"Snake" Finally Rolls "Snake Eyes"
It was cold. It was wet. It was miserable. It was November. It was 1967. It was Birmingham. It was Legion Field. It was the Iron Bowl. It was late in the second half. It was Auburn 3- Alabama- 0. I was huddled with my date under one of 40,000 umbrellas in the stadium. Ken Stabler takes the snap. He's running the option right. Alabama's right guard "tackles" Auburn's nose guard, Gusty Yearout. Stabler cuts inside, breaks right and sloshes through the Legion Field mud for fifty-seven yards. It was over!...7-3. It was my first and my lasting picture of "Snake" Stabler. He lived up to his nickname that day, slithering through the mud and striking a lethal injection into every Auburn heart. It was miserable for Auburn...but it was magnificent!
As a young high school football coach looking for a job, my desire to coach was no doubt fueled by the way Alabama's senior quarterback calmly brought his team back from what appeared to be a certain loss. Without that run, Alabama would have never been able to drive the football through the terrible conditions at that point in the game. The two teams had torn up the wet turf for three quarters. This come back may have had some effect on Stabler's ability to bring the Oakland Raiders back time and again during his NFL career. One of his coaches at the Raiders was John Madden. After Madden learned of death of Stabler on July 8th of this year, he said, "Stabler was the perfect quarterback at the perfect time in the history of the Raiders. If I had to pick one quarterback to win one game, it would be Kenney."
Ken Stabler was born and raised in Foley, Alabama. He was a multi-talented athlete who excelled in any sport he tried. He averaged 29 points a game for the Foley High Lions basketball squad. As quarterback he led the football team to a 29-1 record, three championships and garnered All-State honors. For his running prowess Ken acquired a nickname that stuck with him until this day. Called the Snake by his coach, Ivan Jones, Stabler dodged and weaved his way through opposing defenders. From my observation, the whip-like action of his left-handed delivery resembled the strike of a cobra. It was quick and deadly! He was equally as talented on the baseball diamond and received contract offers from the New York Yankees and Houston Astros systems. He later became the main left handed pitcher on the Alabama baseball team.
Stabler was signed by Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant in 1964. NCAA rules at the time did not allow freshmen to play so he watched Joe Namath lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship. In 1965 Stabler shared quarterback duties with Steve Sloan. They lead Alabama to a second consecutive title capped by a 39-28 Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska. With what is considered by many to be the best Tide squads of all-time, in his junior year, Stabler and his teammates rolled to an 11-0 season again in 1966 finishing with a win over Nebraska, this time by a 34-7 margin in the Sugar Bowl. However, in the final polls the Tide was placed third behind Notre Dame and Michigan State. This caused quite an uproar in Alabama, it even became the subject of an entire book about the '66 team called "The Missing Ring".
Stabler's senior season ended with an 8-2-1 record in 1967. Coach Bryant suspended Stabler during the season for breaking team rules. It was not the first time he had been in Bryant's dog house. Even so, Bobby Johns and Stabler were elected captains of the 1967 team. Ken was honored with All-SEC and All-America selections in '67. During his Bama career Stabler completed 180 of 303 passes (59.4%), 16 of which were for touchdowns. He also rushed for 838 yards on 365 attempts and scored nine more touchdowns.
Stabler's professional career began in 1968 when he was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the second round of the draft. He did not make the team in 1968 so he played in a minor league called the Continental Football League until he was brought back to Oakland in 1971. By this time Stabler had matured physically. He played at 6' 3", 215 lbs. and still maintained the agility that had made him so successful. Aided by a stellar receiving core that included Cliff Branch, Dave Casper and Fred Biletnikoff, he quarterbacked the Raiders from 1973-'79. At the age of 31 Stabler and his teammates won Super Bowl XI, 32-14 over the Minnesota Vikings before 103,000 fans in Pasadena, California. He was named the AFC Player of the Year in 1974 and 1976. The Associated Press selected him NFL MVP in 1974. Stabler won the Hickok Belt in 1976 as professional athlete of the year and was named to the Pro Bowl '74, '76 and '77. Stabler was traded to the Houston Oilers where played the 1980 and 1981 seasons. He finished his professional career after three seasons with the New Orleans Saints. He played in 184 games completing 2270 out of 3793 passes for a 56.3 completion percentage with 194 touchdowns.
Stabler worked as a color TV commentator for CBS and TNT and had radio shows in Oakland and New Orleans. He worked eleven years as the color analyst of the University of Alabama football radio broadcasts. He was selected by Alabama fans as the quarterback of the century along with Joe Namath in 1992. He was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in the class of 1986. In 2006 he authored a children's book titled, Roll Tide! He resided in the Gulf Shores, Alabama area and was a frequent event speaker and held an annual charity golf event.
His friends, teammates and coaches will be anxiously awaiting his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame, which is long overdue.
For a man as talented as Kenny Stabler was, his full potential was never totally realized. His constant disdain for the rules got him in a lot of trouble. His run-ins with Coach Bryant were well known. Coach Bryant was known as a strict disciplinarian, but he was also a realist. A player had to be pretty dad gum special in order to get a second chance, much less a third chance. However to his credit, Bryant did everything possible to help Kenny develop as a man and as a player. Without Bryant's recommendation, Stabler would not have been drafted in the second round of the NFL draft. He was not really considered an outstanding NFL prospect. His running skills outweighed his passing skills.
Maybe "wild" would be one way of describing Stabler. My assessment of Stabler after all these years is that he was what is referred to as a "free spirit". That's not necessarily a bad term as long as one knows where to draw the line. Many complications in the life of Kenny Stabler could have been avoided by drawing the line. Even during his last days battling cancer, I don't know for sure if he ever found that line. Maybe he did.
In Ken Stabler's sixty-nine years, his exploits at his beloved "Flora-Bama" on "Red Neck Riviera" are part of the folk-lore of Gulf Shores. His life style never seemed to affect his performance on the field. He was a fierce competitor. You almost had to chop his head off to beat him. However, I will always believe that if he had taken better care of himself he would still be with us. Today... sixty-nine sounds young. It is uncanny to me that Kenny's best teacher, Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant died at the same age in 1983. I considered sixty-nine to be old back then.
The "snake" rolled the dice thousands of times in those sixty-nine years. This time they turned up "snake eyes".