December 7, 1970
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 years."
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."