"After the game was over, for the first time I felt real happy for myself. I remember thinking that there are only about six quarterbacks who have ever won the Super Bowl, and now I'm one of them. A great feeling, a great release, an ego balloon. Freddie was crying and Coach Madden was all red and grinning and guys were hugging each other like a bunch of fruits and pouring champagne over each other and then I suddenly had this tremendous urge for a great big plate of scampi and a bottle of Johnnie Red."
On Friday night, the mayor of Foley is hosting a barbecue in Stabler's honor—a build-up of sorts for the big festivities of the night to follow. On Saturday, Stabler will submit to a "roast" in the civic auditorium. There, for $12.50 a plate, the local citizenry can watch their favorite son get insulted, maligned, slandered, humiliated and otherwise dumped upon by a panel of experts. The roast is for a good cause, though: a new field house for the Foley Lions high school teams. Anyone with the scratch can attend the roast, but the mayor's barbecue is by invitation only. The mayor of Foley is Arthur Holk, a sprightly slat of a man, an inveterate fisherman and boatman who owns much of the prime real estate in adjacent Gulf Shores. Mayor Holk is the cousin of Bobby Holk, Stabler's boating and 8-ball buddy.
The guests circulate under Japanese lanterns and electric bug-zappers on the spacious grounds of the mayor's house, wreathed in the smoke from sizzling steaks, munching freshly boiled jumbo shrimp and corn on the cob. It's an odd contrast in groups: on the one hand, the Foley upper crust, matronly, Rotarian, with cash-register eyeballs; on the other, the Stabler gang, raffish, sunburnt, hard of hand and piratical of glance. Two new arrivals add another element to the scene. Pete Banaszak and Tony Cline, a defensive end who played six seasons with the Raiders before being traded across the Bay to San Francisco, have showed up for the roast, and they plan to accompany Stabler to his Week-long football camp near Selma. Banaszak and Cline are clearly on their best behavior. They've been in the air most of the day, flying in from the Coast, and are much the worse for wear. "We started drinking before we got on the plane," laments Cline, "and then we had to wait two hours in the Pensacola airport before Kenny remembered to send someone to pick us up. Where's that steak?"
Stabler, too, is the model of decorum. Freshly showered and deodorized, wearing crisply pressed slacks and a shiny open-necked shirt of many colors, he "Ma'ams" the ladies and "Sirs" the gents with the utmost deference. His voice is mild, an octave or so higher than when he's shooting pool. The smile is tentative, almost shy. But the bad-boy twinkle, though a bit disguised, still lights his eyes whenever he gets off a double entendre at the expense of the stuffed shirts. Wickedly Wonderful Wanda clings to his arm with dutiful, downcast eyes. Every now and then she looks up and winks knowingly behind his back at one or another of the Stabler entourage.
Stabler's house, just over the Alabama line at the tail end of the Florida Panhandle, and half an hour's drive from Foley or Gulf Shores, was stripped to the bare minimum of furnishings by his most recent divorce. A painting of a tiger glares from the wall of the empty dining room. A lone couch adorns the living room. The refrigerator is stocked mainly with beer and white wine (the latter for the Wickedly Wonderful one). In the den, things are a bit homier. Team photographs depict him as a Foley Lion, a 'Bama Crimson Tidester and a young, beardless Oakland Raider. In all of them, he is wearing his "barbecue face," and, thinking back, one realizes that all the photos of Stabler except the candids show him as shy and self-effacing. They do not capture the driven playfulness of the man.
The garage and the yard, though, tell a different story, in the garage are fishing rods, tackle boxes laden with lures, leaders and hooks; a bench rest for the barbells with which he works out three days a week; a Honda MR-250 Elsinore dirt bike; a glossily flaked dune buggy; his four-wheel-drive pickup truck. Out on the Bermuda-grass lawn, resting in its cradled trailer, the Boogie looks like it's still moving at 70 mph. And down at the Bear Point Marina, not yet ready for the water, is his latest acquisition: a tunnel-hulled racing boat that should leave the V-hulled Boogie gasping in its wake—and Roger Tyndal's boat as well. "I picked up the tunnel-hull cheap from a boy over near Mobile," Stabler says, his voice firing with eagerness. "I'm going to fix her up—needs a little glass work here and there—and paint her real nifty, and then hang a big Merc on her. I reckon she'll go 80 plus."
If a man can be assessed by his possessions, and particularly his attitude toward them, then Ken Stabler is a man in motion. Furious, violent motion. Exultant motion.
"Gettin' nowhere fast," he says. "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."
You hear, the roadhouse before you see it—the amplified four-four beat of country music pounding like surf through the woods, silencing the bullfrogs, setting the beards of Spanish moss dancing on the trees that fringe the two-lane blacktop. The parking lot is jammed with pickups, most of them costly 4-WDs with customized paint jobs. Men reel and glare and slosh beer on themselves as they stagger around the veranda—skinny, sunburnt men in Levi's and workshirts, with scuffed cowboy boots and baseball caps cocked back on their foreheads to reveal the badge of the farmer: that blanched expanse of skin where the cap has shaded the face, babyhood pallor above the sun-blackened snoose-bulging jaws. Half shot with drink, they wear the faces of Confederate dead in Mathew Brady photographs.
Stabler and Wanda disappear into the musical melee. A pair of Stabler's friends, J. B. and Glen Campbell (distantly related to the singer, says Glen), belly up to the bar. They are joined by Henry Pitts, Stabler's attorney, who flew in from Selma for the barbecue and roast, and Henry's wife Sister. Pitts is the paragon of Southern hospitality, a witty, well-read man in his late 30s who, from his small country-lawyer office in the heart of the Cotton Belt, handles all the arrangements for Stabler's travel, endorsements and guest appearances—no easy task with a subject as whimsically peripatetic as Stabler. It's always amusing to watch Pitts introducing his wife to a stranger: "This is mah wife, Sistah." "Your wife's sister?" "No, mah wife—Sistah!" ("It always draws a double take when we check into a motel," he says.) Her real name is Mary Rose.