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Football Legend Gabriel Dies at 83

Roman Gabriel ’62 — an inaugural member of the NC State Athletic Hall of Fame, and a longtime NFL star — died of natural causes at his home in South Carolina.

Roman Gabriel waves to the crowd during his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame
Gabriel waves to the crowd following his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame

Early on the morning of the seventh induction celebration of the NC State Athletic Hall of Fame, one of its inaugural members, legendary quarterback Roman Gabriel, died peacefully at his home in South Carolina.

Gabriel, 83, died of natural causes some 60 years after his celebrated multisport career at NC State ended and more than four decades after his professional football career came to a close in 1977.

A native of Wilmington, North Carolina, and the son of a Filipino immigrant, Roman Ildonzo Gabriel Jr. came to NC State to play three sports, just as he had done at New Hanover High School. His favorite was basketball, but after his freshman year he quit Everett Case’s program because his grades were lagging.

“One of the main reasons I went to NC State, other than to get a fine education, is that I did not know at the time which sport I liked the best,” Gabriel said in a 2007 interview. “I played all three, and North Carolina State was one of the few schools that would allow me to play all of them as a freshman, as long as I could keep my grades up.”

Roman Gabriel, dressed in an NC State football uniform and holding a football, pulls his right arm back to throw a pass
Gabriel in his NC State football uniform
Gabriel and two other NC State men's basketball players in their jerseys
Gabriel (right) and two basketball teammates
Gabriel swings a baseball bat in his NC State uniform
Gabriel as a member of the baseball team

By the time he completed four years as a football and baseball player, Gabriel set what were then unimaginable records on the gridiron and the diamond. He was the first quarterback in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference to pass for 1,000 yards, which was a big deal at a time when most teams relied on running backs instead of quarterbacks to power their offenses. He was twice named ACC Player of the Year in football, and he became the first player in any sport at NC State to have his jersey number (18) retired.

At 6 foot 5, the two-way quarterback and linebacker was almost always the biggest player on either side of the ball for the Wolfpack. In addition, he became the first player of Asian descent to earn All-America honors in college football, as a junior in 1960 and a senior in ’61. He even recovered from his early struggles in the classroom to earn Academic All-America honors as a senior.

Gabriel with coach Earle Edwards
Gabriel with coach Earle Edwards

Gabriel also played three seasons of baseball, leading the team with 5 home runs and 18 RBIs as a junior.

He was the first player taken in the American Football League draft, by the Oakland Raiders, and the second in the National Football League draft, by the Los Angeles Rams in 1962.

He spent three years on the bench before his number was called to lead the Rams, but when his time came, he made the most of his opportunities on and off the field. He was named the 1969 NFL Player of the Year and the 1973 NFL Comeback Player of the Year after he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

In 16 seasons, he earned four selections to the NFL Pro Bowl and threw for 29,444 yards, completed 52.6% of his passes and had 201 touchdown passes.


Passing yards


Touchdown passes

During his time in LA Gabriel became one of the biggest celebrities in a town with movie stars on every corner, with significant roles in several Hollywood films, including Skidoo and The Undefeated, and working with acting legends like John Wayne, Rock Hudson and Jackie Gleason. He also had minor roles in several television shows, including Gilligan’s Island, Wonder Woman and Perry Mason.

After his football career ended, Gabriel spent the rest of his life working to raise money for charitable organizations and building sports organizations. He was the head coach for the short history of the Raleigh Skyhawks, a team in the World League of American Football that played its home games in Carter-Finley Stadium. It folded after one winless season.

In the early 2000s he retired to Little River, South Carolina, and remained close to his alma mater. In 2009, three of his former teammates contributed the $150,000 necessary to name the finishing hole — No. 18, just like his retired jersey number — at Lonnie Poole Golf Course on Centennial Campus in his honor.

Gabriel is an inductee of the NC State Athletic Hall of Fame, along with coaches Everett Case, Jim Valvano and Kay Yow and athletes David Thompson, Ted Brown, Genia Beasley, Tab Ramos, Jim Ritcher and Julie Shea. He has also been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Gabriel’s name was on the tip of everyone’s tongue at Saturday night’s induction ceremony at Reynolds Coliseum, and there was a lengthy moment of silence in his memory before this year’s eight-member class was recognized.

This year’s class included football players Philip Rivers (chosen in 2013) and Bradley Chubb, men’s basketball player Vic Molodet, women’s basketball player Trena Trice-Hill, volleyball player Volire Tisdale Brown, soccer player Sam Okpodu, women’s swimmer Beth Harrell and men’s and women’s cross-country and track and field coach Rollie Geiger.