When I heard that former NFL quarterback Ken Stabler had passed away yesterday, a flood of childhood memories washed over me. And in a very real sense, I felt a tangible loss, not only of those fond, carefree days with my buddies in the 1970’s playing this game of football that we loved, but of one of my very first sports heroes as well.
The lens through which we saw the world outside of Brooklyn gave us glimpses into a different world, one where we interacted on a weekly basis with some of our favorite characters like Kojak, Archie Bunker, Laverne De Fazio, Quincy, Columbo, Hawkeye Pierce, Raj, Dwayne, Rerun and Big Shirley, Carol Burnett’s Mrs. Wiggins and Mr. Tudball, Barney Miller and Fish, along with Mr. Kotter, Freddy “Boom Boom” Washington, Juan Epstein and Arnold Horshack.
And of course, we talked incessantly about the Evans Family, scooping up Wonder Woman one day and getting some of that superhero loving, The Bionic Man, Mel’s Diner, George and Wheezie, and Lamont and Fred Sanford.
It was a daring and adventurous time in television, where the sitcom morphed into a platform for social commentary, where black faces exploded into a viable entity in America’s living rooms as shows like All in the Family, The Jefferson’s, Good Times and M.A.S.H. took the genre to a hilarious, aesthetic and thought-provoking art form in the pre-cable days of a three-network sovereignty.
But the highlight of the week for us, from September to January, during this Golden Age of network television in the 1970’s was undoubtedly ABC’s Monday Night Football.
And there was no team, and no single player, that shined on that stage quite like the Oakland Raiders and their mesmerizing signal caller, Kenny “The Snake” Stabler.
By December of 1979, Oakland was 12-1-1 on the groundbreaking Monday Night Football platform. I can’t recall many specifics about those Raider teams, but I made every effort to watch them play during the 1976 season, which culminated in their 32-14 Super Bowl XI victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
I remember Stabler being slicker than a winking, pinky-ringed, womanizing Jherri-Curled preacher in the collapsing pocket, not really evading defenders with speed and quickness but rather with a mischievous guile and cunning.
But I also remember that when his knees had been ravaged, he was an incredibly tough and accurate drop-back passer who threw darts to one of the greatest receiving corps of all time in Cliff Branch and Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff and Dave Casper.
He authored many of the most memorable moments of his era in the ‘70s.
“When we were behind in the fourth quarter, with our backs to our end zone, no matter how he had played up to that point, we could look in his eyes and you knew, you knew, he was going to win it for us,” Stabler’s Hall of Fame offensive lineman Gene Upshaw once said. “That was an amazing feeling.”
There was “The Ghost in the Post” against the Baltimore Colts in the 1977 playoffs, where he completed a late-game, 42-yard pass to Casper which set up the game-tying field goal in regulation, and proceeded to find him in the end zone with a 10-yard touchdown strike to win the game in double-overtime.
There was the “Sea of Hands”, where his eight-yard touchdown pass to Clarence Davis gave the Raiders the lead against Miami Dolphins in the waning seconds of a 1974 playoff game , a throw which magically seemed to pass through the fingertips of a number of Miami defenders.
And there was also the “Holy Roller” against the San Diego Chargers in the fall of 1978, where he purposely fumbled the ball forward so that his teammate could fall on it in the end zone for a touchdown.
During sandlot football games and contests of a game that we called, “Kill the Man with the Ball,” whenever we shook a defender out of his shoes, we’d giggle as we ran downfield, cackling “THE SNAKE!”
He was a Super Bowl Champion, a league MVP, the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year, and a member of the 1970’s All Decade Team. No quarterback, until Terry Bradhsaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady came along, led his team to 100 NFL victories faster than Stabler. In 1976, he led the NFL in passer rating, touchdown passes, yards per pass and completion percentage. He also had a league-high four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives that year, a season in which many felt that he deserved another league MVP award.
At the University of Alabama after Joe Namath’s departure, Stabler was part of the 1965 Crimson Tide national championship team and led them to an undefeated season in 1966, which included a 34-7 thrashing of Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl.
