Gabriel grew up in Wilmington, starring in football, basketball and baseball at New Hanover High School. A strapping first baseman who hit with power, he was a big league prospect who attracted a large number of scouts. He also attracted college football and basketball coaches, droves of them who attended Hanover games and courted him to play at their schools. More than 70 came calling. In the end, he picked N.C. State because of its proximity to Wilmington. When he turned down prestigious Notre Dame, Gabriel said, “It’s too far away to thumb home.”
Although he played football, basketball and baseball on the Wolfpack’s freshman teams, football became his sport of choice.
A very talented quarterback, he possessed unusually large size for the position and an unusually strong arm. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he was as big as some college linemen. With his howitzer right arm, he could sling a football as far as needed.
Gabriel didn’t get to use it much at State. Like most college teams of that time, the Wolfpack seldom threw the ball. That is reflected by the fact that, as a senior in 1961, he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in passing and didn’t average even 100 yards per game through the air.
He led the nation in completion percentage as a sophomore and was an All-America selection his last two years at State. He was also an Academic All-American. In his three seasons as the Pack quarterback, the team won only 11 of 30 games, so he didn’t have a lot of help.
Back then, college football players played offense and defense. One of Gabriel’s biggest contributions came on the defensive side of the ball, as he intercepted a pass and also made a fumble-causing tackle on a goal-line stand in State’s 3-0 win over arch-rival North Carolina at Kenan Stadium in 1960.
Graduating from State in 1962, he was the No. 1 pick of the Oakland Raiders in the American Football League draft that year and the second selection of the Los Angeles Rams in the National Football League draft.
Gabriel spent 16 years in the NFL, the first 11 with the Rams and the other five with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and made first-team All-Pro in 1969.
He was the NFL Most Valuable Player and the league’s Player of the Year in ’69, throwing for 2,549 yards and 24 touchdowns as he led the Rams to an 11-3 record. He passed for 3,219 yards and 23 scores in 1973. In 1967, he threw for 2,779 yards and 25 TDs as the Rams went 11-1-2.
Gabriel’s NFL career numbers include 29,444 passing yards and 201 touchdown passes.
His jersey, No. 18, was the first to be retired by N.C. State. When he left, he held 22 school records and nine Atlantic Coast Conference records. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989. In 2012, Gabriel was part of the inaugural class of the N.C. State Athletics Hall of Fame.
As for the movies, Gabriel had a small role portraying a prison guard in the 1968 comedy film “Skidoo” featuring Jackie Gleason. He had a larger role the 1969 western “The Undefeated,” playing a Native American named Blue Boy alongside John Wayne.
Now 74, Gabriel has homes in Wilmington and Little River, South Carolina.
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