Kenny Stabler learned he had colon cancer in February. He was in Phoenix, Arizona, where he had been renting a home since the fall of 2014 so he could watch his two grandsons play football for Chaparral High School. One is a receiver. One is a defensive back. Stabler called them his “grandsnakes.” In January, he had called Kim Bush, his partner for the last 16 years of his life, and told her of a consistent pain in his stomach.
She now suspects it had bothered him for months. Bush, who works in Mississippi, told Stabler to go to the doctor, something he avoided. She had made him numerous doctors’ appointments through the years. “And he would always cancel them,” Bush said, not so much with sadness, but with the annoyed tone women can take when discussing stubborn men in their lives. This time, Stabler went to the doctor. Scans were done. Bush flew to Arizona to go with him to get the results.
It was cancer, Stage 4. Stabler was told he had two years.
The way home from the doctor’s office in Phoenix took about half an hour. Stabler drove. Bush sat in the passenger seat. She is an attractive woman, in her late 50s, with an olive complexion and dark hair, and as they traveled the interstate, toward both home and the unknown, she looked out the window. Her eyes met a jagged line off in the distance, where mountaintops joined the Arizona sky. Bush was raised Catholic, and during a silence she said to herself and to any higher deity that may exist, “Let this be a peaceful journey.”
They told no one except the closest of family. Not good friends, not former teammates Stabler respected, certainly no one in the media. Despite being an iconic football player known for his flair, he was always a deeply private man, especially with matters of health. It was rooted in a Southerner’s sense of independence and masculinity, and Stabler took it to a superstitious level. Even John Madden, the coach he once said he would play for anywhere, was never told of the colon cancer.
When a reporter on Raiders.com later asked Madden why he thought his former quarterback had not mentioned it to him, Madden relayed a story. During playing days in Oakland, Stabler never wanted teammates to see him getting injuries treated after games. Madden arranged it so his star could come to the team’s facility late, after the other players had left for the night, to meet with the team’s trainer. “He didn’t want any of his teammates to ever see him in the training room,” Madden said. “And I think that probably followed him through life.”
Stabler told his three grown daughters, Kendra and Alexa and Marissa. He also called his sister, Carolyn Bishop, in Alabama, and told her of his diagnosis. While her big brother was still on the phone, she had a “good little cry” and after gathering herself, asked what the plan was.
“He told me, ‘I’m going to give it hell,’” she said. “‘I’m going to give it all I got.’”
In early March, Stabler and Bush went home to Gulfport, Mississippi, where they had lived together about six years. There, about three miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Stabler dug in for the fight of his life. “We knew we were facing an uphill battle,” Bush said. Every other week, Stabler would sit in his favorite leather chair for the chemotherapy. It sapped his energy. His appetite was not much. He would need three days to recover from a session before feeling like himself again. Bush said he never complained.
One afternoon Bush got home from work. In the foyer were several cardboard boxes that had been opened and strewn about. On each one was the word “Everlast.” Puzzled, she called out to Stabler.
“What’s all this?”
“I’m going to start working out,” he responded.
He had bought some boxing equipment — a speedbag and a heavy bag — and he set them up in the garage, beside a stationary bicycle. For the next four months, when he had the energy, Stabler walked alone into the garage and threw punches until he couldn’t throw anymore. Faced with his own mortality at 69, that is how he responded. By balling up his fists and swinging.
“In his mind,” Bush said, “he was going to beat the hell out of cancer.”
The fight lasted until July 8, 2015, when Stabler died at a hospital in Gulfport.
The news made it to the world prematurely and awkwardly when the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News tweeted out a draft of Stabler’s obituary before verifying the story. It was a minor thing. The paper apologized, the death was soon confirmed, and the mourning began. It felt fitting, though. Stabler, known since he was a teenager as “Snake” for his ability to elude trouble on the field, remained, in death, ever elusive.
Remembrances and condolences to his family spread across social media.
Gridiron heavies issued statements of respect.
