Hours before her son Dillon is to step on the football field to lead the UCF Knights, Dori Gabriel gets an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. It’s the same feeling she’s experienced each time her son takes the field to compete.
She calls it her pregame ritual.
“Probably around noon or so, depending on the time of the game, I just start to feel sick to my stomach,” Dori said. “… I usually don’t eat because I’m so overcome and I’m so excited that when we get to the game and hear the music and the introductions and the coin toss — I literally want to jump out of my skin because there’s my son there with all this pressure and I know how bad he wants to deliver a victory with his team.”
It’s been 21 months since Dillon Gabriel first set foot on the UCF campus as an early enrollee, joining the football program after a successful high school career in Hawaii. Gabriel impressed his teammates and coaches, so much so, he was named starting quarterback as a true freshman during the second week of the 2019 season.
Gabriel’s journey to becoming the leader of the Knights’ offense as it chases another conference championship spans more than the 4,700 miles between Oahu and Orlando.
Love of the game
Dillon Gabriel’s passion for football began at an early age.
As a toddler, he could be found on the sidelines watching his older brother, Garrison, play Pop Warner football. Those moments would spark his interest and desire to step on the field and play the game.
“Dillon would be around him at practices putting on pads,” said Garrett Gabriel, Dillon’s father. “You could just tell he was eager to play and I knew he would love it.”
Dillon begged his mom for football pads just like the ones his brother got to wear.
“All you could find were those costumes," Dori recalled. "Online, the only one I could get was this Green Bay Packers outfit. None of us are Green Bay Packers fans and it’s not designed to take hits. As soon as it came in the mail, he put it on, and he would not take it off.”
Dillon began playing organized football 8 years old, but not without some stipulations.
“I was so hellbent against it,” said Dori, who watched her eldest son begin play at 10. “I told my husband, he’s too young and my husband said, ‘This boy loves the game, let him play.’ The deal that we made was, I said, ‘Then you must coach. I want to make sure you’re able to protect him.’ So, my husband did.”
From that moment on, Garrett knew his son would never be the same.
“Once we got him into organized football, it was crazy because it was like letting a dog out of the cage,” Garrett said. “He’s always had the knack for it.”
Added Dori, “It’s always exciting as a mom to have your children find something they love and Dillon has always loved football."
Dillon quickly took to the preparation needed to play the sport.
“He would always have his equipment ready the night before," Dori said. "His shoes out, his socks laid out. Everything ready and I think it speaks to his love of the game. He’s that intentional about it because he loves it so much. He wants to do well, and he knows it takes preparation.”
It’s a trend he continues to this day.
“Back when he was 3 or 4 and now that he’s 19, he has things lined up. His shirts laid out and lined up on the bed. What he’s supposed to wear to go to the hotel. He has everything organized and that’s just the way in which he works," she said.
Like father, like son
Garrett Gabriel loved to play basketball.
It was his first love, but he eventually found his way onto the football field.
“I started by playing on the offensive line myself and then they would put me in to throw deep balls and whatnot,” recalled Garrett. “I think in eighth grade, I actually played a full season at quarterback and then went to my high school and ended up starting on [junior varsity] and varsity [teams].
“I was sort of late bloomer rather than be a quarterback at a young age."
After a successful preps career, Garrett found his way to the University of Hawaii in 1986, where his family was able to continue watching his games.
He spent five seasons with the program, eventually earning the starting quarterback job in 1989. It was a difficult transition for Garrett, who played in a run-and-shoot offense in high school, but now was expected to guide a Hawaii offense that switched to the triple-option under new coach Bob Wagner.
‘“OK, well worst-case scenario, I don’t play and I get a free education,'” Garrett said of his thought process during the switch. “It ended up working out and I got to start for two years, which wasn’t too bad.”
Garrett played in 34 games for the Rainbow Warriors and ranks fifth in school history with 5,631 passing yards and 47 touchdowns during his career. A highlight of his career came at the expense of former BYU quarterback Ty Detmer, who Garrett got the best of during Detmer’s Heisman Trophy season.
