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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A Grip on Sports: Whenever another childhood sport hero dies it gets us thinking about what they meant to that part of our life

A GRIP ON SPORTS • No matter if you are 18 or 81, you’ve met people throughout your life. Sometimes meeting them means not ever actually, you know, being face to face. Case in point: athletic heroes. We all have them. And as you speed down the highway to your ultimate destination, those heroes exit the race more and more often. Another one of ours did Saturday.


• We weren’t a big pro football fan as a child. We played the game, though not well. And we were much more interested in baseball, basketball and basically anything that UCLA or USC was doing. Which left little time for the Rams.

That, however, wasn’t the case for the rest of Los Angeles.

In a city which featured, from 1965 to 1975, stars like Sandy Koufax, O.J. Simpson, Jerry West and John Wooden’s UCLA teams, the most overhyped group resided in the NFL.

UCLA won NCAA basketball titles, USC won Rose Bowls and Heismans, the Dodgers and Lakers won championships. And the Rams’ won hearts. Weird, huh?

Maybe it was the one nickname. The Fearsome Foursome. Deacon Jones. Lamar Lundy. Rosey Grier. And Merlin Olson. Hollywood loved its marketing and coach George Allen was a superb marketeer.

A winner? In the regular season, yes. But the playoffs? Ha.

The defense dominated, sure, from the up-front quartet to a secondary that included pro bowler Eddie Meador and soon-to-be-famous analyst Irv Cross. The linebackers, like Jack Pardee and Maxie Baughan, were solid too. So why did they fail to win titles?

The blame always fell on one guy’s shoulders: Roman Gabriel. The quarterback. The giant of a quarterback. The scapegoat.

And the guy we most admired.

Gabriel died Saturday at age 83. A College Football Hall of Fame member – he starred at North Carolina State, an accomplishment in itself – the 6-foot-5, 235-pound cannon-armed passer carried the blame for all the Rams’ postseason failures. Quietly. Stoically. With dignity.

Why was he the target and not Allen’s boring two-runs-and-a-pass offense? Maybe it was because Gabriel was so stoic. He never lashed out. He just did his job. But we always believed it was because he was different than the Bart Starrs and Johnny Unitas’ of the NFL. He wasn’t white.

Gabriel’s mother was Filipino-American. He didn’t have the same features of every other cookie-cutter quarterback of the era. He was different. And he was a target. Even though, in 1969, he was the league’s MVP.

Heck, as Gabriel’s chiseled body began to chip, the Rams traded him to Philadelphia, where he was the comeback player of the year in 1973. His replacement in L.A.? An over-the-hill John Hadl. Then a broken-down Joe Namath. No one ever won, but none ever received the same level of criticism.

Guess who holds the Rams’ record for career touchdown passes with 154? Yep, it’s still Roman Gabriel.

We loved Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones. We admired Tom Mack and Joe Scibelli. We worshipped Gabriel. And we endured much in the way of ridicule for it. It didn’t matter. We knew greatness when we saw it. And Roman Gabriel was a great quarterback, despite what others thought.

• He wasn’t perfect, though. And we’re not referring to his 112 career interceptions. Or his 0-2 playoff record in L.A.

In 1969, our dad took us to Hollywood to see Gabriel’s acting debut. Well, we went to see “The Undefeated” because it was a John Wayne movie. It just so happened Gabriel and Olsen also had roles.

Olsen was pretty good in the first role of what would become a long-time second career. And Gabriel?

You know how you are cautioned to never meet your heroes? Well, there is a corollary to that phrase. Never watch them try to act.

Wooden wasn’t the right term. Cardboard, maybe. He wasn’t good. The movie wasn’t much better but we left the theater crushed. Never really got over it. We have tried to watch Gabriel’s performance over the years, hoping to see it with a less jaundiced eye. Nope. He wasn’t a great actor.

A quarterback? Much better than he was ever given credit for.

• We will say this about “The Undefeated.” It had an impressive cast, if you are a fan of Hollywood history. Not just the stars, Wayne and Rock Hudson. Academy Award winner Ben Johnson. Harry Carey Jr. Paul Fix, a guy that seemed to be in every Western ever. Richard Mulligan. Ya, “Soap’s” Richard Mulligan. A young Jan-Michael Vincent. Bruce Cabot and Royal Dano, other recognizable Western faces. John Agar. Just about every member of Wayne’s posse was in the movie, directed by Andrew McLaglen, the son of long-passed Wayne friend Victor.

