Even in 1968, when Stabler first appeared on the Oakland Raiders' roster, he was snake-slim—6'3" by 185 pounds. Now he weighs 215. "I've been working with weights," he says. "You can't play quarterback in the league at anything under 200 these days. The stronger you are, the more muscle you got around those joints, the less likely you are to get hurt."
In high school, Stabler actually achieved greater renown as a baseball player than for his football skills. He was a smoking southpaw pitcher who, with a mediocre squad, won nine games in his senior year, racking up 125 strikeouts and five shutouts on speed alone. The only loss that Don Sutton of Clio, Ala. ever suffered in high school was a 1-0 game to Stabler and Foley, with Stabler striking out 16 and Sutton 14. "When I was 17," Stabler says, flatly, not boasting, "the Pittsburgh Pirates offered me $50,000 to sign. But by then I'd gotten to like football. And I wanted to play for Coach Bryant. If it hadn't been for sports, I wouldn't have gone to college. My dad was a mechanic in a garage up to Foley, and I'd have followed him, I'm sure. I went to college to play football, not for education. That may have been wrong, but that's the way it was. I always wanted to play pro ball, and I've done it." He finished up the pitcher of beer. "Come on, let's get out on the water."
En route to the Bear Point Marina, where Stabler moors his V-hulled, 150-hp outboard racing boat, Boogie, he pulls to a stop beside a dank, reed-grown tarn. A chain-link fence surrounds the pond, and a neatly lettered white-sign proclaims CHARLIE.
"Charlie's a 12-foot alligator, something of a local celebrity," says Stabler. "We'll see if he's home." He rattles the fence and hoots a few times, but the big 'gator doesn't appear. "Maybe he's taken a stroll into town for a Big Mac," says Stabler. All that moves in the black water is a soft-shelled turtle the size of a manhole cover. As Stabler is about to climb back into the truck, a police cruiser brakes to a stop behind him. Out jumps Chief James E. Maples of the Gulf Shores heat—the headquarters is located just beside the 'gator pond. Maples, stout and bouncy, insists on showing Stabler his latest set of pictures.
Inside the office, he produces a sheaf of Polaroids depicting Maples in a soldier suit, armed with an M-16 and various other weaponry, standing before what appear to be blazing bales of hay. "We got 17 tons of grass off that cabin cruiser yesterday," he says. "Buncha damn hippies runnin' it up from Mesko, I do believe. Hayull, I stood right in the middle of it when it was burnin' and didn't feel a thang." As he flashes the photos like a new parent with baby pictures, one wonders what got him so high.
"Shucks, the Chief jest gets high on work," says Stabler as he drives away. "He's a dedicated man, Chief Maples is." There's a wry twinkle in the blue eyes, crows' feet at the corners of the broad, bearded face.
The Intracoastal Waterway, rimming the Gulf from Texas clear around to the Florida Keys, affords Stabler and his boating buddies with an all-weather playground. Even when gales are blowing outside the barrier islands that protect the Waterway from the Gulf, the seas inside are flat enough to run wide open at 70 mph. It's hazardous sport, what with mile-long strings of barges being threaded by their tugs through the serpentine, buoy-marked channels, but Stabler loves nothing better than jumping the wakes of the barges or running flat out beside them and making commerce look like it's standing still. He's doing it right now.
"Here he comes." says Bobby Holk, a young, pale-haired engineering grad from Auburn and—despite the rivalry between his school and Stabler's alma mater—a good boating buddy. "Roger's gonna whip him, though, you watch." The two racing boats appear from behind a barge train, Stabler in the lead and Roger Tyndal coming up fast behind him. Roger is a farmer—corn, mainly—but with the spring drought working havoc in the Deep South he has little to do. His corn tassled out at knee height. No ears. Hardly worth saving for silage. So Tyndal might as well spend the day racing.
The boats close rapidly, hulls angled up clear of the water, screws lashing the channel. The sound comes on like a swarm of giant killer bees. Just as Holk had predicted, Tyndal's boat—with an added 50 hp—snaps Stabler's up as soon as they reach flat water beyond the barge wake. Stabler shakes a fist in mock frustration, then the two leap one another's wakes as they head for the next marina.
"That's how we do it," Stabler says after he ties up at the Shelter Cove Marina. "We race around on the Waterway, and stop at all the marinas. There's about 10 or 12 of 'em between where I live and the end of the line, down there below Gulf Shores. Good way to travel, gettin' nowhere fast."