Sometimes after a parent-teacher conference, but more often when a Super Bowl rolls around, the question comes up:
"Mr. Gerela," high school students inquire of their teacher, "do you really have three Super Bowl rings?"
And when Roy Gerela nods a humble acknowledgment, sometimes they are still disbelieving of their now 63-year-old teacher.
"I tell them, "’Google it and see for yourself,’" Gerela says.
With Pittsburgh in tomorrow’s Super Bowl XLV and the Steelers’ championship lore a renewed topic of discussion, the name of one of Hawaii’s most decorated NFL players has enjoyed a renewal more than 30 years later.
The 1965 Kalani High graduate and current 11th-grade history teacher and assistant football coach at Gadsden High in Anthony, N.M., is himself something of a historical figure, having been the place-kicker on Super Bowl IX, X and XIII championship teams in the Steelers’ glory years.
In an 11-year NFL career, Gerela was a two-time Pro Bowl pick, twice led the AFC in scoring, was named to the Steelers’ 50th anniversary All-Time team and, in a real rarity for a kicker, had his own rabid rooting section in Pittsburgh. Alongside iconic running back Franco Harris’ "Franco’s Italian Army" there were "Gerela’s Gorillas."
Gerela is perhaps best remembered in Super Bowl tales for a touchdown-saving tackle of the Cowboys’ Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson after a 48-yard return of the opening kickoff off a reverse from Preston Pearson in Super Bowl X. Gerela suffered two broken ribs and then gingerly kicked two field goals and an extra point in the 21-17 victory.
"But you rarely hear much about any of that from him," said Carey Chambers, Gadsden’s principal. "He’s a modest, private person."
Except when it comes to inspiring his students, who are largely drawn from a low-income farming area between Las Cruces, N.M., and the Mexican border. For them, there are heartfelt exhortations to "follow their dreams and shoot for the stars," as Gerela puts it.
Gerela’s life story has been proof of that. Born in Canada, where he was raised on hockey and soccer, Gerela was suddenly plopped into Honolulu in the 1960s to live with a married sister after the death of his parents.
Sports were his outlet and he excelled in baseball and football at Kalani. But while he punted, kicked off and played defensive back and fullback, curiously he never kicked field goals or extra points for the Falcons.
That didn’t come until his sophomore season on scholarship at New Mexico State and only by happenstance. He saw Pete Gogolak revolutionize the position with a soccer-style kick.
"I used to play soccer and I thought, "Hey, maybe I could do that, too," Gerela said. With some encouragement from his brother, Ted, who played at Washington State, Gerela began kicking on his own before practice, soon catching the eye of NMSU coaches, who encouraged him to keep coming early to kick.
Two years — and many long, solitary hours on the Aggies’ practice field — later he was the third-round draft choice of the Houston Oilers.
"Like I tell the kids, everything in life is reachable," Gerela said.
Even a Super Bowl ring, or three.
Reach Ferd Lewis at email@example.com