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Kenny Stabler: Life...Full Throttle

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In a lifetime lived to the fullest, Kenny Stabler made his mark on the game and the culture surrounding it.

The man, the myth, the legend...Kenny "The Snake" Stabler
The man, the myth, the legend...Kenny "The Snake" Stabler
Michael Cohen/Getty Images

"Getting' nowhere fast...As philosophies go, it's as good as any. What counts is not 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." - Kenny "Snake" Stabler

Getting' nowhere fast...if that quote from the man himself doesn't sum up the life of the recently departed, beloved Crimson Tide legend, then there just isn't a quote worthy of him.

Seen by many as a bare-knuckled, hard-living, hell-raising stereotype NFL quarterback of a less gentle era, Kenny "Snake" Stabler was a deeper man than he let on. Deep as his beloved Intracoastal Waterway, but just as straight, smooth and simple, a man with simple wants and dreams. He wanted to play football for Coach Paul Bryant, despite the offer of a $50,000 major league baseball contract as a 17 year old boy. He wanted the cozy comforts of familiar Foley, AL more than the bright lights of the Bay Area. If he wanted a drink, he took one. If he wanted shrimp, he ate them. If he wanted a woman, well...you know the rest of that story. After all, the three divorces speak for themselves.

A lover of classic rock, Stabler's life could be summed up with equal propriety by The Eagles' "Life in the Fast Lane" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man." Such was the paradox represented by the man, as he was a man of many parts.

Even in his passing, nothing about his death could be so simple or so final. With rumors swirling, it was reported he had finally reached that cherished "nowhere" he'd been fastly chasing for all his 69 years of life. Controversy roared, as the initial reports indicated that the Lion of Foley had passed, only to be later retracted. In the end, despite the social media maelstrom, it was reported with finality that the man died as he lived, leaving this coil in a flash, surrounded by the people and things he loved, the soft refrain of "Sweet Home Alabama" ushering him on to the next set of downs.

Equal parts hell-raiser and philosopher, Stabler became an icon on many stages, from his legendary "Run in the Mud" heroics against Alabama's hated rival, to his ursine boat-racin', middle-finger-flippin' F-off rock-and-roll public persona. Stabler lived life on his own terms, open-throttle, and he didn't care what you, your pastor or your mama thought about it. He was a southern Alabama badass with a soft-heart for his hometown and those who filled it. He was one of those rare gridiron greats who transcended the field upon which he played, especially in his home state.

Make no mistake, Stabler was no angel, and all memorials aside, Ken Stabler the Man was deeply flawed. After his third DUI in 2008, even his most ardent boosters could offer no defense. But these failings, these human frailties, only endeared and deepened our understanding of the man who refused to be put on a pedestal, a man who spent most of his life proving he was an average Joe, not so much to his adoring public as to himself.

A man of contradictions, but so incredibly in tune with what it is to be alive. He was both tougher than a pine knot and as tender as a soft-shelled crab, a delicacy of his beloved Gulf Coast. A lover and a fighter, a gridiron warrior-poet who pinned back the accelerator and let it rip in each of his endeavors, holy or otherwise.

High School

Stabler was nothing if not prolific in every sport he endeavored to play in the early days of his sporting career. A gifted athlete, he was a three-sport star as a Foley High School Lion, the kind of player who buoys the entire team regardless of what season may be in vogue. On the hardwood, for example, Stabler averaged 29 points per game, which in light of the shortened periods in the high school game, is a stout average to say the least.

As a southpaw pitcher for the Lions varsity baseball team, Stabler was the staff ace, once besting future Major Leaguer Don Sutton (of Clio, AL) in a pitching duel (Snake totaled 16 strikeouts to Sutton's 14 in the latter's only loss in high school.) As a senior, Stabler won nine games (five of them shutouts) with 125 strike outs. Because of his ability on the mound, the lefty was offered a $50,000 contract by the Pittsburg Pirates as a 17 year old, and he also had contract offers from the Houston Astros and New York Yankees to boot.

But football was the Snake's first love, and it was there that he made his name. Literally.

"That was when I gave him the nickname ‘Snake,'" Coach Denzil Hollis related in Robert F. Jones' seminal Sports Illustrated profile ‘Getting Nowhere Fast with the laid-back Raiders QB Kenny Stabler.' "Back in the ninth grade...He'd run 200 yards to score from 20 yards out. Skinny as a snake, too, back then. Straight up from top to bottom and when he'd turn sideways, he weren't no thicker than an airmail envelope."

So elusive was he as a quarterback and field general that legendary Crimson Tide coach Paul Bryant had to have him on his team. Though Bryant's staff knew the priority the head coach had placed on landing the serpentine signal caller, by Snake's own admission, the die had been cast in regard to the quarterback's alliances. He preferred football over the other sports at which he excelled, and he wanted to play football for none other than Coach Bryant.

