Roman Gabriel, Star Quarterback of the 1960s and ’70s, Dies at 83

Roman Gabriel, Star Quarterback of the 1960s and ’70s, Dies at 83

Roman Gabriel, one of the leading pro football passers of his time, who complemented his rocket arm with an imposing physique over 16 seasons beginning in 1962, died on Saturday at his home in Little River, S.C. He was 83.

His death was confirmed by his son, Roman Gabriel III, who did not specify a cause.

Playing for 11 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and five with the Philadelphia Eagles, Gabriel, who stood well over six feet tall and weighed about 235 pounds — hefty for a quarterback in that era — had a build akin to that of many of the linebackers he faced.

He was voted the N.F.L.’s Most Valuable Player when he led the league in touchdown passes, with 24, in a 14-game season with the 1969 Rams.

He was also named the comeback player of the year by pro football writers in 1973, his first season with the Eagles. Coming off knee problems and a sore arm, he led the N.F.L. in touchdown passes (23), completions (270) and passing yardage (3,219) that season.

He played in four Pro Bowl games, three with the Rams in the late 1960s and another with the Eagles in 1973. But he reached the postseason only twice, and his Rams were eliminated in the first round both times.

Roman Ildonzo Gabriel Jr., was born on Aug. 5, 1940, in Wilmington, N.C. His father, a native of the Philippines, a railroad waiter and cook, had settled in North Carolina with his wife, Edna (Wyatt) Gabriel, who was Irish American.

Roman was a standout in football, baseball and basketball in high school and was offered a contract with the Yankees’ organization, but he decided to attend college instead.

Playing from 1959 to 1961 for North Carolina State football teams that emphasized a running attack, he threw for 19 touchdown passes, ran for another 15 and was a two-time all-American.

At a time when the American Football League, embarking on its third season, was competing for college talent with the N.F.L., Gabriel was selected by the Oakland Raiders as the A.F.L.’s overall No. 1 pick in the 1962 draft and chosen by the Rams as the second selection in the N.F.L. draft.

He signed with the Rams. But he started fewer than half their games in his first four seasons, when the team usually went with several other quarterbacks.

Named the Rams’ regular quarterback when George Allen became head coach in 1966, Gabriel took the team to an 8-6 record. It was the Rams’ first winning season since 1958.

“George Allen said, ‘I think you can play.’ He gave me hope,” Gabriel recalled in a 2018 video interview with Phil Boyd on YouTube, “The Book of Roman: The N.F.L.’s Original Gunslinger.’’

“He brought in Ted Marchibroda” — a former pro quarterback who became the Rams’ offensive coach — “and he taught me more about football than anybody else in my career.”

Gabriel had already put himself in prime shape, practicing martial arts and lifting weights.

“The rule prior to that was you don’t want to lift weights because you’re going to get musclebound and lose your flexibility,” Marchibroda, who was later a head coach with the Colts and Ravens, told The New York Times in 2005.

Gabriel threw for 2,779 yards and 25 touchdowns in 1967, when the Rams finished 11-1-2 but lost to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs. Two years later, while he was en route to his M.V.P. award, his Rams won their first 11 games before losing to the Vikings. They finished at 11-3 but were beaten again in the playoffs, this time by Minnesota.

He was surrounded by players who were stars in their own right, among them the receivers Jack Snow and Bernie Casey; the running back Dick Bass; the defensive linemen Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones and Roger Brown; and the linebacker Maxie Baughan.

When Chuck Knox took over as head coach in 1973, the Rams obtained John Hadl from the San Diego Chargers, intending to make him their starting quarterback.

Gabriel asked to be traded. He was sent to an Eagles team that had gone 2-11-1 in 1972 and had a new head coach, Mike McCormack.

“Mike said that with my experience and leadership, he felt with a young football team that I’d feel like Moses,” Gabriel recalled in a 2015 interview for the Eagles’ website. But, he remembered, McCormack added, “We need your leadership and work ethic.”

The Eagles improved to 5-8-1 in 1973, when Gabriel connected with the 6-foot-8 Harold Carmichael, whose 67 receptions led the league; the 6-foot-4 tight end Charle Young, who was voted All-Pro as a rookie; and the 6-foot-3 Don Zimmerman.

The receivers were known as the Fire High Gang because, as the story went, one of them would say “Fire high, baby” when Gabriel called a passing play.

But Gabriel was still struggling with injuries, and the quality of his performance faded. He retired after the 1977 season, having passed for 29,444 yards and 201 touchdowns in his career.

He was later a pro football broadcaster, the head coach at Cal Poly Pomona, and a coach in the United States Football League and the World League of American Football. He was also president of two minor-league baseball teams in North Carolina.

He also dabbled in acting. He played a head hunter in an episode of the sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” and the adopted Native American son of an Army colonel portrayed by John Wayne in the 1969 western “The Undefeated.”

In his later years, Gabriel operated a sports marketing company and raised substantial funds for charities.

He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989 but is not yet in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In addition to his son Roman III, Gabriel is survived by three other sons, Ram Allen, Rory Jay and Brandon; a daughter, Amber Smigel; and 10 grandchildren. He was married and divorced three times.

Gabriel took pride in mixing it up with defensive players.

Marchibroda remembered that the Rams’ offensive linemen came up to him during one game and said, “Tell Roman not to take on the linebackers when he runs with the football, because we don’t want him to get hurt.”

He added that when he told Gabriel of their fears, Gabriel replied, “Coach, if I don’t run into those guys, I’m not doing my best.”

Emmett Lindner contributed reporting.

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