Nick Saban, head football coach, University of Alabama: “I think anyone who had the chance to get to know Kenny would appreciate the great person he was and the pride he had for the University of Alabama. I have had the chance to be around some of the best to ever play college and pro football, and Kenny may have been one of the greatest competitors to ever play the game.”
Mark Davis, owner, Oakland Raiders: “The Raiders are deeply saddened by the passing of the great Ken Stabler. He was a cherished member of the Raider family and personified what it means to be a Raider.”
John Madden, member, National Football League Hall of Fame: “I’ve often said, if I had one drive to win a game to this day, and I had a quarterback to pick, I would pick Kenny.”
But the words posted by common fans — people who over the years knew him only from a stadium’s seat, through a TV screen, from postgame stories — showed his death shook loose, for some, echoes of cheers from a place they believed was long gone.
“Felt like I was punched in the gut.”
“RIP Kenny. I remember you playing when I was a kid.”
“My hero is gone and my heart is broke.”
“Saw you throwing the ball with a small kid (probably your grandson) in the park one day. All I kept thinking about was how I wanted to be that kid.”
“Some of my favorite times with my dad … watching those games with the Snake.”
And this: “You made growing up fun.”
Tim Russell, who grew up with Stabler in Foley, Alabama, told me: “I don’t mind telling you, I openly cried. I openly cried.”
Russell played on the Foley High School team in the early 1960s when Stabler was the quarterback. A former mayor of Foley, Russell is a Baldwin County probate judge today. He counted Stabler as a friend late in life, and during a conversation in October he said something that explained why Stabler’s death registered so deep for so many who saw him play, how a little part of them left when he died.
“We all loved Snake so much,” he said. “Snake could beat anything, you know? It was going to work. We thought he could always pull it off.”
Russell was not talking about Stabler’s ability to pull off victories, which he did more often than not at every level of the game. He meant his ability to take the piss out of any anxious or uncomfortable moment, his way of talking back with attitude to life’s pressures. Somewhere the Southern poet James Dickey says, “You are bound, my hunch is, to make it just fine.” Stabler walked that sentiment, and always seemed to make it just fine.
Old teammates and coaches tell of the moments on the field that have become part of the sport’s mythology.
The time in 1977 when the Oakland Raiders were in Baltimore, in the second overtime of a playoff game against the Colts, and during a timeout, Stabler, with a faraway look in his eyes, said to Madden, “These fans are getting their money’s worth today,” before throwing a game-winning touchdown. The time in 1983 with the New Orleans Saints, and the team was down one point in Atlanta, and he led the offense to the Falcons’ 18-yard-line with seconds left. The Saints’ kicker was a 23-year-old Morten Andersen and as he took the field to attempt his first possible game winner, Stabler leaned over and said, “Hey, Morten, let’s go home.”
He met life, away from the games, with the same understated, swashbuckling swagger.
The time in 1967 when, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a girlfriend, driving him home after beers, inadvertently popped his Corvette’s clutch, sending the car through a business’s front glass window. Later, after he had taken the wheel, backed the car out through the wreckage and driven his date to Smith’s Motel, a Crimson Tide teammate knocked on the door and said the police were looking for him. He responded, “Whatever it is, it’s going to have to wait.” The times late in his life, when people would bring up his absence in the National Football League Hall of Fame, and express disgust, and just before pushing the conversation a different direction, he would shake his head, smile and say, “It’s not going to change the way I put my socks on tomorrow.”
The centerpiece of those stories, the man who shouldered a devil-may-care attitude when others only dreamed they could, was being buried in the ground at Foley, Alabama, near his parents, and people simply could not believe it. Not that he chose to be laid down at home, they understood that. They could not wrap their hearts around the idea that Kenny Stabler, the coolest fucking quarterback to ever play the game, had gone down and this time would not be getting back up.
