The legend of Kenny Stabler
An in-depth look at The Snake from Peter Richmond's new book, Badasses
Stabler left football for a year early in his career, but came back to be a star
Stabler played hard off the field, but when he was on it he had laser focus
Excerpted from "Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders" by Peter Richmond. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.
Three games into the 1973 season, behind Daryle Lamonica, the 1-2 Raiders were a team adrift. They'd played twelve quarters without scoring a single touchdown. The following week they'd face Don Coryell's explosive St. Louis offense, which was averaging more than 25 points a game. The division title was, suddenly, no longer a given. A playoff-less season? Unthinkable.
"We were struggling," Madden admits now, splayed at a table in his office south of the city, in windbreaker and khakis, eager to reach back and revisit the week when the climb to the top first began. The quarterback position obviously had something to do with the problem. Kenny Stabler, after three seasons as an apprentice on the bench, wanted the starting shot. Nine months earlier, in the first round of the playoffs, he'd come off the bench with six minutes left to lead the Raiders to the apparent winning touchdown against the Steelers -- until the Immaculate Deception erased his rally from history.
But Stabler hadn't forgotten that last-minute drive -- nor had many of the Raiders. "Kenny should have been the quarterback as early as 1971," says one of his teammates now. "There was a constant sense on the team that Kenny should have been playing. Daryle was a different personality. He wasn't really a Raider, and that made it hard for him. It was a situation where there was a lot of anxiety, angst on the team. Daryle liked to run around and shoot lions or something. He was a big-game hunter. Kenny liked to hang at the bar, chase girls, and have fun:" The Badass pedigree.
A few days after that third game, an impotent loss to the hated Chiefs, Snake walked into Madden's office. "We were struggling, and he was pissed," says Madden now, with a laugh. "He said, 'I don't want to wait until the game is over and have to do the mop-up s---.' He thought he should be the starter.
"`Well, you have to do something' I told him. `You're not going to come in here and talk me into starting you. You have to show me. You have to show the team that you should be the starter. What are you doing? You're not showing anyone."
That week in practice, imitating Cardinal quarterback Jim Hart, and running Coryell's wide-open "Air Coryell" offense, Stabler picked apart the Raider defense. "He started to practice with a chip on his shoulder," Madden says. "Maybe I watched him more closely after that. And I started him. And he just came in and took over. I said, 'Holy S---.'"
The next week, Stabler led a 17-10 defeat of the Cardinals, and Gene Upshaw gave Stabler the game ball: the first of five straight Raider victories, including a game against the Colts in which Stabler completed 25 of 29 passes for more than 300 yards, including, at one point, 14 completions in a row. Snake was not only talking the talk, he was walking the walk.
Stabler started the rest of the season -- and the next seven years: bombing, scrapping, dinking, dunking and scrambling on the field, blond hair flapping from beneath the helmet, and, off the field, studying the playbook by the light of a jukebox, at Gene Upshaw's bar, at Al's Cactus Room, at all of the dimly lit dives where the Raiders loved to unwind. He became the master of the fourth-quarter comeback. His unrestrained love of life off the field knew few bounds, but on the Coliseum turf, he developed into a Zen master in the huddle, always at his coolest when the situation was at its most desperate. "This is our time," he'd say, to the ten men surrounding him. And none of them doubted it. Starting with that 1973 season, he engineered five straight conference championships -- and, in 1976, the franchise's first Super Bowl.
Through al those years, the Badasses intimidated, clotheslined, pounded opponents until the blood spurted from behind the facemasks. They won with talent, and they won with intimidation. But there was only one king of the Badasses.
"We were lovable renegades," Ken Stabler says now. But he's really talking about himself.
Five years earlier, the spring of 1968. The Raiders' second-round draft pick stands smack at the corner of Haight and Ashbury: the future of the franchise, wearing an Alabama letter jacket, soaking in the fragrance of pot and patchouli, the forests of wild hair, the tie-dyed ensembles of the street musicians.
