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The black Chevy Silverado pickup burbles down main street. Past the sun-faded feed and grain store, where less elegant trucks stand scarred and dusty while their owners dip snoose in the shade, comparing notes on drought damage. Past the sporting-goods store with its display of heavy handguns and shiny fishing lures. Past the church, the high school and the obligatory but somehow anachronistic shopping center, where young housewives in curlers and short shorts stride purposefully through the heat with a baby on one hip and a bag of groceries on the other. The driver of the Silverado studies the scene closely. As if feeling his eyes on them, some of the townsfolk turn and stare at the truck. After a moment, their faces inevitably break into wide country grins.
"Hey there, Kenny!"
"Hoo boy, Snake!"
The driver acknowledges them with a wave of his free hand. Actually the hand is not fully free. The big knuckles bulge around a beaded can of beer, second of the morning though it is scarcely 9 a.m. "This is home," says Kenny Stabler. "I'll die here."
The flat tone of the statement, issuing as it does from a face masked by a grizzled brown beard and mirrored sunglasses, raises questions. Does the premier quarterback of the NFL, the 1976 Most Valuable Player, the star of Super Bowl XI, whose deft passes and clever calls eviscerated the Minnesota Vikings, mean that he's outgrown his hometown? That the rustic pleasures of Foley, Ala. (pop. 4,000)—farming corn and soybeans; hunting doves, quail, woodcock, snipe and ducks in the nearby fields and sloughs; fishing bream and bass and speckled sea trout; eating boiled shrimp and fried oysters and smoked mullet; drinking more beer a day than any four Milwaukeeans; boogieing late into the night in roadhouses; racing boats and trucks, and anything else that moves, with other good old boys—is beginning to pall? That he would die of boredom if he had to live here year-round?
Not a bit of it.
"I love the place," says Stabler, gunning the motor as he hits the edge of town. "It's got everything I'll ever need. Come on, let's get some beer and go for a boat ride."
The week shot by like a long wet blur. Through it ran the sounds of Stablerian pleasure: the steady gurgle of upturned beer bottles, the clack and thunk of pool balls, the snarl of outboard motors, the whiny cadences of country music. At the end of it, anyone following in Stabler's wake would be ready for a body transplant: liver and lights, heart and kidneys, eardrums—maybe even a few new teeth.
Since it is virtually impossible to catch Stabler at rest, any portrait of him must convey his nonstop motion. To that extent he epitomizes his nickname: "Snake." Try to get, say, a blue racer in repose for an interview. All you'll come away with is an impression of flickering tongue and a sapphirine slithering through the weeds.
It began in Memphis, where Stabler was expected to perform in the pro-am of the Danny Thomas-Memphis Classic. Stabler was waiting at the airport. He was, of course, in the bar. He had been there since noon. It was now close to 5 p.m. Surrounded by reeling pals, beautiful girls and an array of empty or partially drained glassware—beer bottles, Bloody Marys, Salty Dogs, Seven and Sevens—he grinned at a newcomer. "You're late," he exulted. "Thank God. Here"—he unwrapped his thick left arm from a petite blonde, who emerged like a bauble from the shadow of his armpit—"meet Wanda." She smiled demurely, then stuck out her tongue.