Stabler played football from 1961 to 1984. Find the footage of him on the field in the 1970s, when he played for the Oakland Raiders. Those clips will help you understand. That golden left arm, cocked like a pistol, holding the ball back, his eyes, somehow both calm and frantic, surveying the field for a flash of silver and black and a sliver of space that said “fire.” That sweat-drenched hair falling out from under his helmet. Those rickety, old man knees he slid across the pocket on, always just enough, even in his 20s. That suggestion of a gut — everyone, frankly, hoping it was borne of beer — pulling tight the bottom half of his No. 12 jersey.
And that shit-eating grin. It is nearly cliché now, propped against the NFL’s mythology, but that grin is one just returned from wicked times in an exotic port of call: The lure it holds is the same now as when we were young, dreaming of being buccaneers.
Set those images against the stories that sprang in his wake — training camp hangovers in Santa Rosa; Playboy Mansion parties at 4 a.m. the week of his only Super Bowl appearance; the studying of playbooks by the light of the jukebox — and Stabler’s figure was sharply cut as a renegade sprung from south Alabama just looking for fun.
The temptation is to see him as a frustrating character in a Guy Clark ballad, someone whose passions keep him grasping at failure but who, by dumb luck, succeeds. Cue acoustic guitars, a worn chorus sticky with hope, a late verse sing-along rising above beer bottle clatter.
Stabler’s tune never sounded that way to me.
I hear it more as a plugged-in, two-minute punk song, a blast of DIY attitude and dogged revamped twang. All Bay Area rock and black leather wrapped in Baldwin County roll. The same game produces losers and winners alike. The important thing, then, the thing that lasts longer than the final score, is the way you finish, the way the final chord rings out when you’re gone. Dave Casper, a tight end who played with Stabler in Oakland, told Paul Zimmerman, a former Sports Illustrated writer, “I don’t think (Stabler) ever cared about losing. Winning is fine. Losing? So what? He’d rather win the gamble and force a pass in there. He’d rather do it the hard way.”
When he played, people wanted to watch. When it was done, they wanted to remember.
What gets lost in the reality-swallowing myth is his play. Every year that Stabler started the majority of his team’s game — from Foley High School, to the University of Alabama, to the Oakland Raiders, to the Houston Oilers, to the New Orleans Saints — he only finished with a losing record once: 1981, when he went 5-7 as the Oilers starter. He quarterbacked Oakland to five straight conference championship games. He led the team to a win in Super Bowl XI behind a workmanlike 12-of-19 passing performance. He twice led the NFL in touchdown passes. He twice led the league in passing completion percentage. He was named the league’s MVP in 1974, and when the NFL put together the 1970s all-decade team chosen by the Hall of Fame Selection Committee he was one of three quarterbacks included.
Roger Staubach got the most votes. Stabler tied with Terry Bradshaw. No one else got any — not even Bob Griese or Fran Tarkenton. Staubach and Bradshaw are in the Hall of Fame. So are Griese and Tarkenton.
For decades after Stabler left the game, people would bring his successes up. Stabler, his hair white, would mention some of the Hall of Fame teammates he played with, and say, “I had a great car to drive.”
It was not all high times and smiles. Any car kept in top gear will be beset, at times, with engine trouble, and Stabler was not immune. During his playing days, there were two divorces. His celebrity attracted some undesirable acquaintances: Someone who thought they were a friend in the late 1970s planted cocaine on a prying reporter’s rental car in Alabama and scandal ensued. Some believed Stabler was responsible. Stabler always said he was not involved, though late in life he would say privately he believed he knew who was, but offered no names. Around the same time, the NFL investigated when allegations of too-tight affiliations with a New Jersey bookmaker arose. (Nothing much came of that, except Stabler was reprimanded by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and sued NBC, receiving an undisclosed settlement.) And there was a feud with Al Davis, the late, enigmatic force behind the Raiders with enough grudge-holding ability to make a Roman emperor take a knee.
Following a tough 1978 season when Stabler threw 30 interceptions and Oakland finished 9-7, Davis publicly pointed at Stabler as the problem. Stabler demanded to be traded. Following a 9-7 season and 22 more interceptions in 1979, Davis obliged, sending him to Houston.
