“He’d be 10 times more drunk than we were, and he’d be out there playing football, and we couldn’t get out of bed the following morning, you know?” a Hells Angels biker offered in the same program.
All of which is why Stabler, who died last July of colon cancer and was found to have suffered from CTE, getting his due by being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday is a bittersweet affair for his family and friends.
“Just a winner, man,” said Cliff Branch, who played receiver for the Raiders. “His thing was, ‘How much sleep do you need to go play a three-hour football game?’ And you know how he felt about that. Just total command of the huddle.”
Branch said Stabler often told his teammates that the Raiders were going to engage in some “playground football” and ask for their input.
“You guys let me know what you can do out there, and we’ll go with it,” Stabler said, according to Branch.
“I come off the line of scrimmage, and a guy’s playing 5 yards off, and I said, ‘Kenny, he’s sitting on me,'” Branch said. ‘He said, ‘We’re going up right now.’ Eighty-yard touchdown, and he comes back, ‘Good call, Cliff.'”
Stabler was Oakland’s second-round draft pick in 1968 out of Alabama, where he succeeded another night owl, Joe Namath (the Raiders had selected quarterback Eldridge Dickey out of historically black college Tennessee State in the first round). Stabler spent his first two professional seasons with the Spokane Shockers of the Continental Football League.
“He wasn’t really ready for the rigors of the NFL yet,” said Raiders owner Mark Davis, who was a ball boy for his father, Al Davis, and the team at the time. “But then, the Immaculate Reception game — that’s when he started to get his groove on.”
Indeed, were it not for Franco Harris’ last-second catch-and-run in that Dec. 23, 1972, playoff game, the heroics of the left-handed Stabler, who replaced Daryle Lamonica at quarterback, would have been the story of the day. It was Stabler’s 30-yard gallop down the Three Rivers Stadium left sideline late in the fourth quarter that gave the Raiders a short-lived 7-6 lead.
As the younger Davis hinted, the die was cast for a decade worth of white-knuckle rides and epic comebacks.
“He had a lot of fun, but he worked his ass off,” said Davis, who will be in Canton, Ohio, with his mother, Carol, to represent the Raiders and Davis family.
Stabler will be introduced via video by Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who is recuperating from hip surgery and unable to make the trip. Stabler’s favorite target, Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff, will be joined on stage by Stabler’s grandsons, Jack and Justin Moyes, to unveil the bust.
“In the big games, he was big,” Madden said in a halftime ceremony honoring the late Stabler last season at O.co Coliseum. “In the tough games, he was tough. The hot games, you know, when it really got heated? He was the coolest guy on the field. And I always said that if I had one quarterback to make a drive the length of a field at the end of the game, to win that game, that guy would be Ken Stabler. No. 12. The Snake.
“Thanks for the memories. We miss you, we love you, and we’ll see you in the Hall of Fame.”
After taking over as the Raiders starter in 1973, Stabler went 50-11-1 in the regular season and 7-4 in the playoffs. He was the 1974 NFL MVP. That’s when he led the NFL in touchdown passes (26) and TD percentage (8.4) while throwing for 2,469 yards, and he had an interception-free streak of 143 straight passes.
Under Stabler’s direction, the Raiders were an NFL-best 12-2 in the 1974 season. They were the highest-scoring team in the league, with 355 points, and they boasted the NFL’s best point differential, at plus-127. Still, the Raiders fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers at home in the AFC Championship Game.
It wasn’t until the 1976 season that the Raiders and Stabler finally got over the hump, thumping the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI.
The Thursday before the game, Stabler put on a clinic in practice.
“The ball only touched the ground once, and that was on a drop,” Tom Flores told Sports Illustrated in 1981. “John Madden was standing next to me, and he said, ‘What do you think, Tom?’ and I said, ‘Throw a blanket over him, and get him out of here. This is scary.'”
