Roman Gabriel: Pack QB could do it all - before QBs were asked to do it all

Roman Gabriel passed for 2,961 yards and 19 touchdowns in his college career at N.C. State, modest numbers by today’s standards but school records in 1961. He ran for 15 TDs, and his 34 career scores set an ACC record

calexander@newsobserver.comOctober 2, 2012 

Roman Gabriel played football at N.C. State in a distinctly different time and era.

It was a time when players rarely left the field in a game, when Wolfpack quarterbacks often threw passes only on third down, when the players dressed at Reynolds Coliseum and walked through the tunnel under the railroad track to Riddick Stadium.

The Pack did charter flights in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Sam Raneri, one of Gabriel’s teammates, remembers flying Cuban Air, in a rickety prop plane, with the players sitting on benches facing each other like paratroopers, and their equipment bags stuffed between them.

Gabriel would be named All-America at N.C. State in 1960 and ’61. He led the ACC in passing his senior season but didn’t average 100 yards a game. He also would be the first Wolfpack player to have his jersey – No. 18 – retired.

And not just for his play at quarterback. Gabriel was a standout in the Pack secondary and likes to recall the 1960 game against North Carolina in Kenan Stadium, when he forced a fumble at the goal line and intercepted a pass in a 3-0 victory.

Of his induction into N.C. State’s Athletics Hall of Fame, Gabriel first said he’s honored to be part of the first class of inductees. The Wilmington native then talked of the Wolfpack players before him – Alex Webster, Darrell Dess and others – he believed were just as deserving.

“And I’m really proud of the guys I played with,” Gabriel said. “We only played three home games a year because we were busy traveling the country making money so they could build Carter-Finley Stadium. Despite all that, we never quit in a game. We played the likes of Alabama, UCLA, Arizona State, and played ’em to a standstill. Who knows, if we had played some of those games at home it might have been better results.”

The Pack was 1-9 in 1959, Gabriel’s sophomore season. N.C. State was 6-3-1 in 1960 – with close losses at UCLA and Arizona State – and then 4-6 in his senior year, when he received the McKelvin Award as the ACC’s top athlete.

At 6-4 and 220 pounds, Gabriel was bigger than many linemen. “Gabe” stood tall in the pocket, had the strength to shake off defenders and could rifle the football.

Gabriel led the NCAA in completion percentage in 1959 and was 10th nationally in total offense in 1960.

“In our offense, we ran on first down, ran on second down and would only pass on third down,” said Raneri, who played both halfback and center. “We ran that Green Bay offense, with the power sweep.

“Roman was exceptional. He was a great athlete, and not just in football.”

Gabriel starred for the Pack baseball team, saying he once parked a homer on the Pullen Road bridge at Western Boulevard in the days when the baseball field was near Reynolds Coliseum. He also started on the freshman basketball team and said famed Wolfpack coach Everett Case wanted him to continue playing on the varsity.

But Gabriel had to give up basketball. He had class work that needed to be done. He later was named an Academic All-America.

Gabriel said he was fortunate to play for football coach Earle Edwards, who wasn’t showy but had his teams well-prepared and fundamentally sound. Edwards also was a coach who stressed academics.

“He always told us, ‘If you don’t leave here with anything but a good education, you should be thankful because along the way that will help you earn a living,’ ” Gabriel said. “The greatest tribute to him was he graduated 95 percent of the guys who played for him.”

Turns out, Edwards was a pretty sage recruiter, too. Gabriel said on his recruiting visit to N.C. State, he was taken to Reynolds Coliseum but never was shown small, ancient Riddick Stadium.

“I thought if they had a basketball facility like William Neal Reynolds Coliseum …,” he said, laughing.

Then again, he added, compared to Legion Stadium, his old high school field in Wilmington, Riddick was “big-time football.”

Offered 70 college scholarships – and a contract by the New York Yankees – Gabriel chose N.C. State because it was close to home, quipping, “Notre Dame was too far to thumb.”

Those who knew Gabriel and played with him in high school, at New Hanover, never doubted he would be successful.

“He was an achiever from the word ‘go,’ ” said David Ward of Wilmington, who said he caught Gabriel’s first TD pass in high school. “He always worked intently at everything he did.”

Gabriel passed for 2,961 yards and 19 touchdowns in his college career, modest numbers by today’s standards but school records in 1961. He ran for 15 TDs, and his 34 career scores set an ACC record.

Gabriel was more prolific in an NFL career that stretched from 1962 to 1977, with the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles. He was named the NFL’s MVP with the Rams in 1969, was the 1970 Pro Bowl MVP and finished with 29,444 career yards passing and 201 touchdowns.

Raneri said the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger once asked to meet Gabriel. The two quarterbacks, Raneri said, commiserated on being big guys who took a beating in the pocket trying to make plays.

Gabriel, 72, said he splits his year between Wilmington and Little River, S.C. Once active in promoting charity golf tournaments – he has raised more than $12 million for various charities – he said he now is involved with just a few events a year.

Ward said that for more than 30 years, Gabriel headed up a tournament in Wilmington to raise money for Mac Williams, a former New Hanover teammate who suffered from multiple sclerosis. “He never forgot his friends,” Ward said.

Gabriel coached in college and on the pro level with the ill-fated Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks of the World League of American Football. He later was a TV and radio football analyst.

A member of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, he was inducted into the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame in 1989.

Gabriel suffered a stroke in 2002 and has had heart problems, but said of his most recent doctor’s checkup, “I’m still alive. I’ve got good doctors and good pills.”

And still “Gabe.”

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