Alabama

If Bart Starr was Alabama's White Knight, the surely, Kenny Stabler was the man in black chainmail. Never the schoolboy (as he, by his own admission, was only in Tuscaloosa to play football), Stabler was the classic anti-hero: a hard-drinkin' hell-raisin' football prodigy with a flair for the dramatic nearly as big as his love of fast-living.

As a freshman in 1964, by NCAA edict, Stabler and his fellow freshmen had to ride the pine. Not that Stabler would have gotten a shot at the starting job anyway, with future NFL Hall of Famer Joe Willie Namath at the helm of the Tide offense. In Stabler's first year, he watched as Namath led the Crimson Tide to the 1964 National Championship. In 1965, with Namath a member of the New York Jets, Stabler waited once again behind next-in-line Steve Sloan, who likewise led the Tide to a national championship.

In 1966, Snake was the heir apparent to a dynasty in the making, Xerxes to Namath's Darius. He ascended to the role of starting quarterback and made the most of his opportunity. In his inaugural season, the junior quarterback completed 74 of 114 attempts for 956 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He finished the season with a quarterback rating of 152.6, which was impressive for the era. In addition, the offensive juggernaut didn't just get the job done through the air, as he rushed 93 times for 397 yards (4.3 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.

In what remains one of the Crimson Tide's best seasons to date, Stabler led the team to a perfect 11-0 record which culminated in a 34-7 drubbing of the vaunted Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Sugar Bowl. However, largely an artifact of then-Governor George Wallace's pro-segregation "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door," the Tide was passed over as National Champion, finishing third in the final poll despite their undefeated status.

If 1966 was Stabler's coming out party, then 1967 represented a definite step back. After being booted from the squad by Bryant for skipping class and majoring in the party scene, Stabler was allowed a second chance. Still, the players that surrounded him were not as talented nor cohesive as the unit he helmed in 1966, and the Tide struggled to an 8-2-1 record. Despite the somewhat disappointing season in the wake of three national championship caliber teams, the finale of the 1967 regular season would go down as the landmark moment in Stabler's career at the Capstone...specifically, the "Run in the Mud" against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Behold...

In what became Stabler's college trademark, the elusive quarterback exhibited the very quality that earned him his nickname. It also was a sign of things to come in his pro career. With Alabama trailing 3-0 in the fourth quarter against the hated Tigers on a muddy Legion Field playing surface, Stabler did the unthinkable. The Snake snaked back and forth, reversed field, slashed against the grain, split defenders, trudged, slogged and slung himself up field towards the end zone. In what would become his definitive "never quit" moment, Stabler willed the Crimson Tide to a win and concreted his place in Bama lore for good.

It wasn't just what Stabler did on the field that endeared him to his teammates, both at Alabama and beyond. A true southern man born to a small-town mechanic, Stabler knew what it was like to be the underdog, the outsider, the cast-out. He also knew that it was through endeavors such as those pursued on the sporting field that wrongs could be righted (even if only superficially), the typical inequalities of society laid level. Everybody was equally important on the team.

Such was the case following the integration of the University of Alabama, and the subsequent integration of the Crimson Tide football team. Andrew Pernell, one of the first African-American men to ever play for the Crimson Tide following the integration of the university in 1967, said that though the atmosphere in the Tide locker room was cool towards the first black members of the squad, things changed following the gesture of unity made by one Snake Stabler, as relayed by Pernell in a 2013 al.com profile of his experiences at Alabama.

"The players were never rude or hostile to us, not once. They were just distant. They didn't really talk to us much or acknowledge us...one day, Stabler just walked right up to me before he had said a word to anybody else and said, ‘How ‘bout it, Pernelli?' That always meant a lot to me. He was a guy the others looked to as a leader, and I think he made them feel like it was okay to talk to us and treat us like regular members of the team."

A throwback of a hard-living man who was ahead of his time in so many ways, Stabler's legacy at Alabama transcended football heroics. Under the gruff-and-tough exterior was a young man with a deep understanding of the human condition and the ties that bind us all.

NFL

Easily the best NFL quarterback not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Stabler personified the Raiders squad of the 1970s: gritty, tough and of somewhat questionable character.

The Raiders under the leadership of John Madden and the field generalship of Stabler, rose to become one of the most prolific teams of the mid-1970s, combining stingy defense with a never-say-die offense. With a grinding rushing attack and Stabler's gift for the dramatic in the passing game, the Raiders were a force with which to be reckoned. Stabler played no small part in their success, as together with legendary receiver Fred Biletnikoff and Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper, the Raider offense became one of the league's most feared units.

Stabler was drafted in the second round of the 1968 Draft, and for his first two years at the professional level, he played for the Spokane Shockers of the Continental Football League. He got his first chance as a member of the Raiders roster in 1970, playing in a back-up capacity, where he would stay until his first full season as the starter in 1973. Stabler was named the AFC Player of the Year in both 1974, and he once again received the honor in 1976 after leading the Raiders to a one-loss campaign and a 32-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl.

