By Meg McKinney
Crack! The solids and stripes scatter across the table in all directions.
Ed Gill is shooting pool, and his opening breaks for 8-ball and 9-ball games are as strong – and as accurate – as those of many of his competitors, who are one, two and even three generations younger.
So are his long shots from the far end of the table; his bank shots, where the cue ball has to hit several sides, or “rails,” of the table before hitting the object ball; and side pocket shots that can be tricky.
He keeps score when his team captain says they need an extra hand.
All of this is a normal part of shooting pool on any night at Poppa G’s Billiards in Pelham.
What truly sets Gill apart from the 60-80 nightly pool players is that he is 96 years old.
Gill plays pool five nights a week and plays very well. He marks the winning pocket for the solid black 8 ball with a 1925 U.S. silver dollar – “The year I was born,” he says. “It was a gift from another pool player.”
At 96, pool player and WWII vet Ed Gill is still in the game from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.
He drives a Kia SUV from his Pelham residence to Poppa’s, where the staff graciously provides a designated parking place. Everyone else scrambles for parking.
With a ready grin and polished manners, Gill has become one of the favorites at Poppa G’s, frequently addressed as “Mr. Ed.” He began shooting pool there in 2014 and joined the American Poolplayers Association, an international amateur league. He keeps track of his statistics on the APA app on his iPhone.
But Gill was not a novice pool player. He just took a 60-year hiatus. He began shooting pool in his early 20s, in the era iconized in black-and-white films from Hollywood.
“There wasn’t any organization for pool then. We just went to the pool hall, played until you got tired and went home,” he says.
Gill stopped shooting pool in his late 20s at the request of his wife, Doris, because “pool halls had a bad reputation.” They married when Doris was 17 and Ed was 21.
During World War II, Gill enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a radio airman, which led to his 30 years as an air traffic controller, before retiring.
“I don’t advertise that I was in World War II, other than I wear a cap,” Gill said. Fellow pool players at Poppa G’s always see him in his familiar U.S. Navy World War II veteran ballcap – a one-of-a-kind piece of attire there.
“I don’t get any real questions about” World War II from the younger generations because “it’s so far back. It’s been 75 years, probably 76 years now. It’s so foreign to them.”
When asked about his World War II service, he shows a reduced-sized photocopy of his discharge papers, along with original black-and-white photographs of him in a sailor’s uniform; a palm tree stands in the background, in Key West, Florida.
“Look at that handsome man!” exclaims Stephanie Derzis, when seeing Gill’s Navy photographs. He grins at the compliment about his younger self.
Gill returned to pool-playing at the suggestion of his daughter, Lisa Gill Casey, a year after Doris died in 2013. It would be something to keep him active – at the age of 89.
“He loves to play pool, win or lose,” Casey says. “He doesn’t hold a grudge,” she adds, although “he never lets a girl beat him if he can help it. Even the pretty ones.”
Casey and her father play together on two of his five teams.
Gill’s skills, honed decades earlier, are sharp. When he walks to the pool table to shoot, he’s already decided on the angle, distance, speed of the shot and, in pool hall lingo, he “makes pockets.” Lots of them.
“When I get up” to the pool table, “I know what I’m going to do. It’s in my head. I visualize how it’s going to go,” Gill explains. But he adds with a grin, “They don’t always work like that.”
“I don’t always execute like I want to, but I get it right more than I miss it,” he says. Most nights Gill plays a minimum of one match each for 8-ball and 9-ball games. Recently, he played four matches in one evening to make up for an absent teammate, which is a lot to ask of any pool player, but Gill didn’t seem to mind. He won a match in each category, resulting in a 2-2 record, something many pool players would like.
Gill is a courteous sportsman, whether he wins or loses, exchanging fist bumps or a quick hug. He likes to discuss his shots with teammates and keeps track of his winning, and losing, scores.
While the game of pool continues to be a ball-and-stick game with critical eye-hand skills, younger players today are a very different crowd from Gill’s early years.
“I didn’t see women playing pool until I came here,” in 2014, he noted. “My father-in-law got me started when he invited me to go with him to play pool in the 1940s, in Aberdeen, Mississippi.”
Gill maintains a neat, trim appearance with belted khaki slacks, shined shoes, button-down shirts and a sports jacket, plus the Navy ballcap. His opponents often sport tattoos, facial piercings, torn jeans and T-shirts of all kinds.
APA pool players wait their turn to play over a recommended four-hour time frame. Gill says he doesn’t like to sit too long between matches because that bothers one of his knees. He casually strolls around Poppa G’s, picking up conversations with friends along the way.
He, and they, show family photographs on their iPhones. Gill shows a photograph of Doris as a teenager when they met and a 25th wedding anniversary photograph on his Facebook page. They were married for 67 years.
In addition to daughter Casey, Gill has four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, all living within four miles of him and Poppa G’s. He’s an active member of South Roebuck Baptist Church.
Gill knows it’s unusual for a 96-year-old to be playing pool several nights a week, but he doesn’t think of himself as old.
“I don’t think I feel any older than when I was 70,” he says. “I don’t feel like 96, the age that I am.”
When Gill meets new people and they ask what he does, he says, “’I shoot pool five nights a week.’ They don’t ask a lot of questions because most of them don’t have a clue about what it takes to shoot pool. They have disbelief when I tell them how old I am.”
Gill’s longevity invites inquiries from newcomers.
“I expect questions because of my age,” he says. “Nothing stands out that I’ve done” to reach 96, except “I trust God.”
Gill may also have been blessed with good genes, with longevity running in his family. His older brother died in 2021 at the age of 96, while his mother lived to be 99 and his father died at age 84.
His one major health issue has been having both knees replaced in 2021. “I didn’t play pool for eight days after my right knee was replaced.” He missed 12 days after the left knee.
His positive outlook, on the other hand, is irreplaceable. “I want to be happy. I can’t really remember being angry,” he says.
Gill’s easy-going manner keeps him open to new faces and conversations. And, he says, “I follow the Golden Rule” – he treats others as he would want to be treated.
Each year, the APA holds world championships for 8-ball and 9-ball pool in Las Vegas. Several teams from Alabama qualify to play, but any interested pool player can go there and watch. Gill hasn’t gone as member of a qualifying team, but in 2018, Gill, Casey and her husband, Chris Casey, went to Las Vegas to watch the 8-ball championships.
“I spent a week at the casino watching them shoot. I enjoyed it,” Gill says. “Maybe one day I’ll go officially.”
Meg McKinney is a freelance photographer, https://megmckinneyphotos.com, and a member of the American Poolplayers Association. She has competed against Ed Gill, and won and lost matches. To learn more about Birmingham APA, visit here.
This Chocolate Lava Cake is one of 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama
Countdown to The World Games Birmingham: Sumo
A weekly look at all Alabama college and selected high school football games.
Another way to get Alabama NewsCenter content.
Alabama pool player Ed Gill is 96 years young and still going strong – Alabama NewsCenter
By Meg McKinney