And it still wasn’t good.


WSU: It’s not often a book review dominates the S-R’s Sunday sports page. But it’s not often a person suffering the debilitating impact of ALS writes a book. Steve Gleason has done that, with a long-time friend, and Dave Boling has this column on “A Life Impossible” today. After reading Dave’s piece, we decided to buy the book and gift it to the most important person in our life. … OK, back to on-the-field sports. (Wait, back? It’s the first time today, after nearly 1,000 words.) Sorry. Anyway, linebacker Frank Cusano stood out at yesterday’s scrimmage, so much so Greg Woods builds his coverage around the freshman. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12 and the nation, Washington practiced Saturday and then scrimmaged for more than 100 plays. … Oregon State held its spring game yesterday and some saw it as a lost opportunity. Others just were trying to show what they could do. … Oregon will have its spring game next Saturday. Yesterday, the Ducks practiced in something of a dress rehearsal for next week and next season. … The Colorado offensive line must be better. … California held its spring game yesterday, though the ACC-bound Bears gave a lot of players the day off. … USC also had its game and the defense seems to be improved. Or the offense isn’t as good as last season. … Arizona State has lost a lot of players but Kenny Dillingham is downplaying the losses. … In Tucson, Arizona coach Brent Brennan talked about development and pride. … Former Oregon State hoop standout Tyler Bilodeau, from the Tri-Cities, is headed to UCLA. He’ll help the Bruins’ offense. … Arizona State has found a point guard in the portal. … The Oregon women also picked up a transfer from Arizona and saw one leave for Arizona State.

Gonzaga: Though only Anton Watson is gone for sure from last season’s roster, the Zags still have two open scholarships. Theo Lawson looks around the portal and other areas for possible fits for a team that is expected to challenge for the national title next season.

Idaho: The Vandals lost a lot of experience since last year’s FCS playoff run. But one position group still has a couple of veterans anchoring the group. Tommy McCormick and Kyrin Beachem lead the secondary, as Peter Harriman explains in this story. … Elsewhere in the Big Sky, Montana State held its spring football game. … We already passed along the Jabe Mullins news but it was reported in Bozeman yesterday.

Preps: Dave Nichols has a roundup of Saturday’s action around the area.

Velocity: Spokane traveled to Virginia and picked up a 2-0 win over the Richmond Kickers. The Velocity improved to 3-2-1 in USL League One play.

Indians: Dave also was at Avista to cover the Indians. They won 6-3 over Everett. … Elsewhere in the Northwest League, the Indians and Eugene are tied atop the standings at 11-3 after the Emeralds split a doubleheader with visiting Vancouver, winning the opener 3-1 before falling 7-5 in the nightcap. … Host Hillsboro edged Tri-City 3-1.

Golf: If you were planning on spending some time in August watching another Circling Raven Championship, better make other plans. Jim Meehan has the news the three-year contract with the Epson Tour has run its course and was not renewed.

Seahawks: Should the cosmetic changes around the Hawks’ headquarters matter? No, not really. But they sort of do to the fans.

Mariners: Snow. Coaches in ski wear. Line drives all over Coors Field. Almost all of them hit by the M’s. Pretty much a perfect Saturday, despite the near-freezing temps in Denver. Seattle won 7-0 behind Luis Castillo and a hot offense.

Sounders: How bad and boring has Seattle played this season? Our son may be among the top-10% of the team’s fans, if you rate that by dedication. Here’s a guy who has flown across the state just to watch them play a home match. Last night? He skipped it. Didn’t want to watch how badly the Sounders would play. And they did, losing 2-0 at home to Vancouver.

Reign: Seattle will try to snap a winless streak today but it will have to do it without its starting keeper.

Kraken: As the team scatters, Joey Daccord hopes to build on a break-out season.


• It’s funny how many slings and arrows were shot at Gabriel during his career. Threw too many interceptions. Held on to the ball too long. Had no touch. Was boring. OK, that last one was the biggest sin in Hollywood-dominated L.A. back then. It’s probably the real reason he was vilified. Until later …