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Gabriel has taken his share of blind-side hits

Times Staff Writer

The way Roman Gabriel tells it, the same characteristics that made him a great football player -- bullheadedness, combativeness, stick-to-itiveness -- served him less favorably in his personal life.

Three times divorced, the greatest quarterback in Los Angeles Rams history is estranged from his daughter and four sons and says he has not seen two of his three grandchildren in years. The other, he has never met.

“I haven’t been very good excelling as a father,” Gabriel says, describing himself as “too grouchy and too ignorant for anybody to stick around.”

The NFL’s most valuable player in 1969, when he led the George Allen-coached Rams to an 11-0 start and their second division title in three seasons, Gabriel is now 67 and lives alone in an apartment in Wilmington, N.C., about a 15-minute drive from where he grew up, the strapping son of a Filipino immigrant.

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A two-time All-American at North Carolina State and the second pick in the 1962 NFL draft -- he was the top pick in the AFL draft that year -- Gabriel proudly calls himself “the only Filipino-Irish quarterback to play in the league.”

He is semi-retired, he says, but still hosts celebrity golf tournaments, hawks his own line of leather goods and golf shirts and sits for autograph signings.

“I have to make a little bit to support myself,” he says. “If I took the money that my three wives got, I wouldn’t have to do anything ever again.”

A self-described gym rat -- “my career was predicated on being strong,” he says, “and I still go to the gym five days a week” -- Gabriel nevertheless suffered a major stroke seven years ago and congestive heart failure a year later.

Medicine has slowed his metabolism, he says, and the 6-foot-4 Gabriel, the first of the prototypical big quarterbacks of the NFL’s modern era, has put on about 35 pounds since his stroke, increasing his weight to an all-time high of 270.

“I’ve got some negatives,” he says of his health. “Who don’t?”

Still, he continues to work out religiously. In fact, he was at a gym in Little River, S.C., when he met Keith and Eloyce Smith, a couple spearheading a drive to get the four-time Pro Bowler elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Gabriel, who played 11 seasons with the Rams and five with the Philadelphia Eagles, ranks among the NFL’s all-time leaders with nearly 30,000 yards passing and 201 touchdown passes, totals that compare favorably with a number of Hall of Fame quarterbacks. He also rushed for 1,304 yards and 30 touchdowns.

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“I was just amazed that he wasn’t in the Hall of Fame,” notes Eloyce Smith, who says that out of “friendship and admiration for the man” she sent a package to the Hall of Fame on Gabriel’s behalf last year. In addition to her statistical analysis, Smith says she collected about a dozen letters from former teammates, fans and people who had worked with Gabriel in his charitable endeavors.

Says Keith Smith, who has taken over the campaign from his wife this year, “The more we got into it, the more we thought he deserved to be in.”

Gabriel, who worked in coaching and broadcasting after retiring from the Eagles in 1977, is grateful for the support but realizes that his failure to reach the Super Bowl makes him a longshot for enshrinement.

“And I’ve never been politically correct, either,” he says. “Probably never will. So if you’ve got to be politically correct, I ain’t going to ever get in the Hall of Fame. I say what I believe. A lot of guys I played with think I should be in, and the guys I grew up with do too. That’s the important thing to me.”

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In a city that also has been home to Michael Jordan, television journalist David Brinkley, tennis great Althea Gibson, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Charlie Daniels, Pro Football Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen and Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon, Gabriel is proud to have been among the first persons presented with a square on the Wilmington Walk of Fame. He also was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and had his number retired at North Carolina State.

Also, only a few weeks ago, New Hanover High renamed its football field in honor of Jurgensen and Gabriel, its most famous football alumni. “That’s plenty for me,” Gabriel says.

As for his estrangement from his children, all in their 30s and 40s, Gabriel says, “Look, they’ve got their lives to live, and I’m just thankful for the little bit of time I had with them. They all have jobs, they all support themselves. They’ve never been on drugs, and they’re healthy. So, I guess I must have done something right.”

But Gabriel is too set in his ways to reach out, he says.

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Too stubborn.

“Very much so,” he says, unapologetically. “That’s a quality that I had that carried me through 16 years of being a professional football player -- denying the fact that you’re hurt and daring somebody to take you down.”

But that was football.

This is family.

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“To be honest with you, it is a frustration,” Gabriel says of his inability to reconnect with his kids. “But I don’t let them know that.”

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jerome.crowe@latimes.com


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