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RBR Reading Room: Snake

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I had already proclaimed Snake to be "an epic literary experience" based solely on its cover (I got the one on the left, by the way), and darned if I wasn't pretty close to the mark. Ok, maybe epic isn't the best way to describe it, but compared to the last "autobiography" of a former Bama quarterback I reviewed it was a refreshingly candid read. Whereas Namath attempted to charm his audience into buying the image he was so good at selling without revealing the slightest hint of who Joe Namath really is, Stabler is admirably forthright in discussing everything from his upbringing to his years of infamous carousing.

Consider his handling of his father, whom most know only from the chilling episode discussed in The Missing Ring in which a young Ken Stabler is forced to hurry home after receiving a panicked phone call from his sister. Stabler finds his father, an increasingly moody drunk, seated in the family's living room with a shotgun across his knees swearing that he's going to kill all of them and then himself. Whereas Namath glossed over the painful memories of his childhood (Kriegel's excellent Namath: A Biography points out numerous instances in which Namath either glossed over or simply ignored his parents' painful divorce, an early and traumatic experience that informed much of Namath's upbringing and views towards marriage), Snake is open and honest about them, recounting even other instances when the elder Stabler threatened his family and the fear and anxiety that it caused him. But he's also quick to paint a picture of why his father was such a large figure in his life and why, even though young Ken was painfully aware of the role alcohol played in his father's worse moments, he still chose a life in which drinking would play a significant part. Much like Snake, the elder Stabler was a fun loving sort who enjoyed sports, music, fast cars, and, most of all, attention. Reading about him one might swear they were reading about Ken Stabler, but unlike the quarterback we all love today, Slim never achieved the success and stardom his son would see during his lifetime, and despite being a well respected mechanic that provided a comfortable (enough, at least according to Snake) living for his family, he always felt that he should have been able to better provide for them. It was supposedly his greatest shame that his wife was forced to work instead of being able to stay home with the children, and although Snake insists the rest of the family never wanted for anything and were perfectly happy with their station in life the elder Stabler let it weigh heavily on his mind, turning to alcohol and lashing out at his loved ones when he was feeling especially bitter. We can get the sense that Snake could have easily followed this same path if not for football (a sport he refused to even try until his father promised to buy him a car if he would try out his junior year of high school), as he professes that both men possessed an unending need for action and fun to keep their minds from torturing them. Slim, sadly, never found the financial success that his son managed and the alcohol, which initially fueled his fun loving nature, eventually destroyed him at the age of 45 while Snake went the opposite direction, still needing the action of sports, fast cars, and faster women to keep from driving himself crazy, but without the bitter burden of unfulfilled dreams that ultimately doomed his father.

Of course a significant portion of the book, written shortly after his retirement from football, dealt with Stabler's time in the NFL and the antics of he and his fellow Oakland Raiders that made them legendary. Again, Stabler is open and honest, never trying to diminish or justify their hedonistic behavior (though thankfully providing only anecdotes instead of salacious details), instead treating it with the good humor of someone who managed to make it long enough to look back and marvel that he ever got away with such foolishness. Amidst the gossip, though, Snake manages to provide a great overview of his career in the pros, from winning the Super Bowl with the Raiders to his days with the Oilers and Saints, not only touting his own abilities and achievements but also praising his many teammates and their roles in them. Stabler always made an effort to get to know his teammates wherever he went, memorizing the roster portion of the media guides for both the Oilers and Saints before joining each team so he could get to know every player and make sure they knew he didn't hold himself above anyone else on the roster. That attitude was more often than not the biggest reason he was so successful in the pros, and especially on a team like the Raiders where every player was considered a renegade screw up that couldn't make it on any other team. By fostering a team unity from the top down and making sure that everyone else knew he was counting on them as much as they were counting on him, Stabler knew they would put that extra effort into each game. In fact, his teammates in Oakland respected and liked him so much that after he was traded to the Oilers, the bone crushing Raider defense sacked him seven times in one game without once laying a serious lick on him, instead wrapping up and taking him (relatively) gently to the ground before offering a hand when the whistle blew. Stabler was most appreciative.

The tale ends shortly after Stabler's decision to retire, a humbling affair that came quickly after injuries and age dropped him to third on the depth chart in New Orleans, and with the recent marriage to wife Rose Molly. Since no other biographies have been penned that covers his years outside of football (at least for now), Snake is pretty much it. At only 300 pages it was a quick read (I started it in the Birmingham airport and was 20 pages shy of finishing when we landed in Seattle), and Stabler's easy humor and storytelling made it an easy read as well. Long out of print, used copies of Snake are still available on Amazon for dirt cheap.