In the aforementioned Sports Illustrated article, Stabler spoke about the moments immediately following his Super Bowl win, a game that cemented his infamy as an NFL great and member of an elite group of quarterbacks. The quote not only sets the postgame scene, but it captures the epicurean nature of a man who lived life to the fullest and took joy in both life's grandest stages and simplest pleasures.

"After the game was over, for the first time I felt real happy for myself. I remember thinking that there were 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 (Biletnikoff) was crying and Coach (John) 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 Johnny Walker Red."

(As an aside, I found this interesting interview footage from Stabler's Super Bowl experience...some gems here from him and other notables like John Madden.)

He reached 100 wins in the fewest number of games in history at the time (150), breaking the mark previously held by Johnny Unitas. (Since Stabler's playing days, his mark has been eclipsed by only three men: Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady...all of whom, unlike Stabler, are in, or will be in, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.) In 1976, the Snake was also the NFL passing champion.

In his time with the Raiders, Stabler became known for the fourth-quarter comeback and his refusal to give in so long as there was a chance of seizing victory from betwixt defeat's gnarly maw. In the Raiders' 1977 AFC playoff game against the Baltimore Colts, the men in silver and black found themselves once again down late, with their chance to repeat as Super Bowl champion hanging in the balance. With seconds dripping from the game clock, Stabler engineered a drive that ended with a 10 yard completion to Casper in what came to be known as the "Ghost to the Post" play, a miraculous completion that set up the tying field goal that sent the game into overtime. Stabler salted away the victory in OT with a touchdown pass to Casper to keep the Raiders' playoff hopes alive.

Raiders teammate, guard Gene Upshaw, said that with Stabler in the huddle, the team always knew they would pull out a victory.

"When we were behind in the fourth quarter, with our backs to our own end zone, no matter how he had played up to that point, we could look in his eyes and you knew, you knew, he was going to win it for us. That was an amazing feeling."

Stabler was constantly a man in motion, whether on the field or off. As you can see in the following clip, while not afraid to tuck and run like a fullback, he was known for his accurate passing downfield, a lethal ingredient in the Raiders passing attack through much of the 1970s. (Click here to see the man in action.)

For six consecutive seasons from 1974-79, Stabler amassed over 2,000 yards passing in each campaign, which for the day, was quite prolific. In his final season with the Raiders in 1979, he posted his best stats as a pro, completing 304 passes for 3615 yards with 26 touchdowns (and 22 interceptions.) When he left Oakland for Houston in 1979, he was holder of the Raiders records for completions (1486), passing yards (19,078) and touchdown passes (150).

Though Stabler threw for over 3,000 yards in his first season in Oiler blue, Houston was not as stocked with supporting talent as his previous teams. Houston made a brief playoff run in 1980, but the team went south in '81, leading to the discharge of head coach Bum Phillips. Phillips landed in New Orleans, and he brought Stabler with him. But the Saints of that era were poverty-stricken in regard to talent, and Stabler's last few years as a pro were spent in mediocrity.

After football

Though Stabler had forecast in 1977 that, upon retirement from the NFL, he'd likely be doing "something competitive, like boat racing or car racing," such was not in the cards for the man who loved to live fast. With his easy demeanor, southern drawl and knowledge of the game on many levels, Stabler was tailor-made for color commentary. He became a commentator for CBS' professional football broadcast, and later, came home to Alabama as part of the Crimson Tide Football Network for 11 years between 1997-2008. As Eli Gold's constant companion in the broadcast booth, Stabler provided the soft-spoken compliment to Gold's brassy, over-the-top narration.

Thrice divorced, Stabler was the father of three daughters and two "grand-snakes," as described by the statement his family released to confirm his passing. He had been diagnosed with colon cancer in February 2015, and after a short battle, he sped off to the next plane, over the next horizon.

Through a particular lens, one could conclude that the life of Kenny Stabler was far too short. After all, in this era of medical miracles, even the most ill of health can transcend the age of 69. But for a man that lived life as fast as the Snake, 69 years seems just about right. After all, in that 69 years of calendar time, he lived the "average" life three or four times over. The University of Alabama nation is blessed for having him as one of the "good guys," as he would describe fellow Crimson Tiders in his radio days. Even if he was, at his core, that hell-raisin' man in black.

Going nowhere fast...like the man said himself, it may be simple-minded, but it sure is fun. Roll Tide.

(For those of you who are more inclined to video, here are a few things I found that help fill in the banks of the Snake's story. Here he talks about his 1966 Sugar Bowl win over Nebraska. Here (this one is so campy but awesome in a 1970s kind of way) you'll see the Snake in all his promotional glory. Here, Stabler connects with Ray Perkins for a touchdown against Nebraska in the 1967 Sugar Bowl. Here you will see The Snake in action against the god-awful Tennessee Volunteers. Enjoy...)