He spent two years with the Oilers, then two and a half with the New Orleans Saints, before retiring months before his 40th birthday. Pictures from the Louisiana years show a man who trimmed down, more measured gambler than daring pirate. His once-full face had fallen a touch and his hair had thinned, and began the gray turn. In the end, he slipped down a losing team’s depth chart.
The last time Stabler made a crowd hold its breath while he played football was Sept. 16, 1984, in a game the Saints played against the 49ers in Candlestick Park. There, not far from the Bay where the myth was first made, the old Snake flashed.
The Saints were down 17-0 when the team’s starting quarterback, Richard Todd, after three interceptions, was benched. Stabler replaced him. At 39, he led the team to 20 straight points, throwing two touchdowns and setting Morten Andersen up for two field goals. Then the 49ers, behind quarterback Joe Montana, came back to win, 30-20. An ending had cracked open.
In a book Stabler wrote with writer Berry Stainback later that decade, he remembered the game fondly.
“On that note I should have packed up the battered, raggedy pair of shoulder pads I’d been wearing since 1968 and said goodbye,” the books reads. “Rodger Bird, a Raider defensive back from Kentucky, had given me those pads that were now held together by nothing more than tape and history — much like myself.”
Stabler played, briefly, and with little success, in two more games that season before retiring. He later told Larry King, “I think I stayed 18 years old for 10 years.”
Trying to separate Stabler’s myth from the man, I looked Rodger Bird up and found him living in Henderson, Kentucky. He is 72. One afternoon I called to see if the shoulder pads story was true.
The Oakland Raiders drafted Bird in 1966. He had been a fine running back and kick returner at the University of Kentucky but professional coaches turned him into a defensive back. He lasted just three seasons because of a shoulder injury that originated at Kentucky, where his head coach, Charlie Bradshaw, was famously fond of grueling practices.
“I took some punishment,” Bird said. “That injury … it cut my career in half.”
Bird’s last season in Oakland was Stabler’s first: 1968. Both Southerners, they shared a friendship. Bird described Stabler as a “good ole Southern boy who could get along with anybody in the room.”
During Bird’s brief career, the Raiders had given him special shoulder pads to accommodate his left shoulder — the one that was damaged. When he retired at 25, after two surgeries had not fixed the gimpy shoulder, his pads went to Stabler, who threw left-handed.
“Kenny said those shoulder pads felt real good,” Bird, his old voice rising with humor, said. “Rather than go out and buy some more, they just gave him mine.”
After retiring, Bird went home to Kentucky, where he spent falls hunting deer in his native state’s western woods. Stabler, back in Oakland, became a legend wearing his old pads.
They kept in touch. The last time they visited was 2008, when a handful of former Raiders gathered after their teammate Gene Upshaw’s death. Bird said Stabler was, as always, a joy to be near.
When the conversation turned to Stabler’s death in July, Bird said: “I sit here and think he’s not with us anymore and I just about can’t make it real.”
Kenneth Michael Stabler was born in Foley, a small Alabama town near the Gulf Coast, on Christmas Day 1945. His mother, Sally Stabler, was a nurse. His father, Leroy “Slim” Stabler, was an auto mechanic who favored Chevrolets. His sister, Carolyn, was five years his junior, and there were no other siblings. Even after Kenny Stabler’s life reached into the outer limits of sports stardom, she always just called him, “Brother.” He called her “Lu Lu.”
A family friend described them as “good folks,” salt of the earth people, a fine stamp in the South. It means something specific: Honest people bound by their word. They were in church every Sunday.
Stabler played baseball, basketball and football for the Foley High Lions. He averaged 29 points a game in varsity basketball. As a pitcher on the baseball team, he once pitched opposite Don Sutton, a future National Baseball Hall of Fame member, and won. It was Sutton’s only high school loss. The Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees sent scouts, and there were five-figure offers.
“Thankfully, he didn’t take them,” Ivan Jones, the head coach of the Foley High football team during Stabler’s time, said.
