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Farewell, Snake: Remembering The Badass Life of Ken Stabler

Hard-partying, cucumber-cool former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler spent his life "third and long." And that's just how he liked it.

by Peter Richmond
Jul 10 2015, 3:25pm

Photo by Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When I asked Kenny Stabler a few years ago whether it was true that during training camp he used to tack the panties of local women he'd fucked onto the walls of his room in Suite 147 at the El Rancho Tropicana Hotel up in Santa Rosa, he offered a "no comment." He'd just lost his job doing radio for the University of Alabama, his alma mater, and he didn't feel like going on the record about having lived a life that the rest of the world would kill to have lived.

But when I asked Pete Banaszak about it—Stabler's fullback on the immortal 1977 Super-Bowl-winning badass Oakland Raiders, one of the kick-ass greatest football teams in history—Rooster remembered one pair of women's finery in particular: "Mesh."

Banaszak couldn't remember if that was the same summer Snake's car was repossessed in the middle of a northern California night.

When I asked Stabler whether it was true that in high school in small-town Foley, Alabama, after having consumed enough beer to erase his frontal lobe, he hopped onto a cop car and kicked out the dome light, he was a little more forthcoming: "I was a victim of circumstances," he told me. Then he paused again. Then he repeated the phrase. I could hear him smiling over the phone.

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We had three or four conversations as I was writing a book about the badass Raiders. Sometimes he was cryptic. No details on the three failed marriages. But no apologies for anything. When I asked him whether it was true that on any given Sunday, as he leaned into the huddle to call out the play, the cloud of his breath might carry the flavor-echo of the previous evening's consumption of amber liquids, he tried to dodge the question, but did admit, "You don't have to do the conventional things the night before. It doesn't matter as long as you did it the next day—and we did it consistently."

(I had the hard data on this one, from a former Raiders linebacker named Monte Johnson: "We're playing the Broncos in Denver, '74. I got up to go get a soda out of the vending machine at about 3 a.m. I run into Kenny and Fred Biletnikoff. I can't remember what Fred had in his hand; Kenny had what was the small portion of a bottle of Wild Turkey in his. I thought, `Oh my God: not gonna be a good game tomorrow.'" Stabler threw four touchdown passes, including two to Biletnikoff. The Raiders won the game easily.)

Oakland won very consistently. No team won more games in the NFL in the 1970s than Snake's Raiders. And make no mistake: They were his. As went Snake, so did John Madden's elite team.

The straw that stirred the Oakland Raiders' drink. --Photo by Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

Stabler is dead now, of colon cancer, at 69, which is way too early for a guy who loved to live. The dude whose blond locks spilled out of his helmet like a Duane Allman clone consumed life in crazy gulps. He also threw a football really well as the leader of a football team feared by every one of its opponents. The team's balls-out, no-rules of football meant enemies would always get hurt, and blood would, yes, flow, on both sides, which was of course, the only reason to play football for the Oakland Raiders.

Stabler's strength? Evercool in the pocket—"The whole thing is seeing it, reading it, deciding where you're going, and getting it on its way," John Madden told me. "He had that quicker than anyone. He was amazing"—and accurate: "Kenny," said Banaszak, "was the most accurate fucking thrower. If you wanted the ball between the four and the zero, he'd put it there. If you wanted it in the ear hole, Kenny could put it there."

He knew when to run, knew when to hide. Had his knees ever been healthy, former Raiders and Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf once told me—and Wolf would know, he's about to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio–Stabler would have "revolutionized the game."

The numbers say that Snake should be in the Hall, too. By comparison, here are the stats of another Alabama quarterback who pretended to be cool, but wasn't even close to being in Stabler's league: Joe Namath finished his career at 62–63–4, with a lifetime completion percentage of 50.1, 173 TDs, and one conference championship game, and one Super Bowl.

Here are the stats of Snake, including his final five mediocre years with the Saints and Oilers: 96–49–1, with a completion percentage of 59.8. And 150 touchdowns. And one Super Bowl. And five conference championship games. And some other numbers we don't know about. Like the final scores of his games of pool at a downtown Oakland dive with Sonny Barger (see, "Angels, Hell's.") Like the number of beers he drank the night he met Huey Newton (see "Panthers, Black") at Uppy's in Jack London Square.

But the Hall will never have room for the NFL's original rebel without a cause, especially after he probably did something really stupid, in 1979, after a sportswriter named Bob Padecky, working for a newspaper in Sacramento, visited Stabler's hometown of Gulf Shores, Alabama, and wrote a series of articles examining Stabler's colorful off-season lifestyle, all without Stabler's cooperation. Subsequently, Kenny invited Padecky to Alabama for a follow-up interview. On that visit, cocaine, in a magnetic key case, was discovered in the writer's rental car, after a cop happened to pull the dude over.

Snake never copped to having anything to do with the bust. But writers make the Hall call. Writers have long memories, but short attention spans. They don't factor in a man's reality. They don't consider things like being the son of Slick Stabler, ace fix-it and auto mechanic, a complicated, mood-swinging, deep-drinking, gun-carrying and occasionally violent man, and knowing as a kid that physical punishment lurked a sip away. It was Slick, in a sober moment, who told him to savor every day.

"Kenny did live life hard," Monte Johnson told me. "I'll tell you what he makes me think of. When I used to drive back east on I-80 after the season, there was this trucking company that hauled beef between Denver and Chicago. Their drivers had an image about them, one of the things they did when they got onto the freeway they moved to the left lane and they had the petal to the medal and didn't stop 'til Chicago.

"Kenny lived life in the fast lane. Kenny kept the pedal to the metal."

Ken Stabler and actor James Garner, two mavericks celebrating a Super Bowl win. --Photo by Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

"I started my life third and long," Stabler told me, because if he wasn't all that proud of every detail of his well-lived life, he was proud to be able to say he'd made it as far as he had. Against a lot of odds. "I skipped practices. I got kicked off my high-school team. I got kicked off my college team. I've had third and 15 my whole life. Everybody's had rocky moments from day one. But sometimes you pick up third and long, and that's where you make your money. That's where the satisfaction comes, from the game and from life."

And when I asked Ken Stabler if his particular of life might have tarnished the legacy, well, this time he was more than willing to comment.

"I don't think it made one ounce of difference," he said. "How can you say that? Look back at the five championship games. At how I led the league three times. You're part of so many key plays. How can you possibly say, 'Well, if I didn't stay for that last call, got in earlier, do this, do that, then maybe I'd have gone to six?'

"I would never second-guess. I can't do it any other way. I did it that way. That was me."