"That was the first time I went out there," Stabler remembers, with not a little fondness. "(Personnel chief) Ron Wolf took me. I don't know why. Honest to god. The second stop was Telegraph Avenue" -- over in Berkeley, the heart of the student revolution. Today, Wolf doesn't remember why he chose that locale, either. But isn't it logical? He and Al had drafted a kid with more than a little Badass anarchy embedded in his rural Southern roots; after all, like Namath before him, Snake had been suspended for his antics at Alabama. What better way to welcome the kid to the silver and black than to bring him to the epicenter of joyous rebellion?
But six months later, in the autumn of 1968, Stabler found himself standing in middle of a minor-league park, several hundred miles to the north of the Coliseum, metaphoric worlds away, wearing the colors of the Spokane (Washington) Shockers of the Continental Football League, a team named not for its potential to intimidate, but for a different kind of Shocker: farmers gathering sheaves of wheat.
The Sugar Bowl MVP two years earlier, he was now playing for a team named for a grain. Throwing a football in minor-league practices so half-assed and clueless that he'd fade back and see offensive linemen running down the field for passes alongside his receivers. He was a $50,000 bonus baby with a four-year contract -- after having turned down Major League baseball offers in high school -- now playing in front of a few hundred people, against ...well, who remembers? Was it the Oklahoma City Plainsmen? The Quad Cities Raiders?
"It wasn't exactly the Coliseum," he says now. "You're in Spokane. And you ask yourself, 'What the hell are you doing here?'" Technically, he was getting a tryout. Davis and Madden wanted to see if the kid's knee would hold up, the knee drained of bloody fluid after every game of his senior year at Alabama. He completed 17 of 41 passes in two Shocker games and returned to the Raider injured-reserve list. This was not the path he'd envisioned. And the man who'd reigned supreme for all of his adolescent life began to have doubts about whether the strength of his arm could meet the demands of the NFL.
And so in the spring of 1969, he now stood in the parking lot of San Francisco International Airport, having borrowed a teammate's car to get to his flight home: he was quitting the team. He had lost confidence in himself, for the first time in his life. "I couldn't play the way I wanted to play," he says now. "I couldn't be the athlete I wanted to be. I got frustrated with that. I got frustrated with being separated from my wife. So I took off. Back then, I was capable of throwing it all away."
Year two for the Crimson Tide phenom: wasted -- a world-class athlete suddenly stripped of his strut. But the man who coached this rebel team of misfits, outlaws and athletes knew that everyone deserves a second act. So finally, one year later, Snake stood in front of John Madden, pleading for one more chance at the Raider spring workouts. The coach they affectionately called "Pinky" had always prided himself on treating his players like people, not slabs of meat. On this day, John Madden was entirely sympathetic to Stabler's plight: he was a kid. He'd screwed up. He wanted one last chance. He deserved it. And he'd always had something that the stats can't quantify: he had always known how to win.
"We went through all the reasons I'd left," Stabler says now. "Then he said, 'You want to come back and make things right? Come back on the team.'"
This time, he stuck. Madden let him play three quarters in the first exhibition game against the Colts. He tool some violent hits -- and, on that day, earned the respect of his veteran teammates. Snake had finally come home to stay.
Looking back, the fact that Snake was still standing at all was a little surprising.
"He did live life hard," says Raider linebacker Monte Johnson now. "Kenny kept the pedal to the metal."
"Just stay in the fast lane, and keep moving," Stabler wrote in his autobiography, Snake. "You cannot predict your final day, so go hard for the good times while you can."
He grew up outside of an Alabama town called Foley, 4,000 strong: corn and soybean country. In high school, he averaged 30 points a game in basketball, fielded those major-league offers as a pitcher, and, as the starting quarterback, won 29 of 30 games. And, like many a high-school kid, he had a taste for the suds. Blame the beer for the time he kicked out the light on top of a police car -- but even that indiscretion carried a promising football subtext: to pay back his dad, who had to pony up for the damages, he was given a construction job by an Alabama alum.
"I don't know that I was wilder than most," he says now. "I don't know that I did what other kids don't ...But there has to be a fire in you. I don't know if there's a wildness ... but I think inside of you there has to be something that makes the fire burn harder than others'."