Jones is 89 today. He has lived in Foley for more than half a century. He was the high school football coach from 1955 to 1968. The Lions play home games today on Ivan Jones Field and Jones, speaking from his home recently, talked about a young Stabler’s abilities — fluid feet, uncanny accuracy — like the old coach he is.
“Well, he could throw going to his right as well as he could going to his left,” he said, noting that that sort of player makes a coach’s job easy. “He was a tremendous athlete.”
The team at Foley High was small, comprised of 35 players or so. Most weekdays, as the players left practice, worn and dirty, a familiar, wiry man who stood 6 foot, 5 inches tall would be there applauding their efforts, not by rote, but singling them out, one by one, for small, individual successes. This was Slim Stabler. His work as a mechanic had him going in and getting off early. He often watched his son’s practices from the sidelines.
He was a hard-drinking, moody man haunted by memories of his service in World War II. There was often a strain in his relationship with his son, whose rebellious nature came early. Sometimes Slim Stabler brought him to his job. The goal was lessons on discipline, work ethic and equality: A working-class man whose ancestors had come to America from Germany in the 18th century as indentured servants had no intention of passing along the ways of racial segregation that marked that place in time. Slim Stabler, when many fathers did not, taught his son everyone, no matter skin color or background, was equal.
The father also sensed football might take his son to college and into a future brighter than a mechanic’s. When a young Kenny Stabler harbored dreams of signing with a pro baseball team and was drifting toward the diamond, Slim Stabler bought a ‘54 Ford for his son on the condition that he continue playing football.
Kenny Stabler inherited from his father a love of music and fast machines, and kept at football.
It was at Foley High where he began wearing No. 12. Jones guessed there was no significance to the number. The quarterback ahead of him — Lester Smith — wore No. 11. Jones figures that when Stabler came along they simply handed him the next available jersey number.
It was also at Foley High that Stabler was tagged with the nickname he would carry his entire life. A coach named Denzil Hollis, who still lives in Foley but today is battling Alzheimer’s disease, watched Stabler run a punt back 60 yards for a touchdown during a junior varsity game. The path Stabler took was about 200 yards long, and Hollis, watching from the sideline, said, “Damn, that boy runs like a snake.”
After he posted a 29-1 record in three seasons at Foley, Stabler, who stood above 6 feet, was being recruited by college football teams. Carolyn said everyone around town believed her brother would go play at Auburn University. Then Bear Bryant, the coach at the University of Alabama, came from Tuscaloosa and sat down in the Stabler household.
The place Bear Bryant holds in football lore is understood to the point that too wide an attempt to describe it might only serve to diminish his stature. Suffice it then to share what a former University of Alabama running back named Ed Morgan said: If an auditorium was packed and Bryant walked in undetected through a back door, before anyone in the crowd knew why, the place’s air would tighten, voices would soften and backs would straighten.
Despite many stories of how it played out, Jones said he always understood Bryant’s pitch to a high school Stabler was simple: “Son, we’ve got to have you.”
In Tuscaloosa, the legend began.
Stabler’s nickname followed him the 230 or so miles north from Foley to campus and Snake, during his junior and senior years, went 19-2-1 as a starter, including the undefeated 1966 season. People still talk about the 53-yard “Run in the Mud” he made to score the winning touchdown in Alabama’s 7-3 victory over Auburn in 1967.
That same year, during spring practice, five African-American players broke the Crimson Tide’s color-barrier and joined the team as walk-ons. Andrew Pernell, a compact wide receiver from Bessemer, was one of them. In a 2013 profile on al.com, he described being welcomed, but held aloof, by the team. The ice broke, he said, following a small gesture Stabler made.
“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 O.K. to talk to us and treat us like regular members of the team.”
People who knew Stabler then say he carried himself with an infectious confidence on and off the field. He never seemed uncomfortable. He always seemed in control. And he kept a cool car, said Tim Russell, a University of Alabama student then. People were drawn to Stabler’s lead, and to him in general. During finals week players would gather in each other’s dorm rooms in Bryant Hall. A crowd often gathered in Stabler’s room, but not to open books, to hear Stabler’s stories.
