A Gainesville great, E.L. Cabbell, died Saturday at his home in Lexington, N.C.
Cabbell coached football, basketball and track at Fair Street School in the 1950s and ’60s. He led the varsity football team to set several records but was more than a coach to his players, according to Jalasker Lyles, a player on the championship ’56 and ’57 football team at Fair Street.
“He would come visit us at our house, he would talk to our parents and he would see that our grades were good,” Lyles said. “He did all of this here, because he wasn’t just a football coach, he was a teacher, he was a father and he was a man that loved this community.”
Cabbell would come down players’ streets at night to make sure they were home by 9 p.m., and he had a 1955 Chevrolet that he would lend to players when they needed to get somewhere important, Lyles said.
Jerry Castleberry, a former Fair Street football player and current transportation supervisor for Gainesville City Schools, said Cabbell worked at Fair Street from 1951 through 1969. Castleberry called Cabbell “an outstanding coach, but a much better person.”
Cabbell took an interest in the personal well-being of his students and players, Lyles said.
“Mr. Cabbell made us what we (were) and stood by us,” Lyles said. “You see, I was weighing 100 pounds when he went to the lunchroom and said, ‘I want you to feed him iced potatoes. I want you to feed him cornbread. I want you to feed him twice a day till he picks up 25 more pounds.’ And he did that out of his own expense.”
He was a tough coach who would call practices as early as 3 a.m., but Lyles said the players and students he worked with looked to him as an adviser.
Lyles said Cabbell would let his players write their own plays at home to bring back and run at practice.
Castleberry said winning wasn’t everything to Cabbell, “although he did a lot of it.”
“One of the things that stuck with me through all these years, and I’m 66, was he said, ‘it don’t matter if you win or lose, but how you play the game,’” Castleberry said. “He really believed that.”
Will Campbell, current principal of Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School, said he spoke to Cabbell’s wife, Evelyn, in the last two weeks to hear her stories from Fair Street.
“I’ve learned about what he did here, the back-to-back state championships in ’56 and ’57,” Campbell said. “I’ve spoken to citizens here, now in their 60s and 70s, who still consider him like a dad.”
Lyles said he attempted to have the City Park field, where the Fair Street Tigers played, named for Cabbell in 1960. He said he wrote a letter to Cabbell again in July, letting him know he would try again.
“As a matter of fact, I was getting ready to sit down and write him another letter when I got the news that he had passed,” Lyles said. “... I think God was inspiring me to write this letter.”
Lyles said he hopes the school, school system or city will do something to honor his late coach and mentor.
“One thing members of the community have been expressing is the need to remember him,” Campbell said. “So we’re in the process now of seeing what would be appropriate. In retrospect and reflection, I’m glad that he knew he was on our minds before he passed away.”