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'He made you feel special': NFL legend, Wilmington native Roman Gabriel's legacy lives on

Roman Gabriel loved Wilmington.

The Port City legend and NFL star of the 1960s and 1970s passed away on April 20 in his South Carolina home of natural causes. He was 83.

Gabriel graduated from New Hanover High School in 1958. He was an all-state basketball, baseball, and football star under legendary coach Leon Brogden.

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Former New Hanover coach and athletic director Keith Moore remembers hearing stories about Gabriel from his father. Years later, he would meet him as Gabriel championed Wilmington, often returning to his alma mater.

"He loved New Hanover High School," Moore said. "If there was ever a function or anything, Roman would support that and be there."

Jackie Bullard, one of Gabriel's football teammates at New Hanover, remembers his friend for his undying support of those around him.

"Everybody wanted to be his friend because he was just such a good guy," said Bullard, now 84. "He was a little bit on the shy side, but he worked harder than anybody."

Gabriel's star only grew when he started playing college football at NC State. By the time he finished his collegiate career, he was a two-time ACC Player of the Year and the first quarterback in ACC history to throw for more than 1,000 yards in a season.

Gabriel was selected No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1962 NFL and AFL drafts and became a figurehead of the quarterback position over his 16-year career. In 1969, he was named league MVP, and he still holds the Rams' franchise record for touchdown passes with 154.

While his nearly two decades of football accolades made him a household name in Wilmington, Gabriel's personality didn't lend itself to much self-aggrandizing.

"He always made you feel like you were special," Moore said. "There he is, a former NFL player and Pro Bowler, but he wasn't out for recognition or glory; he just made you feel special when you were around him."

Gabriel spent years hosting celebrity golf tournaments in Wilmington as a part of the Mac Williams Foundation, which was founded to help raise money for a New Hanover teammate who developed multiple sclerosis.

"He was always having a golf tournament, or a dance or some type of function to raise money for charity," said Bullard, who helped start the foundation. "It was always about (Gabriel's friends), not about him."

Longtime StarNews reporter and Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame inductee Chuck Carree spent years covering Gabriel and his involvement in Wilmington.

"The impact that Roman Gabriel had around (Wilmington) was truly profound," Carree said. "He had a spark about him: He would stand up for people he knew and was a real leader."

Gabriel was also the NFL's first Filipino-American quarterback, as his father immigrated to the US in the 1930s and worked on the railroad in Wilmington. Gabriel's son, Roman Gabriel III, says many didn't realize his father was Filipino due to his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame.

"A lot of people thought his heritage was Native American because they saw the movie he did with John Wayne," Roman said of his father's role in the 1969 western The Undefeated. "Filipinos are not notoriously large people, so he was totally different than your normal Filipino."

Roman Gabriel poses with his two sons, Roman III and Ram, for a Parade Magazine shoot in 1967.
Roman Gabriel poses with his two sons, Roman III and Ram, for a Parade Magazine shoot in 1967.

While he might have confused some, Gabriel received plenty of screen time during his playing career, appearing in hit television shows like "Gilligan's Island" (1966) and "Wonder Woman" (1978).

After spending 11 years in LA, Gabriel spent the final five seasons of his professional career in Philadelphia. He retired after the 1977 season and remains one of the NFL's biggest stars of his time.

In his post-playing career he briefly coached the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks of the USFL and served as the president of minor league baseball teams the Gastonia Rangers and Charlotte Knights

A member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, he was also a member of the inaugural class of the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame in 2006, alongside his high school coach, Brogden.

"He took it very seriously that a professional was somebody who was an example off the field to his fans," Roman said of the way his father viewed fame. "People like Vince Ferragamo and Herm Edwards have told me stories about how he influenced them and helped them to understand what a responsibility being a professional athlete was and how to be a professional on and off the field, and that was just the way he approached football."

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Roman Gabriel: Friends, family honor his lasting impact on Wilmington