Super Bowl Made Me Wonder: Will There Ever Be Another Roman Gabriel?
by Emil Guillermo
Last week, during Super Bowl LVI (56), I was thinking about Roman Gabriel, 81.
Gabriel is the first Filipino American quarterback to gain fame in the NFL, playing for 16 seasons, mostly with the Los Angeles Rams from 1962-1972, where he was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1969. That year Gabriel threw 24 touchdowns and led his team to an 11-3 record.
But it was still not good enough to get to Super Bowl III, the year Joe Namath and his Jets beat Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts.
It was a quarterback league then as it is now. That’s why I was thinking of Gabriel for the big game. At six-feet-five inches, Gabriel in his prime could have competed in today’s NFL easily, and he would have dominated Sunday’s Super Bowl.
The Cincinnati Bengal’s Joe Burrow looked like he was ready to lead his team to victory.
Despite being sacked 7 times, he out-dueled the Rams quarterback Matt Stafford, who threw two interceptions, and had a measly quarterback rating under 90. With neither team running the ball well, the passing game defined everything. And Burrow was just better.
But after a strong second half start, Burrow’s team lost its nerve in the fourth quarter. The Rams defense kept Burrow at Bay, and then its own offense got untracked when it focused on wide receiver Cooper Kupp.
Kupp caught a late fourth quarter touchdown pass that gave the Rams the win, 23-20. And Kupp the MVP.
I kept thinking how Gabriel throwing to Kupp would have easily put the Bengals away. In his day, Gabriel was that good.
The game also featured the latest class of inductees to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch, one of my favorites, was a senior inductee this year.
But it made me wonder why isn’t Roman Gabriel in the PFHOF, senior or otherwise.
Former San Diego Charger linebacker Junior Seau is an AAPI member in the Hall. But a Filipino American playing quarterback, football’s leading man?
There has never been anyone quite like Gabriel. His father, a Filipino immigrant from the “Manong Generation,” found his way to North Carolina and intermarried.
Roman was born in 1940, became a star at North Carolina State, and a first round pick in the NFL/AFL football drafts in 1962.
Think of Gabriel as the Joe Burrow of his day.
This was also the era when Filipino immigration was non-existent until years after the immigration law changed in 1965.
With all the current trouble the NFL has with racism, from the lack of black and minority coaches, to the lack of black and minority owners, the NFL needs to honor Gabriel now.
Roman Gabriel’s is an example of the NFL’s hidden diversity.
Since his heyday both with the Rams and his comeback with the Philadelphia Eagles, there has never been a Filipino American quite like Roman Gabriel in the NFL ever.
The Superbowl for Asian Americans has been the Olympics
You won’t find many of us playing in the Super Bowl or the pro football ranks. There are a handful among the kicker and lineman.
But at the Winter Olympics, we are among the champions.
Nathan Chen. Chloe Kim.
Both Asian Americans, Americans in Asia. Both pure Olympic gold.
But the question remains. Will someone find a way to have it feed a new stereotype, a model minority myth of Olympic proportions?
Tiger Moms are hungry. More on that in a bit.
First, let’s celebrate America’s diversity with a massive dose of the legendary greatness we witnessed.
Nathan Chen on ice this Olympics has been dazzling and graceful. The so-called “Quad King,” for his signature four revolutions in the air, Chen seemed less technical and more joyful in his performances at these games.
From his fist-pump after his short program, to his final move on the last note of the “free skate”–his arm extending a pointed fist, his face in a kind of friendly scowl. It was a relentless show of passion and grace. And confidence.
Chen was rewarded with a score that made him so dominant in the standings, there was no question of his excellence over the field. Considering he’s already three-time-world champion, the Olympic Gold medal makes Chen one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all time, in a legacy event of winter games, men’s figure skating.
Let that sink in: An Asian American man, the son of immigrants, following AAPI skating trailblazers Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Tiffany Chin, is now at the top of the entire sport.
That’s not just Asian American history. That’s history.
And who knows? If he’s the Tom Brady of ice skating, will we see fans clamor for his jersey, which happens to be a print of the cosmos in red designed by Vera Wang?
Why not? This Winter Olympics is turning out to be the Super Bowl for Asian Americans.
