Frankie Gamberdella will be quarterbacking the Santa Barbara Dons on Friday night against San Marcos High, where his sister Ellie is a volleyball star.
Paul Wellman

In the crosstown rivalry defined since 1960 by the Big Game — the football clash between the Santa Barbara High Dons and the San Marcos Royals — the Gamberdella family was solidly on the side of the Royals.

“Back in those days, you went to school where you lived, and I lived near San Marcos,” said Paul Gamberdella, one of three athletic siblings who attended the school. He was already embracing “Royal Pride” as a 6th grader, when he followed the spectacular San Marcos basketball team led by Jon Korfas and Gerry Karczewski, two older boys in his neighborhood.

Gamberdella went on to star in three sports for the Royals, graduating in 1987, and he has since been inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. He was a quarterback on the football team, taking snaps from center Chuck Liddell, another Hall of Fame athlete who made his name in Ultimate Fighting.

During Gamberdella’s years as starting QB, the Royals lost both games to the Dons, including a 21-20 cliffhanger in his senior year. “We could have tied them but went for a two-point conversion and didn’t make it,” he said. “You didn’t play for a tie in the Big Game.” The Dons and Royals have never wound up in a draw. Santa Barbara leads the series, 34-24.

Gamberdella now lives near San Marcos with his wife, Marla Gamberdella, and five children. When his oldest son, Frankie, started playing football in the 6th grade, he envisioned him playing in the Big Game and maybe winning one. In fact, Frankie Gamberdella has won two Big Games as a starting quarterback — for the Santa Barbara Dons.

“It’s surreal,” Paul said of seeing his son taking the field for the olive green and gold. Frankie will try to end his Big Game career with a 3-0 sweep on Friday night, September 28, when the Dons and Royals collide at SBCC’s La Playa Stadium.

Frankie’s father remembers the day he foresaw his son going to the other side. “We went to a basketball game at Santa Barbara,” he recalled. “We were there early, it was still light out, and we were walking across the parking lot over to the gym, and he says, ‘Dad, if I had a chance to decide where I was going to go right now, it would be Santa Barbara High.’ It took me aback, like, what? Why would you say that? He says, ‘Look at it here, the architecture, the old buildings …. There’s the football stadium, the gym, the baseball field — it’s all together, and it’s downtown.’”

Paul had never looked at the old school in that way, not after experiencing the hostility of being on a visiting team. “I was used to pulling into here in the dead of night, bricks getting thrown at the bus, people yelling at you,” he said.

There was a precedent to Frankie’s decision when family friend Will Gonzales, who had been coach of the Royals, went across town to coach the Dons for several years. “We called him Uncle Will, and when he was coaching at San Marcos, I’d be running around in my San Marcos gear,” Frankie said. “When he went to Santa Barbara, I had Santa Barbara gear. Jackson Gonzales [Will’s son] is one of my favorite receivers.”

Also, Frankie had been getting personal training from JT Stone, a former Dos Pueblos High quarterback, and Stone became head coach of the Dons in 2014. That was the last year San Marcos won the Big Game.

Stone brought Frankie up to the Dons varsity as a sophomore in 2016. In his first Big Game, he threw four touchdown passes in a 55-7 Santa Barbara victory. Last year, he again passed for four TDs and also ran for a pair of scores, as the Dons beat the Royals, 47-10. “He’s a hell of an athlete,” Stone said. “When he runs, he can go.”

Ellie Gamberdella agrees. “He’s pretty studly,” Frankie’s sister said. “It’s cool to watch him.” But Ellie is not on her brother’s side when the Dons play the Royals. She stayed loyal to the family tradition and is a junior at San Marcos. “On Fridays, he’ll wear his football jersey, and I’ll wear my Royal Pride shirt,” she said.

As the setter on the volleyball team, Ellie is her sport’s version of a quarterback. “There are similarities,” she said. “You get to touch every ball, and you choose where the ball goes. But nobody is trying to tackle me.”

Frankie said, “I think she’s pretty good at volleyball. A lot of big-time schools are looking at her. I’m excited for her. Sometimes it makes me jealous.”

Ellie helped San Marcos go undefeated through the first round of Channel League play. Because the Royals are playing in a volleyball tournament at San Diego this weekend, she’ll miss the Big Game, which is the league football opener for both teams. “If I was there, I’d sit on the San Marcos side,” she said.

“It’s probably the funnest game for me,” Frankie said. “I’m going to miss it after this one.” He had hoped to play the game at Peabody Stadium on the S.B. High campus, but it is in the midst of a prolonged reconstruction. He has the distinction of throwing the last TD pass at old Peabody Stadium two years ago.

Marla Gamberdella attended neither high school, but because of Frankie’s participation in baseball and basketball as well as football, his mother is a Santa Barbara fan, right down to her toenails, which were painted green last weekend. “Volleyball is the only San Marcos sport for her,” Ellie said.

Paul Gamberdella said, “I’ll always be a San Marcos alum. It’s been great for Ellie. Frankie stuck with his decision. It’s been great for him. I’m proud of them both. I guess these days that’s just the way it is.”


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