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Friends and family honor his lasting impact on Wilmington

Roman Gabriel loved Wilmington.

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

Gabriel graduated from New Hanover High School in 1958. He was a 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 when Gabriel defended Wilmington and often returned to his alma mater.

“He loved New Hanover High School,” Moore said. “If there was ever a function or something, Roman would support it 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.

“Everyone wanted to be his friend because he was such a good guy,” said Bullard, now 84. “He was a little shy, but he worked harder than anyone.”

Gabriel’s star only rose 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 at the quarterback position during his 16-year career. He was named the league’s MVP in 1969, and he still holds the Rams’ franchise record for touchdown passes with 154.

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

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

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

“He was always organizing a golf tournament, a dance or some other event to raise money for a good cause,” said Bullard, who helped start the foundation. “It was always about (Gabriel’s friends), not about him.”

Chuck Carree, a longtime StarNews reporter and member of the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame, has covered Gabriel and his involvement in Wilmington for years.

“The impact Roman Gabriel had around (Wilmington) was really 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 when 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 because of his height of 6 feet 4 inches and weight of 240 pounds.

“A lot of people thought his heritage was Native American because they saw the movie he made with John Wayne,” Roman said of his father’s role in the 1969 Western. The undefeated. “Filipinos are not notoriously big people, so he was completely different from the normal Filipino.”

Although he may have confused some, Gabriel received a lot of screen time during his playing career, appearing in such popular television shows as “Gilligan’s Island” (1966) and “Wonder Woman” (1978).

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

In his post-playing career, he briefly coached the USFL’s Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks and served as president of the minor league baseball teams 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 someone who was an example to his fans off the field,” Roman said of his father’s view of fame. “People like Vince Ferragamo and Herm Edwards have told me stories about how he influenced them and helped them understand what a responsibility it is to be a professional athlete and how to be a professional both on and off the field .That was just the way he approached it.” football.”