“Back home, the Hawaii and BYU rivalry was huge," Dillon said. “We would always put that BYU film on and he beat Ty Detmer during the season he won the Heisman. Personally, I won’t be a BYU fan because of it. I’m with my dad on that one.”
There are a few photographs and trophies of Garrett’s playing days around the Gabriel house, not that the children needed any reminders of their father’s exploits.
“My husband is not one to gloat," said Dori, who began dating Garrett in high school. “He hates when I bring stuff up about UH.”
Garrett never pushed his sons to follow in his athletic footsteps. He left that decision entirely up to them.
“He never guided me to one sport," Dillon said of his father. “Growing up, I played baseball, basketball and football.”
Garrett may not have pushed his children to play football, but he was happy to support Dillon when he came to him with questions about how to improve.
“They would always talk Xs and Os," Dori said. “My husband would have a composition book and they would draw out [football] plays. Even when they would watch TV, whether it was pro games or college games, Dillon and dad would always be watching and my husband would say, ‘Do you see what they did right there?’ They would always be talking about it constantly.”
When Dillon entered Mililani High, his focus was on baseball and football. He eventually chose to stop playing baseball in order to save his arm for football. He would eventually step into the starting role vacated by friend and future UCF teammate McKenzie Milton.
Dillon’s mix of talent and work ethic helped him set Hawaii’s high school career passing yardage record, eclipsing former Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and earning Hawaii player of the year honors.
Happy to be a Knight
Dillon’s parents agreed they didn’t want him to follow in his father’s footsteps to the University of Hawaii, deciding programs on the mainland would provide him better opportunities.
USC, Georgia and Army were heavily recruiting Dillon, but when he visited UCF, Dori knew her son had found a special place.
“His reaction told me everything,” Dori said.
She supported his decision to pick the Knights, even if that meant upsetting some people.
“It was hard to tell [Georgia coach] Kirby Smart no,” recalls Dori. “I was nervous and it was hard for me to tell him no.
“I just knew that UCF is where his heart was.”
They were grateful Milton and his mother were around to provide support for Dillon far from home.
When the UCF campus shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic in March, Dillon returned home to Oahu to be with his family. He upgraded the family gym in the garage and worked out with his younger brother, Roman.
Once restrictions were lifted and Dillon returned to campus, his parents made plans to visit as much as possible.
Dori and Garrett have traveled to see Dillon play and they were at the first three games this season. Garrison Gilbert, Dillon’s older brother, also moved to Orlando and shares an apartment with the quarterback. It provides a bit of comfort knowing he’s not far from family.
“We’re so blessed that we can be there as often as we are," Dori said. “To be able to watch him, I love watching him play with the brothers on that field.”
‘Blessings and lessons’
In the moments following UCF’s 34-26 loss to Tulsa Saturday night, Dillon didn’t shy away from taking responsibility for his team’s performance.
“It’s on me. I’ve got to get better,” Gabriel told reporters several times.
Dori isn’t surprised by her son’s willingness to assume blame.
“I think that came from my husband as well — that quarterback mentality,” Dori said. "It’s the wins and the losses — or what we like to call in my family, the blessings and the lessons. It’s not losing, it’s learning. You have to accept them both gratefully. The same grateful heart that you received the blessing of the win is the learning from the loss.
“My husband isn’t one to gloat about our son, he’s very honest about performance and accountability and I think that’s why Dillon takes it so seriously. He understands the role of quarterback, why it’s important to fall on the sword and say, ‘This one was on me.’”
Garrett warned his son people want to assign blame when a team struggles and usually that blame falls on the quarterback.
“There are times where I would tell him, 'They’ll blame the quarterback no matter what. It’s you and the head coach [who] are going to take [the blame]. Sometimes you guys get too much success, too much credit and you guys always take too much blame for a loss.”
It didn’t surprise him to hear his son accepted responsibility for a Tulsa loss that featured extensive mistakes by many players on the team.
"He takes it off everybody. He tells me, ‘Dad, I can handle it. I can’t have my guys lose confidence’ — especially the center [Matt Lee], who he loves. People see it differently and they want to blame individuals.
“He gets it. He knows he could have played better.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Matt Murschel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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