For years, Steve Gabriel served not only as a beloved teacher and coach in Watauga County, but as a father figure to many of his students and athletes.
Sammy Critcher remembers, as one of Gabrielâ€™s championship wrestlers, how the coach let the older boys use his vehicle to take the others home after practice. â€˜He was just like a daddy to all of us.â€™ Critcherâ€™s memories are just a few of many that could be shared of the selfless man who made an incredible impact upon many young lives during his illustrious career.
In recognition of his professional accomplishments, Steve Gabriel was nominated for placement in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and inducted in May.
Nearly one-hundred family members, friends, former coaching staff and athletes gathered in his honor on â€˜Hall of Fame Dayâ€™ for the Ceremony at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill.
Gabriel was one of six inducted, ironically, but not surprisingly, along with one of his own former wrestlers who returned later as his assistant coach at ASU, Watauga native, J.W. Welborn.
Known to many as John, Welborn went on to establish and build a strong wrestling program at East Carolina University for which he was honored on Sunday.
Gabriel is best remembered, perhaps, for his contributions as a math teacher, football, wrestling and baseball coach at Appalachian High School from the early fifties through the mid-sixties, with the exception of two years serving in the U.S. Navy and one year teaching in Hickory.
Gabriel founded the Appalachian High School wrestling team and started a winning tradition in high school wrestling. Under his leadership, the team never lost a dual meet.
They finished with a 140-0 record over 13 years setting a national record for the most consecutive wins, which has since been broken, but may still be a state record.
â€œWe did something no other school has done. We retired unbeaten,â€ Gabriel said.
When the final count was taken, Appalachian High School boasted a grand total of 54 state champions, many of who were among the special guests at the induction ceremony.
After the end of an era as Appalachian High School closed its door, Gabriel joined ASU as a wrestling coach, financial advisor and P.E. instructor. During his nine years of coaching at the university, he compiled an impressive 92-21 record in dual match competition and was responsible for bringing Appalachian its first National Tournament during the 1970-71 season. The NAIA wrestling tournament under Gabrielâ€™s direction was described by many of the participating coaches as â€œthe best every.â€ We are told Gabrielâ€™s team â€œdidnâ€™t do so bad, either,â€ finishing tenth out of the 140 teams. NAIAâ€™s All-American, Bruce Schlegel, one of personal level, which in turn, gave him a chance to get to know his students better.
In 1987, Gabriel was inducted into ASUâ€™s Athletic Hall of Fame and upon retirement in 1989, following 37 years of state employment, he was given the Governorâ€™s Award for Excellence.
However, Gabrielâ€™s retirement did little to diminish his involvement with the university and the community in general continued for many years. His dance instruction continued at ASU, as well as throughout Watauga Count; he loved calling square dances and did so on many occasions.
In nominating Gabriel for the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, former students, co-workers, family members and friends had much to say about him. â€œWhen ASU students were asked about persons who had made a difference in their lives, Steve Gabriel was one of the first persons they name,â€ stated Barbara Daye, class of â€™59 and retired ASU faculty member. â€œHeâ€™s a living saint! Anyone who has met Steve Gabriel can say they have seen an angel. The donâ€™t make hearts as big as his anymore,â€ said Henry Williams, class of â€™86.
His daughter, Karen Morgan, shares with the Mountain Times, â€œMy father has been a wonderful role model, not only for his children, but for many young children and students. His patience, love, caring and understanding have guided his children, along with countless other young individuals, to give life the best that had to offer.
Last year, Gabriel was inducted into the first ever Watauga County Sports Hall of Fame, an honor that Karen says, â€œHas meant a lot to him and to his family.â€Due to a progressive decline in health, Gabrielâ€™s son, Richard, assisted in the acceptance of this most recent and distinguished award on Sunday at Chapel Hill â€œDad would like to thank all of you for taking the time to come here today. It is humbling, overwhelming and heartwarming for him to see this kind of support.â€ He added that his father â€œwanted to thank all of his former wrestlers and colleagues who enabled this award to happen. â€œThe one thing he continues to say is, â€˜I could not have received this honor if I had not had such great people surrounding me.â€by Special to the LTN