Touchdown maker and red guitar picker

Published 5:22 pm Friday, April 26, 2024

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They lived different lifestyles, one as a gifted athlete while the other was among the greatest to ever play a guitar, but both had a big impact on my life.

Roman Gabriel and Forrest Richard (Dickey) Betts died two days apart last week.

Gabriel’s story is one of rags to riches. The son of a Filipino immigrant in Wilmington, NC, Roman overcame a life of poverty and illness (he suffered from asthma as a child) to become a two-time winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and two-time First Team All-American) while playing quarterback for my beloved NC State Wolfpack.

As captain of his team, Gabriel set 22 school and nine conference football records. He threw for 2,961 yards and 20 touchdowns and ran for 15 other TDs. And, by the way, he also excelled in the classroom, earning Academic All-American accolades as well.

Blessed with a strong arm, Gabriel was a hot commodity when it came to the professional football draft. Back then (1962), there was the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL). He was the number one selection in both drafts, respectively by the Oakland Raiders (AFL) and the Los Angeles Rams (NFL).

Gabriel signed with the Rams, launching a professional football career that spanned 16 seasons. Despite his collegiate success, the Rams coaching staff made Gabriel earn his place. He was a part-time starter at quarterback during his first four seasons, winning 11 games but losing 11 as well.

In 1966, George Allen took over as the Los Angeles coach and made Gabriel the primary starter at quarterback. From 1966 through 1972, Gabriel started all but two of the team’s 98 games over the stretch. The Rams won 63 of those games, highlighted by three consecutive 10-plus win seasons (1967, 1968, and 1969). He was All-Pro each of those three seasons and earned the league’s highest honor – Most Valuable Player – in 1969.

When he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles at the start of the 1973 season, Gabriel left LA as the team’s career leader in touchdown passes (154), passes attempted (3,313), and wins by a starting quarterback (74).

Saddled with nagging injuries to his shoulder and knee, Gabriel resurrected the Eagles, who improved from a 2-11-1 season prior to his arrival to a 5-8-1 record in his first season in Philly. He was selected again to the Pro Bowl and was voted the “Comeback Player of the Year” by Pro Football Weekly.

For the 1973 season, Gabriel led the Eagles with 270 completions, 460 attempts, and 3,219 yards, and 23 touchdowns (all were league highs) as the Philly offense had the most prolific passing game in the NFL.

When he retired from pro football following the 1977 season, Gabriel’s illustrious career saw him throw for 29,444 yards and 201 touchdowns along with rushing for 1,304 yards and 30 TDs.

Gabriel was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989.

His rugged good looks landed him a few acting jobs, the most notable of which was a role in the film “The Undefeated” starring John Wayne and Rock Hudson.

As for Dickey Betts, he gained national fame at the same time I was broadening my love for rock-n-roll music. It was 1969. I was a junior in high school when Betts was asked to join the fledging Allman Brothers Band. The rest, as they say, is history.

From the instant I first heard “Blue Sky” and “Ramblin’ Man”, I was hooked on the Allman Brothers.

Even the tragic death of band co-founder Duane Allman in 1971 due to a motorcycle wreck did not signal the end of the group. Now with Betts as the main lead guitarist – a role he formerly shared with Duane (if you’ll search YouTube for the song “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” you will hear a masterful guitar duel between the two talented artists) – the Allman Brothers kept the pedal to the metal.

After smash hit albums Idlewild South and Live at the Fillmore East (both in my collection), they shattered the ceiling with back-to-back Platinum certified albums: Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters (also in my collection).

On Eat a Peach, check out Betts’ soulful guitar licks on “Melissa” and “One Way Out.”

Then check out Brothers and Sisters and you’ll hear perhaps the best-ever instrumental masterpiece – “Jessica” – arranged by Betts.

Even the now late, great Charlie Daniels paid tribute to the Allman Brothers. There’s one verse in “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” – written by Daniels and released in 1974 – that goes like this:

“Well the train to Grinder’s Switch is runnin’ right on time, and them Tucker Boys are cookin’ down in Caroline. People down in Florida can’t be still, when ol’ Lynyrd Skynrd’s pickin’ down in Jacksonville. Now people down in Georgia come from near and far to hear Richard Betts pickin’ on that red guitar.”

But with the highs came the lows. Betts and band co-founder, the now late Gregg Allman, butted heads on more than one occasion. The band broke-up twice – leading Betts to strike out on his own with his band Great Southern. They released two albums, one of which is part of my music collection.

When the band regrouped, I followed along – purchasing the albums Enlightened Rouges, Reach for the Sky, and Brothers of the Road.

Betts departed the Allman Brothers for good in 2000.

At age 80, he died on Thursday of last week at his home in Osprey, Florida, located on the Gulf Coast, south of Sarasota. It’s only fitting that Osprey is located along a road made famous by Betts when he wrote “Ramblin’ Man.

“I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus, rolling down Highway 41.”

“And when it’s time for leavin’ I hope you’ll understand, that I was born a ramblin’ man.”

Dickey Betts, you may be gone, but your music will last forever.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7207.    

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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