A/P/A Heritage Series
A month-long series of Asian-Pacific American stories to celebrate A/P/A Heritage Month
Earlier this week, fellow Fellow Maggie Thach wrote a piece on one of the Asian American pioneers of the NBA, Raymond Townsend. Today we’ll be looking at another Filipino-American pioneer in sports, Roman Gabriel in the NFL. We caught up with the 74 year old Gabriel to learn more about his career and what it was like to be an Asian in the south.
Before Dat Nguyen was crushing unsuspecting running backs, before Hines Ward was reeling in touchdown after touchdown, before Marcus Mariota became the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, there was Roman Gabriel.
He became the first Asian quarterback in the NFL when he was drafted No. 2 overall in the 1962 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. (The Oakland Raiders took Gabriel first overall in the AFL Draft, but he chose to play for the Rams.) He would go on to have a long, decorated career before retiring in 1977.
Gabriel was born half Filipino on his father’s side in Wilmington, North Carolina. His dad, an immigrant, canned salmon for a living in Alaska but moved to serve as a cook and waiter for a railroad company in Chicago. That’s where he met his future father-in-law, who also worked for the railroad company. Through that connection, he met Roman’s Irish-American mom, who was from West Virginia.
Though Gabriel had a different background than most of his peers growing up (remember, this was North Carolina in the 40s and 50s), he said his childhood was pretty normal. Gabriel’s dad did try teaching him Tagalog, but his dad spent four days a week on the train, so that didn’t work out.
Athletics is where Gabriel really fit in.
“Once I proved myself as an athlete, life was much better,” Gabriel said. “A great thing about sports is that skill makes everyone equal.”
He played football, basketball and baseball at New Hanover High School, making all-State in all three. Gabriel had a chance to turn pro in baseball after college with the New York Yankees but decided to stick with football.
Gabriel considered attending Notre Dame, but it was a little too far for him. He stayed local, moving a couple hours west to N.C. State. He already had friends there and could study his preferred major, sports business, plus the Wolfpack offered him the chance to play all three of his sports his freshman year.
It’s safe to say Gabriel thrived in Raleigh. He finished his career as a two-time All-American and two-time ACC Player of the Year. After breaking most Wolfpack passing records, N.C. State retired his No. 18 jersey after his senior year. The College Football Hall of Fame inducted Gabriel in 1989, and the ACC also named him as one of the top 50 athletes in the conference’s first 50 years.
When Gabriel moved on to the NFL, he entered a league with a short history of Asian American athletes. It’s an issue that still exists today.
According to this racial breakdown of NFL rosters in 2014, Asian and Pacific Islanders constituted just 1.59 percent of players. That includes some real impact players like Haloti Ngota or Star Lotulelei, but that’s still a tiny percentage. Not only was it impressive to see Gabriel in the NFL, given the lack of precedent for Asians, but he became one of the best quarterbacks of his time.
Over a 16 year career, Gabriel amassed 29,444 passing yards with the Rams and Philadelphia Eagles. That’s good for 43rd all time and ahead of some famous names like Ken Stabler, Joe Namath and Bart Starr. Gabriel tossed 201 touchdowns to his 149 interceptions. He made the Pro Bowl four times and, most impressive of all, was named the 1969 NFL MVP.
“When I played, you were considered to be a rookie until the first game of the second year,” Gabriel said. “Veterans were against you because you were there to challenge their friends.”
Gabriel fought through knee and shoulder injuries during his career, but he overcame them for a successful career that he still fondly looks back on.
“Through time management, work ethic, study, conditioning, teamwork and a desire to be the very best, my career was enjoyable and rewarding,” Gabriel said. “I still have close friends from those teams.”
ANDREW TIE | @Andrew_Tie
Andrew Tie is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.