“Snake probably kept me from getting a B rather than a C a few times because it was a lot more interesting to listen to his stories than study,” Morgan, who today is the chief executive officer of the Mississippi Department of Revenue, said.
Morgan shared the Crimson Tide backfield with Stabler for two years. The quarterback could enjoy himself on Tuscaloosa nights, and Morgan witnessed it — it was he who knocked on the door at Smith’s Motel following the Corvette crash. But on the field, Snake ran things as Bryant intended them to be ran, and it came easy. The teammates who sweated through the practices alongside him, who know how the uniforms and bruises felt, still get awe in their voices when remembering how he played.
“You cannot develop a talent like that,” Morgan said.
Ray Perkins was a wide receiver on those Crimson Tide teams. He went on to play for the Baltimore Colts and become the head coach of the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There are stories and stories of Stabler, he said, and most show a person who enjoyed having fun. “That’s the way he lived his life,” Perkins said. Then he added: “But he demanded the people around him play at a high level, and he demanded it from himself.”
During Perkins’ career, he caught footballs thrown by Joe Namath, Steve Sloan, Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall and Stabler. He is 74 now, back home in Mississippi, and talking of those old quarterbacks recently, he got to Stabler, and said, “He was the best to play with.”
The Oakland Raiders, fresh off a loss in Super Bowl II, drafted Stabler in the second round of the 1968 draft. Within months, he quit and went back south.
The public story is his knees, wounded at Alabama, would not get right, and he struggled to adjust to the pro game, arm strength having never been a high point of his game. He was also a 23-year-old newlywed with a child. Homesickness set in.
Stabler retreated to Alabama and settled in Selma, where his then-wife’s grandmother lived, and got a job at a sports radio station. In the spring of 1970, he decided to give Oakland another try. A local attorney named Henry Pitts helped him back onto the Raiders’ roster.
Pitts, after lunch at the Selma Country Club recently, described how it played out.
“This is just speculation on my part,” Pitts said, “but he felt like he wasn’t getting a fair shake.” He mentioned Stabler’s troubled knees, and the fact that Daryle Lamonica, who had a cannon arm and was known as “The Mad Bomber,” was entrenched as Oakland’s starter at the time.
Pitts and Stabler flew to Oakland to meet with John Madden, the team’s new head coach. Along the way, Pitts told Stabler to let him do the talking. At the team’s facility, they walked in to talk with Madden, who was sitting behind his desk.
“I had never met the man,” Pitts said of the former offensive lineman. “And he was about as big as a bear sitting there. I said, ‘Coach, Kenny wants to come back to the Raiders.’ Madden said, ‘I don’t take quitters.’”
At that point, Pitts said, Stabler spoke up and said, “I’m not a quitter, coach.”
Madden excused himself, and left the room. Pitts said he later understood that the coach went to the facility’s first floor and told the secretaries to lock the doors, because he was about to “get Kenny Stabler back.”
Stabler’s sole role for several years was as placeholder for the team’s kicker, George Blanda, then in his mid-40s. He griped about his lack of playing time, about his only needing a chance. Blanda, who had lingered for a decade on benches in Chicago before becoming, at 33, a regular starting quarterback in Houston, would have none of the complaining. He knew what it was like to wait.
In 1973, the wait ended. Stabler started the majority of Oakland’s game at quarterback that season and won eight games. For the rest of his time in Oakland, he won at least nine a year. Through the decade, the Raiders became a menacing, intimidating group of winning misfits and Stabler was their unquestioned leader. Along the way, his hair grew long, a beard covered his face, his thin frame filled out and off-the-field stories filled the notebooks of reporters.
