HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The housing block with the aged yellow paint looks peaceful enough during the day, before school has let out for the afternoon. It’s just down the road from a sprawling palm tree farm that lends a pleasant warmth to the area.
But that’s not the way Keiva Rodriguez sees it, after living here the last four years.
“We stay in a really rough neighborhood,” she says, sitting around her dining room table. “I don’t want to scare you. Yeah, a lot of gun violence.”
Rodriguez has had a hard time letting her children, including newest Florida Gators tight end Kemore Gamble, enjoy the normal social life that goes along with being a teenager. She’s seen too much bad happen to good people.
Too close to home.
“Our kids in Miami are leaving us fast — really, really fast, like through gangs,” she says. “I don’t let him go to house parties. I don’t let him go to school parties. I know it’s kind of hard. I’m just really, really hard. I barely let him go to the movies. And it’s not just him. It’s my other kids, too. I’m very, very hard because these kids are losing their lives for stupid stuff, a chain around their neck or if another child looks at another child crazy. It’s scary so I just keep a handcuff on it.”
Sports have always been Gamble’s outlet. His mother thought it would be basketball that opened doors for his future, but as Gamble kept growing and growing, and the football recruiters just kept calling and calling, that all changed.
Cincinnati was the first, offering him a scholarship before his sophomore year even started, before he even knew what an “offer” meant, as he put it.
Eventually the bigger names followed, 25 offers in all. He was initially committed to Miami, but when the coaching staff changed last offseason, so too did his commitment. He would pledge instead to the Gators and withstand a late push from Alabama and others to make it on campus last week as an early enrollee at Florida.
Ultimately, Miami didn’t make sense for him. He wanted to use his college football opportunity as a way to get out of the area and all that comes with it.
“I realized it would be the best for me to get (away) from down here and see better things, new people and stuff like that,” he said. “Down here, it’s very easy to get caught up in stuff.”
Instead, Gamble has been driven to forge his own path, the one that’s led him to Gainesville.
That was the first goal. Now he has others.
Becoming a prospect
As the offensive coordinator at Coral Gables Senior High School, David Cooney noticed the big, gangly kid prior to his freshman year and asked if he was planning to play football.
“I was going to stick to basketball, but the football coach came to me one night in the gym around 10 o’clock. I was practicing by myself,” Gamble recalls. “He asked my friend, is he going to play football? And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And then he asked me, what about me? I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘There’s a whole bunch of scholarships out there waiting for you, there’s a whole lot of opportunities.’ So I went out there one day and I liked it.”
Gamble probably would have found his way to the football team anyway — he had played since he was very young, coached along the way by his stepfather Charles Rodriguez — but he didn’t know then that his future was in that sport.
So Cooney made sure to keep telling him.
“Coach Cooney, he told me I was, but I didn’t believe him,” Gamble said of becoming a coveted college prospect. “He said I got something.”
He started off as a wide receiver before his frame filled out and he continued to grow, reaching his current 6-foot-4, 243-pound stature.
The recollections differ a little. As Cooney recalls, Gamble was about 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, “straight up and down” when he entered high school. Gamble says his weight was closer to 150-160 pounds and his parents think he might have been a little shorter at the time, estimating he grew a good 5 inches through high school. What everybody agrees on, though, is that he got very big, very quickly.
By the end of his sophomore year, he was up around 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he says, and surprising everyone.
“His head was always bigger than his body. I wish I could find pictures. He had a head that was humungous but never (fit) with his body. So now his body has met up with his head,” his mother says.
Adds his stepfather, “I didn’t see that (coming). I thought he was just going to (stay) slim and get taller, but when he started … and I can imagine once he gets on the campus at Florida, all the weight training, he’s going to probably pick up another, easy 20 pounds. But it’s going to be muscle.”
A brother on his father’s side of the family, Ed Stinson, played football at Alabama and is now a 6-foot-3, 287-pound defensive tackle for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. He has a close relationship with Gamble and would talk to him about staying on top of his grades and staying on track for his own promising football career.
But still, Gamble’s growth spurt took most everyone by surprise and made him a 4-star recruit and the No. 1-rated tight end in the state in this 2017 class.
“I never saw that coming. I’d be lying if (I said) I did,” Cooney says of the physical transformation. “We used to go on the road, take road trips during the summer, go to different camps, hit the camp circuit. And there was one year we went from Georgia to Alabama in probably about like an 8-hour drive and he gained like 8 pounds. That kid can eat. … But no, he’s athletic and he loves the game and he’s a bruiser, man. Florida’s getting a great one.”
