Q&A: Before winning MVP with Rams, Roman Gabriel had to take on Bruins with N.C. State
The quarterback who would go on to become the NFL’s most valuable player in 1969 and still holds the Rams’ franchise record for touchdown passes was given almost no chance the first time he played a game at the Coliseum.
Roman Gabriel’s North Carolina State Wolfpack, losers of six consecutive games, were described as “hapless” by Los Angeles Times writer Al Wolf in his story previewing the nonconference game between the out-of-towners from the Atlantic Coast Conference and UCLA in November 1959. The Bruins, coming off a dominant victory over Stanford, were 13-point favorites.
The Wolfpack had two things going for them: what Wolf described as a “huge” line weighing an average of 220 pounds, giving them a significant advantage over their Bruins counterparts who averaged 196 pounds, and Gabriel. The 6-foot-3 sophomore was already a rising star in his team’s double wing-T offense and an inspiration to a growing legion of followers as a Filipino American.
UCLA will take on No. 18 North Carolina State in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 at Petco Park in San Diego.
The game played out largely as expected — UCLA prevailed, 21-12, after the Wolfpack tacked on a late touchdown — but it was only a prelude to a far more dramatic rematch a year later.
Each team had lost only once when they met in October 1960 at the Coliseum in what was hailed as a showdown between Gabriel and highly touted UCLA quarterback Billy Kilmer.
Gabriel had accounted for 10 of his team’s 11 touchdowns — six by passing, four by rushing — while already logging a school-record 140 completions in his career with more than a season to play. Meanwhile, Kilmer was averaging 188 yards passing per game, fifth in the nation.
The game’s only highlight belonged to Kilmer. He completed a controversial 10-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to a diving Marv Luster for the game’s only score in a 7-0 victory for the Bruins. Gabriel had a 31-yard touchdown pass called back because of holding, and subsequent drives to the UCLA 12- and 25-yard lines were also thwarted.
That gave the Bruins a 2-0 lead in the series and bragging rights for more than 60 years heading into the Holiday Bowl matchup between UCLA (8-4) and No. 18 N.C. State (9-3) on Dec. 28 at Petco Park in San Diego.
Gabriel experienced much happier moments in the Coliseum while playing for the Rams from 1962-72. No one else in franchise history has matched Gabriel’s 154 touchdown passes, and his 22,223 passing yards rank third, behind Jim Everett (23,758) and Marc Bulger (22,814). He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989.
Gabriel, 81, recently corresponded with The Times over email about his memories of playing the Bruins and his hopes for a Wolfpack breakthrough:
When you came into the first meeting against UCLA, in November 1959, it was the first time the Wolfpack had played a game in California in school history. How big of a deal was the trip for the team and what was the level of excitement among the players for flying across the country?
If you recall, we played only three home games that season and seven on the road (including Mississippi Southern, UCLA, South Carolina and Maryland in a row to end the season and get guaranteed money for the program.)
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We flew to California in a four-engine prop plane. It was a long trip and exciting to play in a stadium that could hold over 100,00 fans. (Old Riddick, our home stadium, could seat about 17,000.)
Your team visited a movie studio and Disneyland in the days before the game. What do you remember about those experiences and the team’s mindset going into the game?
We were more excited to see the L.A. Coliseum and play the game.
What was the atmosphere like at the Coliseum, which would become your future home years later when you played for the Rams?
It was fantastic playing a game in a place that held the Olympics (in 1932 and 1984).
UCLA raced to a 14-0 lead and looked like it might win in a runaway. Then the Wolfpack were driving deep into Bruins territory in the fourth quarter, trailing 21-6, when UCLA was credited with a controversial interception at the one-yard line. Halfback Ron Podwika and a UCLA defender both leaped and fought for the ball and officials ruled that the Bruin came away with it. What do you remember about the play that essentially sealed UCLA’s 21-12 victory?
We had never played against a single-wing team, but defensive coordinator Al Michaels made some adjustments that kept us in the game.
All the hype going into the rematch a year later centered around you and UCLA counterpart Billy Kilmer, both among the top quarterbacks in the country. Was there revenge on your mind flying back across the country, especially considering you had to play the Bruins on the road two years in a row?
No, we were just happy to play against the great Billy Kilmer, who later became my friend.
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It momentarily looked like you had taken the lead in the second quarter when you completed a 31-yard touchdown pass to John Morris before the play was wiped out by a holding penalty. How frustrating was that setback in such a tightly contested game?
On the road, penalties were always hurtful.
The only score in the game came on a controversial play. UCLA’s Marv Luster made a 10-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, but N.C. State coach Earle Edwards contended after the game that Luster had picked the ball off the grass. What do you remember about that play and what was said about it among your teammates and coaches?
Our game film did show that the ball hit the ground.
You went on to win a most valuable player award with the Rams in 1969 as part of a decorated NFL career. What were your favorite memories of your time with the Rams?
Getting my degree from N.C. State and having such great friends and teammates that I will always cherish. Going to Vietnam with Bob Hope, acting in movies with John Wayne (“The Undefeated”) and Jackie Gleason (“Skidoo”) and raising money for my hometown through the Roman Gabriel celebrity charity golf events and Eagles Fly for leukemia. (We built the first Ronald McDonald House in the United States.)
Did you become a UCLA fan while living in Los Angeles?
Yes, a Mark Harmon fan.
Were you happy the Rams moved back to Los Angeles in 2016?
Yes, they never should have left.
Only unvaccinated players and those experiencing possible symptoms of COVID-19 will be tested under the NFL’s revised protocols.
Where are you living now and what are you up to these days?
I split time between Wilmington, N.C., and Little River, S.C. I am retired with heart problems and arthritis but happy.
How closely do you continue to follow the Wolfpack and will you watch their Holiday Bowl game against UCLA? What’s your prediction for the game?
Yes, and go Pack!
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