It all makes you appreciate Chen’s achievement. Especially me. I’m the guy at the ice rink holding on to the wall for dear life.
Snowboarding, I’m not much better. I fell once and never got up. That also explains why I marvel at Chloe Kim.
Last week, the snowboarding phenom Kim was fierce and determined on the half-pipe. I know, where is the other half? Maybe they recycled it?
All I know is they left the half that counts for Kim to own. Back for more gold after winning in the PyeongChang Olympics, Kim did not disappoint.
I love watching the performers visualize their moves before they hit it. And Kim went for it hard from the beginning. She did a 1080 to start– three full revolutions in the air– then a 900, and finished with another 1080, making her virtually untouchable after just her first run, which she called a “safety run.”
It was a surprise after one of the worst practices she’s ever put her in a bad place mentally, she told NBC.
But here’s how Kim said she pulled through:
“So I was dealing with all sorts of emotions, self-doubt, but when I was getting ready to drop into my first run, I just reminded myself that it’s a brand new run, and I just have to live in the now. And I was so happy I was able to do that.”
The meditative heart and mind of a champion. That first run left her sitting atop her competitors with a little cushion. She had two more runs. Would she coast to gold? Not Kim.
On the remaining two she was trying the “Cat 12,” a 1260 move that she said she had done just once before.
She went for it and fell in both runs. She still left with gold, in an historic back-to-back snowboarding win. It wasn’t all that certain it would happen. After PyeongChang, Kim struggled to get back the feeling. She took time off, went to Princeton.
The support from her family never wavered. She also fell in love. When she came back to her snowboard, she had to find that spark again.
The gold this time shows a Chloe renewed.
“I’m in a much better headspace and I think I have a better idea of what to expect,” she told NBC of the fame she’ll experience now. “I’m just so eager to see my loved ones, my family, my dog, my boyfriend, so I think that’ll keep me happy and I’m just going to feel all the feelings and be proud of myself.”
A little loving self-compassion always works. It helped Chloe Kim make her own American history, the daughter of Korean immigrants.
After her first run, Kim got a hug from a spectator Eileen Gu, whom I’ve dubbed an ABC, but with a T, for “American-Born, Chinese Team.”
Gu, a.k.a. Ailing Eileen Gu could have won the first gold medal for the U.S. earlier in the week, and then three of the first four gold medals won would’ve been Americans.
But the freestyle skier is playing for her mother’s homeland, China.
I’ll have more on Gu as the games continue.
But let’s keep the focus on Chen and Kim for now. Chen especially is atop an Asian American ice-skating boom. And the cream is rising.
Once again in the winter Olympics, four of the six figure skaters on the U.S. team alone are Asian American: Karen Chen, Alysa Liu, Vincent Zhou, and Nathan Chen. Add ice dancer Madison Chock, and the U.S. team alone is chock full of AAPIs.
Could we be seeing an addendum to the negative positive stereotype, the Model Minority Myth, Olympic-style?
Crouching tiger, hidden Salchows? Let’s hope not.
Already there was NBC’s Olympic anchor Mike Tirico after Chen’s victory wondering on prime time:
“We’ve just seen in the last 24 hours, Eileen Gu who’s going to Stanford, right, and we saw Chloe Kim and we talked about her time in Princeton, and Nathan Chen going to Yale, in addition to being best in the world, gold medal athletes, also very intelligent, but also in some ways, I think it has helped round them out as individuals. And it wasn’t about being obsessive all the time about getting back to a chance to compete for a gold medal…”
Oh yes, no obsession. But he could’ve mentioned Nathan and Eileen are classical pianists. And Eileen’s 1580 SAT, not as good as her 1620 in the Big Air freeski. And Nathan being pre-med.
But that would have been like reinforcing that model minority stereotype. We need to guard against that. Let’s all just appreciate the hard work and unique world class talents of the winners.
And let’s hope that the good will spills over and helps everyone else see them as a real part of all the rest of us non-Olympic Asian Americans.
We don’t need to medal to be seen and heard as human, present and real.
We’re beyond any stereotypes. Not model minorities. Not medal minorities.
EMIL GUILLERMO is a journalist and commentator. Watch his livestream at 2pm Pacific on Facebook @emilguillermo.media; also on YouTube, Twitter @emilamok; See more at www.amok.com.