The writer Peter Richmond wrote a book about those Raider teams titled, Badasses. Stabler, during an interview with Richmond, said, “It was a great time, and we’ll always have it. It was the greatest team to play for. There was a love for each other … a great bunch of characters. A great band of personalities. A fun-loving band of rogues. You played for John. You played for Al. You played for a city. You played for each other. You played for a great, big-hearted football team. What else can a football player ask for? It always stays with you. I loved being part of it then, and I love it now.”
Stabler’s falling out with Al Davis ended his time as a Raider. For decades they did not speak. Then, in 2009, Stabler, attending a Raiders game versus the New York Jets, exchanged brief pleasantries with Davis. On the plane ride back to home to Alabama, Stabler decided he wanted to meet with his former boss. The following summer, in Oakland for a celebrity golf tournament, Stabler arranged a meeting.
Kim Bush was there.
She remembers Davis, in his 80s, stooped and using a walker, asking if she was an “Alabama girl.” She told him she was from Biloxi, Mississippi, and Davis, an English major at Syracuse University, mentioned Neil Simon’s play, “Biloxi Blues.” He called her “Ms. Biloxi” the rest of the meeting. It lasted an hour and a half.
An initial chill between the old owner and quarterback eventually warmed when the conversation turned to those 1970s teams. At one point, Davis motioned at Stabler’s Super Bowl ring, looked at Bush and said, “He should have more of those.”
“You’re probably right, coach,” Stabler said. “I should have stayed.”
It was a subtle peace treaty. Then Davis said Stabler should be in the Hall of Fame, and added, “I need to do something about that.”
Davis died a little more than a year later and Stabler, though a finalist in 1990, 1991 and 2003, has never been elected to the Hall of Fame.
It’s an infamous discussion point — should Snake be in? His supporters point at his Super Bowl XI ring, five straight conference championship games and the fact that he is one of only three quarterbacks who played in the 1970s who are in the all-time top 50 of completion percentage (59.8 percent). His detractors point at the fact that he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in nine of 15 seasons, the hot-and-cold nature of his game, the lukewarm stretches in Houston and New Orleans, and, despite playing with four Hall of Famers on offense in Oakland, only one Super Bowl.
Stabler believed what voters held most against him was the mess involving the cocaine and California reporter, and the lingering effects of the New Jersey bookmaker link. But he did not linger on it. Marissa Stabler, his youngest daughter, said when talk about the Hall came up, he would “shut down that conversation.” He wanted it, but would not advocate for it. He wanted to remain humble, and not let that define his career.
“He never expected it in his lifetime,” Bush said.
A little more than a month after he died, the Hall of Fame Seniors Committee nominated Stabler as a finalist for the Class of 2016. The committee considers players who had been out of football 25 or more years. The day before Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Stabler needs 80 percent of votes to come his way to receive a bronze bust in Canton.
Ivan Jones said that in his assessment the only sad part of Kenny’s story is not the Hall of Fame snub, but that Slim Stabler never got to see his only son’s success at the professional level.
In fact, apart from an exhibition game in Houston, in which Kenny Stabler only held a helmet on the sideline, he never got to see him play a professional game. Slim Stabler died in 1970, at 47.
“That,” Jones said, “is a tragedy.”
Kenny Stabler spent his years after football the way many retired professional athletes do: A few businesses began, then closed. There were appearances at charity events and celebrity golf tournaments. There were hiccups, too: Three driving under the influence arrests, IRS problems, another divorce.
In the late 1990s, he had a chance to work radio broadcasts for the New Orleans Saints and for the University of Alabama. He chose the Alabama gig, not only so he could drive to away games (he disliked airport crowds and loved driving), but because they would allow him to bring along his daughters. He kept the job through the 2008 season.
During the last decade, the figure that swaggered through the 1970s was replaced, slowly, with those of a man finding peace, if not slowing down. He stopped doing media interviews. At home, he favored pajamas, CNN and petting “Jack,” a five-pound yorkiepoo. He liked making awful soup. He indulged his sweet tooth. In Gulfport, where he moved in 2009, neighborhood children along Stanton Circle would come knocking at his door, asking him to toss a football. Afterward, he took them for milkshakes in his black Tahoe (every vehicle was either black, silver or crimson).
