When it came time last spring to choose a native son as the
first honoree for the Walk of Fame in Wilmington, N.C., the
selection committee had an eclectic list of candidates from
which to choose, including Michael Jordan, Sugar Ray Leonard,
Meadowlark Lemon, Charlie Daniels and Woodrow Wilson. The
committee chose Roman Gabriel. "Considering who has come from my
hometown, it's a neat award and honor," the former NFL
quarterback says of the star that is emblazoned with his name on
the sidewalk outside the Cotton Exchange in downtown Wilmington.
"People say it's because I haven't forgotten where I'm from."
A two-time All-America at N.C. State, Gabriel was the top draft
pick of the AFL's Oakland Raiders and the NFL's Los Angeles Rams
in 1962. He opted for the Rams, with whom he lasted 11 years,
including his '69 MVP season, during which he threw for 2,549
yards and a league-high 24 touchdowns. He got a taste of
Hollywood--appearing in movies, TV programs and commercials, and
cohosting a talk show, Man to Man, with teammate Merlin Olsen.
He also took up kung fu, becoming one of the first athletes to
incorporate martial arts into his workouts. But Gabriel was
irritated when the Rams acquired veteran quarterback John Hadl
in '73, so he demanded a trade and was sent to the Philadelphia
Eagles. Following the '73 season, in which he threw for 3,219
yards and 23 TDs, he was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Gabriel retired in '78 and remains among the NFL's alltime
leaders in passing yardage, passes completed and touchdown
passes. "The way they throw the ball now, it's surprising I'm
still ranked up there," he says. "But if I'd had the martial
arts all along, my career would have lasted at least three more
Gabriel served as football coach at Cal Poly-Pomona from 1980 to
'82 and as an assistant coach for several USFL teams before
hooking up with Charlotte businessman George Shinn in 1990.
Gabriel became president of Shinn's minor league baseball
franchises in Charlotte and Gastonia, N.C., and later G.M. of
Shinn's WLAF team, the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks. These days
Gabriel gives motivational speeches and, along with his wife,
Lisa, with whom he has five children, runs a sports consulting
firm in Charlotte. But Sundays are reserved for his duties as
game analyst for the radio station that broadcasts Carolina
Panthers games. "When I retired as a player," says the
57-year-old Gabriel, "I had goals I hoped to achieve with sports
in the Carolinas. I'm fortunate. I've done that."