The efficient Stabler completed 12 of 19 against the Vikings for 180 yards.
“Al and I hugged in the locker room five minutes after the game, and I said, ‘We finally did it,'” Stabler told HBO Sports. “And his reply was, ‘Can you do it again?'”
He could not. After a run of five straight AFC title games from 1973 to 1977, a pair of postseason-less 9-7 seasons ensued, and Stabler was traded to the Houston Oilers in 1980 — the Raiders thumped him in the AFC wild-card game en route to the Super Bowl XV title with Jim Plunkett under center — and spent three years with the New Orleans Saints. He retired during the 1984 season.
The Cold War between Stabler and Davis did not truly end until 2009, when they mended fences in a closed-door meeting in Davis’ Alameda office.
Stabler finished with 27,938 passing yards after completing 59.8 percent of his passes for 194 touchdowns and 222 interceptions in an NFL career that spanned from 1970 to 1984. He was named to the league’s all-1970s team.
After Stabler was a finalist for Hall consideration three times, the veterans committee finally came calling during Super Bowl week this past winter.
“Long overdue,” Martin said. “Long overdue. The things he’s done in the NFL, he should have been there a lot sooner. We all appreciated him, but now the rest of the NFL can appreciate him.”
Hall of Fame linebacker Ted Hendricks agreed and recalled Stabler’s leading the Raiders’ epic comeback on Monday Night Football on Dec. 3, 1979. Oakland rallied from a 35-7 deficit at the New Orleans Saints to claim a 42-35 victory.
“Finally,” Hendricks said. “You wondered why he hadn’t been [inducted] before. It’s really tragic that he’s not here to accept it himself.
“What a beautiful person he was. Always congenial, and always had that winning spirit inside of him that he never lost a game. He just ran out of time.”
The link to the new Steve Gleason documentary sat in my email for three days before I opened it. People told me I’d love it. The reviews of the film, which won acclaim at Sundance and is now in wider release, are uniformly positive and talk about the spirit of life and hope laced through his journey. That didn’t matter much. I didn’t want to watch someone die of ALS in front of my eyes. I know Steve and his wife, Michel, a little, spending time with them for a story, and even that brief interaction showed me enough of their struggles to know that there wouldn’t be some Hollywood ending.
The movie follows five years of Steve’s life as he goes from a vibrant football folk hero for the New Orleans Saints to a man trapped in a wheelchair, unable to speak or move. After seeing his struggle up close – not only the valiant bits that raise awareness, but the awkward fights with his stressed-out wife and his son gently pushing his limp head back into place – I thought I knew what the movie would be about and how it would make me feel.
Then I watched Gleason. I was wrong.
The film opens with Steve starting to record video journals for his still unborn son, Rivers, that would teach him about love and about taking chances, about being his own person and building a campfire: things a boy needs to learn from his father if he wants to grow into a good man. Soon the cameras are around Steve all the time, as he gets his diagnosis of ALS and then starts to lose things. We see Michel see him try to swim and struggle, crying at the sight of the strong man she married actually beginning his slide toward nothing. His dad takes him to a faith healer and Steve gets down in his football stance, like he’s covering a kickoff, with his hand up in the air. He takes four steps and hits the ground hard and sliding, like a big bull that’s been shot. In the crowd, Michel fumes at Steve’s dad for making him do this to himself. Later we see Steve speaking some of his last words before ALS traps him in a silent body, in one of the purest moments of desperation and despair ever recorded on film.
The arc is sophisticated and layered, its central thesis revolving around the things passed down from father to son, moving through generations. We see Steve try to make peace with his own father while attempting to give as much of himself as he can to Rivers. We see Steve and Michel argue. We see Steve struggle with the same things as many healthy people, just in an extreme way: He wants to work on his foundation because it makes him feel good to be helping, gives him a purpose, while Michel thinks he’s not spending enough time with her and with his video journals for Rivers. That conflict drives the second half of the movie.