received care essential to save her life. 

“Covid did a number on me, but I beat it,” she said. “I give God all the glory.” 

Gamble family tragedy

As Keiva Rodriguez’s mother’s condition began to deteriorate in April and into May, Rodriguez took a phone call she’ll never forget. 

Rodriguez's niece, Le'Shonte Jones, had just returned from her job as an officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Administration. Jones was walking to her home at Coral Bay Cove apartments in the Naranja neighborhood in south Miami when an unknown assailant driving a dark gray four-door Nissan pulled up and shot at Jones and her 3-year-old daughter, killing Jones and injuring her child. 

Jones, 24, died before paramedics could arrive. 

Her daughter was taken to the hospital and treated for her injuries. 

“Such a senseless crime like this, we could have had another 3-year-old child dead, and now we have a 24-year-old deceased on the scene,” Miami-Dade police detective Alvaro Zalabeta told WSVN Miami. “Investigators believe that there’s a lot of witnesses or people that perhaps know stuff. This is the kind of senseless gun violence that we need to stop, and the only way we are going to be able to stop it is that we come together as a community and start talking.”

Jones’ murder remains unsolved more than six months later. 

“My niece was just killed, shot in the head,” Rodriguez messaged me at the time. “OMG this can’t be life. And my mother is unresponsive in the hospital.”

On his Twitter account, Gamble posted a tribute to Jones four days after the tragedy, before adding, “I’ve been through so much...but you would never know it because I hide it behind my smile.” 

If you have any information on the shooting, call Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers at 305-471-TIPS. You can always remain anonymous, and you may be eligible for a reward of up to $5,000.

Gamble overcoming 

The grin was there, but Gamble could no longer obscure his pain from the public. 

As the outside world criticized Florida for allowing Samford to have a record-breaking performance, saying the Gators shouldn’t celebrate in the aftermath, Gamble could only think to count his blessings as he looked back on an incredibly trying year. 

“It’s been hard trying to ignore it, knowing that my mom was in the ICU for two months, knowing that she’s not going to be able to watch the games and stuff like that,” Gamble said. “I was just focusing on football and just talking to my stepdad and my dad, my real dad, and my uncle and auntie all been out here trying to motivate me, coming to games.”

With his mom unable to be the constant presence in his life that she’s always been, the rest of Gamble’s family picked up the slack. 

“They’ll call me every other day or text me every day,” he said. “My oldest brother will come — it depends on the game. If not him, my auntie will come to games down here, so will my uncle.”

During Florida’s bye week prior to the loss to Georgia, Gamble made the four-hour trip to Miami to visit his mother in the hospital for the first time. He brought her flowers, pineapple, watermelon and some mixed nuts. Keiva returned home from the hospital five days later. 

Then there’s Gamble’s pseudo-family: his teammates. They’re privy to what the outside world isn’t; they see the ups and downs, the complete picture rather than what’s broadcast for the public’s consumption. 

As they watched him put on a show Saturday, they too thought of what Gamble and his family have endured in 2021. 

“He works hard, one of the hardest workers on the team,” wide receiver Justin Shorter said, “so being able to just see it pay off for him and see him make those plays, it’s awesome.”

The man on the tossing end of Gamble’s career performance concurred. 

“Seeing him come into the building every day and just working his tail off and just seeing it all pay off — especially with everything that he is going through right now, I know it was hard for him — but with him going out there and doing this today, it’s definitely exciting for me and him,” quarterback Emory Jones said. “I know he’s happy with his performance. I’m definitely proud of him.”

Florida coach Dan Mullen undoubtedly has countless topics on his mind, more than a hundred football players to tend to, and this season has been exceedingly difficult from a coaching perspective as the Gators have struggled following an impressive start. 

But Mullen hasn’t forgotten nor lost sight of what Gamble’s family has faced and overcome. As the world questioned Florida’s showing Saturday and subsequent celebration, those in the building aware of the humans under the helmets had a far different perspective. 

“Awesome game. It’s been a really hard year for him. Kemore, he had one of the harder situations coming into the season,” Mullen said. “I’m really happy for him. And as you can imagine, his mom, with everything she’s gone through, it’s been a tough year for him. He’s been pretty consistent the entire year and been able to get through it all.”

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