As a senior, his penchant for coming up big at critical moments was shown in the Iron Bowl against Auburn, where he scurried through a rain-soaked, muddy field for a game-winning 53-yard touchdown run. The play remains revered in Alabama football history as “The Run in the Mud.”
"I think in many ways he's one of the most misunderstood players in the history of Alabama because of what happened perhaps after he left," ESPN's and the SEC Network's Paul Finebaum told al.com's Ben Flanagan. "If you're studying Alabama history, I think Kenny Stabler would be on the Mount Rushmore of great Alabama players, and coaches for that matter. I think he's that important. I think what he stood for, in terms of being a rebel, has always been part of his legacy. I think it hurt him badly in relation to the NFL and never-ending controversy about whether he should be in the Hall of Fame. But in terms of Alabama football, I think he really comes pretty quickly after Joe Namath in terms of famous and great players."
The beauty of Stabler’s accomplishments, from my recollections as a little kid, are that they alone do not convey the man’s magic, and how he invited you to become involved with his dramatic artistry.
Today, the Raiders have become a laughable sideshow. But back in the 1970’s, when they were headlining this television revolution on Monday Night Football, Ken Stabler was one of the most intriguing and vibrant elements on a team that was one of the most colorful and endearing ever.
He was the face of the franchise during its most glorious years, a wild, tough, fun-loving, hard-living playful character in the mold of his role models Billy Kilmer and Bobby Layne, that helped to establish Oakland’s popular motto of “Just Win Baby!”
Ken Stabler was one of the players and personalities that made me fall in love with football. He was why I wouldn’t miss a Monday Night Football game. He was the reason why, when I proved to be one of the best Pop Warner football players on my neighborhood team, that I chose to wear the number 12 and play quarterback.
The Snake got his nickname long before college and NFL glory, from his junior high school baseball, basketball, track and football coach Denzil Hollis, who once said, “Back in the eighth or ninth grade, he’d run 200 yards to score from 20 yards out.”
Stabler was part of the fabric of the tumultuous 1970’s, a time of pivotal change and upheaval. He was as integral to my childhood as Star Wars, showing me that the NFL was much bigger than the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
From my young eyes, he made football fun and different. He’s one of the reasons why I love the game today. The debate about his Hall of Fame credentials and worthiness will now begin to magnify. I personally think he should’ve been enshrined long ago. He was among the best of his era, a unique talent.
"He's one of these great characters," Fox Sports' National College Football Writer Bruce Feldman told al.com's Ben Flanagan. "He was one of these guys who was a larger-than-life figure. When I saw the news, my first thought is you go back to those NFL Films, and to me that's part of an amazing legacy. He's such a unique character in NFL folklore. He was one of these guys who was just such a cool customer. Certain looking guys are looking for that "it-factor" for quarterbacks who can not only handle pressure but thrive in it. He was wired with a very specific, rare brain type that many of the top Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks had, where they're at their best in a pressure situation. He was a unique character. A lot of guys now can't be that way in pro sports just because they're limited. The guys who are that way usually don't reach the level of success Ken Stabler had."
When asked to sum up his personal philosophy in September of 1977, after winning the Super Bowl, Stabler stood among his racing boat, dirt bike, dune buggy and pickup truck in the garage and front lawn of his modest home in the Florida Panhandle, a short ride away from the Alabama hometown of his humble upbringings, telling Sports Illustrated writer Robert F. Jones, “Gettin’ nowhere fast. I like it. As philosophies go, it’s as good as any. What counts isn’t so much where you're going – I mean, we all end up in the same place – but what counts is the getting there. Kind of simple-minded, maybe, but it’s fun.”
To this day, I’m always reminded of Stabler’s legacy during Monday Night Football. When I hear the old theme song, the vision of him scrambling, throwing bombs and shooting darts is what I see in my mind’s eye.
And for a moment, it’s a brief escape into a time of innocence, a time of fun, a time of playing on the sandlot, dodging and weaving and throwing touchdown passes, of juking my buddies out of their Pro-Keds and giggling, “THE SNAKE!”