He was the son of a complicated, mood-swinging, deep-drinking, and occasionally violent man named Leroy "Slim" Stabler, ace fix-it and auto mechanic, whose taste for the bourbon brought out a dark side that the son would never forget. "He was a war veteran," was all Snake would tell me. "He didn't peel potatoes. He killed people. And those war demons ..." He let the sentence go unfinished. Slim Stabler never lived to see his son wear the silver and black. He died of a massive heart attack when Ken was still in college.
Growing up, Stabler idolized the famed late quarterback Bobby Layne, a man known for his hard-drinking ways almost as much as for his football prowess for the Lions and Steelers in the '50s and '60s. "Maybe I wanted to be that kind of player," Stabler says. "You don't have to do the conventional things the night before. It doesn't matter as long as you did it the next day."
Was he striking out at disbelievers as he grew up? Was he trying to prove a point to the doubters? "I don't know if maybe I was fighting out against everything. You just go and do it, regardless of what people think. Sometimes it's the fact that you were the kind of kid who always had issues. Sometimes that makes you play better. Sometimes it made for a chip on the shoulder, an 'I'll show you' attitude. You take it out on the field, you take it out playing sports. You think about the things you go through coming up, the hard times, the adversities off the field ...
"I started my life third and long," he says now, in the voice of a highly intelligent man who can now reflect, with perspective, on the vagaries that life deals out, the twists and turns. "I skipped practices. I got kicked off my high-school team. I got kicked off my college team. I left pro football in 1969. I've had third and 15 my whole life. Everybody's had rocky moments from day one. But sometimes you pick up third and long, and that's where you make your money. That's where the satisfaction comes, from the game and from life."
"He was a million years old," says Betty Cuniberti, who covered the Raiders for the San Francisco Chronicle, and who counts herself a true Stabler fan. For all of the girl-chasing, Stabler (unlike some of his teammates) treated Cuniberti like a gentleman. And what she recalls, above anything else, was a weathered, mature wisdom born of a road well-travelled. "He came across to me as someone who knows suffering. And he kind of understands that."
Snake's particular skills? All innate. "I didn't study in front of film, like a Peyton Manning. I went out and played the game. But remember: it was a simpler time, and a simpler game. The defenses weren't sophisticated. John would give me the playbook at the Wednesday-night meeting. But I didn't study the game." He didn't have to. He had the gift of reading a defense in an instant, and relying on pure instinct.
Start with the quick release. Any Stabler fan remembers the eyes darting all over the field, the ball held out in the left hand, poised and primed for flight; once he saw an opening, the ball would be out of there in a flash. "The whole thing is seeing it, reading it, deciding where you're going, and getting it on its way," says Madden. "He had that quicker than anyone. He was amazing."
"Kenny," says Pete ("Rooster") Banaszak, "was the most accurate thrower. If you wanted the ball between the four and the zero, he'd put it there. If you wanted it in the ear hole, Kenny could put it there."
"It sure didn't have a lot of velocity on it," Stabler says now, with a laugh. "But I think accuracy is the thing that's overlooked, and underrated. That was my game. It's not just a high completion percentage, or quickness of release. It's where you put the ball. I had a pretty good knack of putting the ball where I wanted."
He also arrived at the right time. When Lamonica started out, defenses generally played man-to-man coverage, and a quarterback with a big arm could exploit that scheme. But in the early '70s, defensive coordinators began to turn to zone coverages, and against a zone, the strength of your arm didn't matter as much as your ability to anticipate the openings in the zones -- and your ability to exploit the openings when they appeared. Stabler loved the cerebral challenge.
"It was kind of a fun chess game between the offense and the defense," Stabler says. "The idea of calling the plays, of matching up, that's the part I enjoyed the most, and John let me go do that. There were times he'd be ranting and raving, 'I need a play! I need a play!' I'd just stand back and let him rant and rave, and then when he was done, he'd look at me and say, 'What do you want to do?' I'd say, 'I'd like to do this,' and he'd say, 'Then go do it.'"
But accurate quarterbacks are hardly an anomaly. Teammates and coaches insist that it was Stabler's serene demeanor on the field, in the huddle, on the sideline, that distinguished him from any other quarterback. Snake may have lived wildly on the nightly circuit of Raider taverns, but on the field he was laser-focused.