Gamble is still convinced he could be a college basketball player and would gladly walk on to the Florida team if that opportunity was there, though there’s no indication that is an option. Meanwhile, everybody started to see quickly that his ceiling in football is high.
He transferred to Miami Southridge Senior High School for his final two years, and Cooney came on as the offensive coordinator there. They won a state championship this past season, the first for the school in 23 years.
Cooney teases Gamble that if he keeps growing like he has, he’s going to end up as an offensive lineman, but no, he sees high-end potential for the tight end at the next level.
“His best asset on the field is going to be his blocking,” Cooney says. “He wants to just straight embarrass the person in front of him. So if he gets his hands on you, good luck. His blocking and his football IQ are pretty high.”
Gamble, meanwhile, fancies himself as a significant factor in the passing game as well.
“I expect to be a player who can play right away. (The Florida coaches) said I’ve got a chance to come in and start,” he says. “They told me they want to use me on deeper routes because I’m faster than most linebackers.”
Rodriguez, wanting to protect her son in every way, admits she hasn’t always been a big football fan. She used to have a hard time watching the games, not wanting to see him get hurt.
But she’s coming around on that and is excited to watch him play in The Swamp next fall.
After initially wanting him to stay close to home at Miami, to minimize travel costs, she’s also come around on the idea of Gainesville and what a change of scenery and this opportunity could offer.
Maybe, if all goes right, for everybody.
“He has told my God sister his first thing if he makes it pro, he’s shipping us up out of here. He’s going to get us out of here,” Keiva Rodriguez says.
Playing with a purpose
Rodriguez says the neighbors in the community keep to themselves, though the issues come mostly from the kids, the gangs.
When she’s at work, her mind is constantly back with her children.
“Imagine when I’m at work, I call home 50 times, 50 million times to make sure they’re (OK),” she says. “They have called me and told me they hear the gunshots and they have to get on the floor. In the middle of the night we have to get on the floor. It’s not all the time, but it has happened. … It happened right outside my door.”
Adds Charles, “It’s gotten a little better over here. Like when we first came over here, it ain’t like how it used to be.”
Despite his physically imposing stature, Gamble is very soft spoken. He lets out a little smile when asked about the pronunciation of his first name — “Key-mar-ee” — and how often people mess it up. He gets “Key-more” a lot.
He’s eager to give Florida fans every reason to learn his name very quickly. Meeting in his home in late December, about two weeks before his scheduled move to Gainesville, Gamble had his bags already packed and waiting by the front door.
Joining the Gators as an early enrollee this month was important to him because he wants to be as prepared as possible for his first collegiate season, to give himself every chance to make an immediate impact.
That, and there was no reason to stay behind in Homestead any longer.
Gamble initially seemed unfazed in discussing the violence that permeates his home community. Asked about the too-familiar patter of gunfire that his mother mentioned, he says simply, “I just wake up and go back to sleep.”
He doesn’t say much about the violence in the area, other than to acknowledge it’s time to get out.
“We live in the ghetto. Too much shooting around here and stuff like that, killing,” he says.
Asked, though, if it’s ever felt particularly close to home, literally or figuratively, he mentions the death of a friend before letting down his guard as the emotions pour out from him. He doesn’t offer any more details. This is not a topic he cares to discuss, but the tears say enough.
It’s clear to see what motivates and drives him. Why he doesn’t want to waste a moment getting his college football career off the ground. And why having success at Florida is so important to him for so many reasons.
A bit later, standing outside his home, with the aged-yellow paint that has seen too much, down the road from the nursery growing palm trees that will be sent elsewhere, Gamble says he understands why his mother has been so protective of him, even if it frustrated him at times.
“It was hard for me, but I understand why she didn’t (want) me going to parties because people have been getting killed and stuff like that,” he says. “She knows (some) people I hang around (are) not good and she doesn’t want me in that environment. … That’s another reason why I de-committed from Miami.”
And if all goes as planned, he’d like to return the favor.
He’s already considered potential areas he’d like to move his family.
“A quiet place,” he says.
Says his mother, “His mindframe is to go somewhere in life.”
And in Gainesville, he sees his path to that future.
All recruiting rankings come from the 247Sports Composite.