by John Goolsby
Like many young boys growing up in Birmingham in the 1970s, Ben Tamburello dreamed of playing in the Iron Bowl for Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide. His dream of playing in the nation’s best rivalry would eventually come true. However, he wouldn’t run onto the turf of Legion Field in the crimson and white he loved as a youth. Instead, he would choose the Auburn Tiger and don the orange and blue.
Tamburello left Shades Valley in 1982 as an excellent football player who played on both sides of the ball. Still, at 6’2 and a little more than 200 pounds, he was considered undersized for a lineman and received not a single offer to play at the collegiate level.
“I was young for my age. I was just 17 when I graduated,” he said. Tamburello credits former Shades Valley head coach Robert Higginbotham for directing him to a prep school in Sweetwater, Tennesse. “He thought I had some potential and wasn’t through growing. He was the one that suggested I go to Tennessee Military Institute,” Tamburello said. Coach “Higg” turned out to be correct. Tamburello grew an inch over the summer after graduation and enrolled in Tennessee Military Institute (TMI) in the fall of 1982 at 6’3, 245 lbs.
In 1982 DI football programs fielded junior varsity squads. TMI played the junior varsity teams from Notre Dame, Tennesse, Kentucky, and South Carolina each year. These games allowed their players to gain exposure to coaches at the larger schools. Tamburello’s play at TMI ultimately got the attention of the biggest coach of all.
“Lo and behold, I got a call on a payphone in my dorm from Coach Bryant one night. I thought it was a joke before I realized it was really him. My knees were shaking. They were 5-0, had just beaten Penn State, and were ranked number one or two in the nation,” he said. Tamburello’s childhood hero offered him a scholarship that night. “That started everything for me. Once Alabama offered me, L.S.U., Kentucky, Tennesse, and Auburn offered,” Tamburello said.
As much as Tamburello had loved Alabama and looked up to Coach Bryant as a kid, he could see that the end was drawing near in Tuscaloosa. Coach Dye and the Auburn Tigers were to be his future. In November of 1984, John Bradley of the Washington Post wrote about Tamburello and Bryant:
“Ben Tamburello was a fine example of Bryant’s failure in the end. When the old man visited the gifted center at his home in Birmingham, Tamburello thanked Bryant with all his heart, and said it was a dream of his to shake the great man’s hand and have the opportunity to go to Alabama and play football. But that didn’t change his mind about his decision to sign with Auburn and play for Pat Dye. There was more opportunity…”
More opportunity or not, there was still one last thing to do: tell the Bear he wouldn’t be coming to Tuscaloosa. A phone call to the legendary coach was made from Tamburello’s father’s insurance office in Hoover. “It was a very hard call for a young man to make to one of his boyhood heroes, to say the least,” he said. Even though it was a tough call to make, he knew it was something he had to do. “He let me explain my reasons. After our conversation, I wished him luck in the Liberty Bowl, and that was it,” he said. Bryant would pass away four weeks after the bowl game.
With the help of a plan his dad designed, consuming over 6,000 calories a day and weight lifting, Tamburello arrived on the Auburn campus bigger and stronger than ever. His weight was up to 260 pounds, almost 60 pounds heavier than his playing weight as a Mountie. He started at center as a freshman in 1983 for the Tigers and was named to the Football News’ Freshman All-American team that year. He was selected as an All-American in 1985 and was a consensus All-American pick the following year. In 1986 he was named the SEC’s lineman of the year and a team captain. He left Auburn as a Lombardi and Outland Trophy finalist, the Ken Rice Award recipient, an All-SEC Academic performer, and the Shug Jordan Award recipient.
“The greatest college memory I’ve got is when I was captain my senior year at Auburn, and I called the toss at the Iron Bowl in 1986. I walked out there and looked across the field at the crimson line of Alabama. I’m thinking, I’m from Birmingham, grew up an Alabama fan, and I am calling the toss here at Legion Field! That’s something that Shades Valley set me up for and put me in that position,” he said. For the record, Tamburello won the toss, and Auburn went on to defeat the Crimson Tide 21-17.
“The foundation that Coach Dye laid in my life: athletics, hard work, discipline, that was the greatest thing that could have happened to me,” Tamburello said. The hard work and discipline he learned from Dye and his offensive line coach, Neil Callaway, ultimately paid off for Tamburello. He was drafted in the third round by Philadelphia in 1987. After playing five years for the Eagles, he retired in 1992.
“It all started with Shades Valley and Coach Higginbotham. He was so good to me. They had me back for a Ben Tamburello Day and retired my jersey when I signed with the Eagles. I’ll always be grateful for him. The other coaches, Jackie Clayton, Owen Butts, and Jim King. I have such fond memories of them. What fun I had,” said Tamburello.
“Shades Valley has always meant a lot to me. It was a good time and set the foundation for me to go on and do other things,” said Tamburello. The special Shades Valley community is what Tamburello remembers most. “We never won a championship or went to the playoffs while I was there, but more than anything, the friendships are what I remember. I was from Altadena. John Kelley was from Cahaba Heights, Glenn Sisk and Bobby McDanal were from Irondale. It was a melting pot of different areas because we were so spread out. It was a cool deal,” he said.
Had football not worked out, Tamburello may very well have had a career as a talent scout. Award-winning country music writer and former Shades Valley Mountie kicker, Neil Thrasher, was a frequent carpooler with Tamburello. “He lived down the street from me in Altadena, and I would take him home. We would be driving home from practice listening to WERC on the AM radio, and he would be back there harmonizing. I thought to myself, that guy can really sing,” he said.
Ben Tamburello was named to Auburn’s All-Decade Team for the 1980s and named to the Auburn All-Century Team in 1992. He was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.
Tamburello has had a successful career off of the gridiron as well. He has been in Real Estate in Birmingham for almost twenty years. He also serves as the Board Chair of the St. Vincent’s Foundation Board of Directors.
For all the success that Tamburello had in football, family is what he’s most excited to talk about. “Football is history; that’s behind me. It is my family that I’m most proud of. I’ll be married to Katy thirty-three years in February,” he said. Ben and Katy have three children: Ben, Anna, and Julia. Ben was a scholarship football player at the Naval Academy and played for four years. He then served as a Marine Corp Officer for five years after graduating from Annapolis. He currently lives in Hawaii and works for Stryker. Anna recently graduated from Appalachian State with a degree in Music Therapy and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Counseling. Julia is a Spain Park senior and will follow in her parent’s footsteps and attend Auburn next fall.
Tamburello has this advice for the 2022 Shades Valley Mountie football team, “I want you to understand Valley’s great tradition and the incredible opportunities and life lessons that football and being part of a team provide! I’m very proud of my affiliation with Shades Valley. Shades Valley athletics can provide you the opportunity to be successful for a lifetime!”
2 thoughts on “Where Are They Now? Ben Tamburello”
Best of it all from a former Mountie’65 / ’69 Auburn Grad…
Great man, husband, father and friend to many, glad to be one of them,. Irene Owen
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