"The bigger the situation, the calmer he got," Madden says now, "which was a great combination with me, because I was just the opposite. I was intense. If everything were normal, and we were ahead, he'd get bored. He had to have his ass to the fire to get really focused in on something. That's when he really got focused in. Instead of getting excited and tight, he'd get calm."
Madden vividly recalls a moment near the end of the memorable 1977 playoff game against Baltimore, which went into six quarters. "I was thinking of a play to call, or three plays. 'We'll do this, or this' I said. So anyway, he was listening to me, he had his helmet cocked up, and he was taking a drink, and he says, 'I'll tell you one thing,' he says. I thought what was coming was, 'Let me throw this, I'll get you a touchdown.' Instead he says, 'These fans are getting their money's worth today.'"
Equally impressive to his offense was Stabler's egalitarian attitude: he never stepped over the fine line from teammate to commander. He never pulled rank. The most critical thing anyone can ever recall Stabler saying in the huddle, after a brutal sack, was, "That ball sure attracts a crowd, doesn't it?"
"I want to tell you what I never saw him do," says tackle John Vella. "I never saw him chew guys out. He never once said, 'You should have run here.' Never did I see Stabler single a guy out. It was always just like 'All right, next play.'"
"He was usually the one guy in the huddle who wasn't talking," says Bob Moore. "In the huddle, it was always Upshaw talking, or someone else -- well, primarily, Upshaw talking and someone responding to Gene. Meanwhile, Kenny is as quiet as you can be. Calls the play in the same voice in the fourth quarter as the first quarter. Same guy starting the game as he was at the end. Same guy as he was in practice. All kinds of things would be going on around him, and he'd be as calm as he could be. Strangely calm."
"I learned a lot from the way Madden would always put it in perspective," Stabler says. "He would always say, 'Don't get too high, don't get too low.' There's a calm plane, a middle plane. in there. Win, lose, hurt -- you can't get too low over it. Put it in perspective."
Perhaps Slim Stabler is the source of his son's famous cool. A hint comes from a passage in Stabler's book. "I was made up of Slim Stabler's genes," Stabler wrote. "I had to guard against ever losing control the way he did. ... Maybe that's why, from way back, going for the good times became such an important part of my life. Having fun, I could not be set upon by anything like Slim's demons."
"How could he not be in the Hall of Fame?" asks John Vella now. "Are stats everything? Ask the Steeler defense in the '70s. The best defense. Who would they have not wanted to face? Ask the Dolphin No-Name defense who would they not want to face in the clutch. That says it all. They would say to a man, 'We don't want to face Snake.'"
These are the lifetime NFL stats of Namath, his fellow Alabaman, who was inducted into the Hall in 1985: 62-63-4, with a lifetime completion percentage of 50.1, 173 TDs, and one conference championship game, and one Super Bowl. These are the stats of Snake, including his final five mediocre years with the Saints and Oilers: 96-49-1, with a completion percentage of 59.8. And 150 touchdowns. And one Super Bowl. And five conference championship games.
Perhaps we can chalk up the Hall of Fame's cold shoulder to Stabler's final years, with New Orleans and Houston, although Namath suffered an anticlimactic end-of-career, too. Or to the low-profile media town he played in. Or to the Raiders' legendarily nonexistent publicity machine. Maybe it was the team's ultimate results that kept him from the Hall: so many flirtations with greatness, year after year, but not enough rings.
Or perhaps the team's outlaw image has worked against him. So I ask him: Did all the partying keep this team from greatness? Did the Badasses' renegade reputation, their unrelenting love of a well-lived life, make any difference in the long run? Did his own?
"I don't think it made one ounce of difference," he answers, quickly, with conviction. "How can you say that? Look back at the five championship games. At how I led the league three times. You're part of so many key plays. How can you possibly say, 'Well, if I didn't stay for that last call, got in earlier, do this, do that, then maybe I'd have gone to six?'
"I would never second-guess. I can't do it any other way. I did it that way. That was me."
To purchase a copy of Badasses, The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death and John Madden's Oakland Raiders, go here.