The center became his daughters, who have grown up and gone off into lives of their own in Arizona, Texas and Mobile. Marissa Stabler said football had been a gift to him “but he was born to be a father.” When she thinks of him it is not of the comebacks or records or the No. 12 jersey. It is his smile (“More of a knowing smirk”) and the words “I love you” coming from his mouth that she feels. Kenny Stabler’s sometimes less-than-perfect relationship with his father had stayed with him, she believes, and he relished his role as a dad.
“It was a second chance,” Marissa said.
He also loved his grandsnakes — Justin and Jake — who are twins and who each inherited his athletic genes: the Arizona Republic newspaper recently named them both among the state’s top 100 players. Justin today has his grandfather’s Super Bowl ring. Jake has his 1965 University of Alabama championship ring.
Around 2010 or so, Stabler started to show the signs so many ex-football players show of the lasting effects of the brutal game. His knees were never pretty — zipper-scars on both — and his left hand’s pinky rested at an unnatural angle. Marissa Stabler said her father sometimes would repeat himself in conversation, telling the same story two times inside of an hour. Sometimes, a ringing sound would begin in his ears and a restlessness he could not shake would have him tossing and turning through nights. If he stepped wrong, a pain — he described it as a “bullet to the brain” — would shoot from his heel to his head. And there were crippling headaches: Bush would be in their kitchen, making dinner, and he would call out for her to cool the clashes of pots and pans.
The people who loved him believed for a while it was only a man who had passed 60 showing the signs of getting older. Then the conversation about concussions and the NFL began, and he and his family understood.
In early May 2012, former NFL linebacker Junior Seau shot himself to death. There was speculation that he suffered from CTE, caused by undiagnosed concussions he suffered while playing 19 seasons in the NFL.
At the time, Stabler’s grandsons were beginning their high school careers. One night, while lying in bed watching the Seau coverage on TV, he made the decision to donate his brain and spinal tissue to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center to help further research into athletes and degenerative brain disease.
Several months later, he was the first plaintiff listed out of 73 former NFL players who filed a federal lawsuit against the league. The suit accused the NFL of failing to act on a body of medical evidence showing that repeated hits to the head can cause long-term health problems. It is ongoing.
The Fourth of July weekend, 2015, was his last. His daughter Alexa came over from Mobile and they grilled hamburgers. The chemotherapy had taken a toll but that weekend he acted like himself. “You would have never known he was sick,” Bush said. On Saturday night, he drove Bush and Alexa down Highway 90, which runs parallel to the Gulf of Mexico, so they could watch the fireworks in Gulfport and Biloxi. He took pictures with his iPhone, so many, as if he knew he would not see them again.
On Sunday night, his stomach began hurting. He told Bush to let him sleep, but she insisted they go to Memorial Hospital in Gulfport, and he relented. Early Monday, Bush let his daughters know he had taken a bad turn and all three came to his bedside in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Marissa Stabler said as long as she could remember, her father had said he wanted to die in Alabama. With that not possible, she figured the next best thing was to play “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, on her iPhone. He loved the song. When it ended, Bush played “When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” by Van Morrison, which they had passed many nights listening to together.
He died at 10:45 p.m. on July 8, his girls beside him.
They took him to Foley where a spot not far from his mother and his father was waiting.
His family says that in late January, they will make the decision on whether to release the Boston University findings and, if they do, there will be one more story about Kenny Stabler, and it may be the most important one.
Then, on Feb. 6, the Hall of Fame Selection Committee will cast votes on whether he should be let in.
His fans will tell the stories either way. And their talk, whether they know it or not, will be about how Kenny Stabler made growing up for so many, so fun. Their words will ring out like loud, open chords, and linger, as they remember the Snake and smile.
The XOXO Stabler Foundation supports colon cancer and sports-related head trauma research. For more information, see www.xoxostablerfoundation.com or the XOXO Stabler Foundation page on Facebook.