My friend Pat Gallagher emailed me Thursday with a perspective. “I can’t help it. Every time I think of him, I think of you.”
Myself, I get a little more detailed. Every time I think of Kenny Stabler, I think of handcuffs, submachine guns, a jail cell that stunk because of that clogged toilet, standing half-naked in front of laughing cops and, of course, about seven-eighths of a gram of cocaine.
I wish my initial memories of Snake were otherwise. God knows, there were enough of them. His gifted left arm delivered the most magical, photogenic and improbable touchdown pass in NFL history, that floater which somehow found Clarence Davis in a 1974 AFC divisional playoff game. Watch the replay on YouTube; like a potato chip, I bet you can’t do just one.
Snake made Johnny Manziel look like a Buddhist monk. Snake was more fun to watch than Chinese acrobats. Snake could ride shotgun in any car I was driving because, well, Snake, might be carrying a shotgun. Snake was a thrill ride, a roller coaster all by himself, and those Raiders of the ’70s happily, gratefully, took a seat behind him.
In his last days as colon cancer ravaged him, it made perfect sense Snake was listening to “Sweet Home Alabama.” He was ’Bama right down to his last margarita. There will never be another Snake in the NFL, if for no other reason than it would be bad for business. The suits would never allow it. His loss is nearly incalculable to anyone who loves the Raiders.
Snake had flair, guile and Jan. 22, 1979.
By October 1978, Stabler had stopped talking to the media; the wheels were falling off for his season. He would wind up with 16 touchdowns and 30 picks. Snake was grumpy. As the Raiders beat reporter for the Sacramento Bee I was there when Stabler told us he would talk after the season. I took him at his word. Looking back on it, I was naive.
On Jan. 1, 1979, I was in New Orleans, having just covered the Sugar Bowl game between Alabama and Penn State. Stabler made his offseason home in Gulf Shores, Ala., just 196 miles from New Orleans. Well, I’ll just drive over and see Kenny. Yeah, OK. He said he’d talk once the season was over. Yeah, OK. Wouldn’t be a problem. Yeah, OK. Wouldn’t even have to call ahead. We always got along. Hee haw. Hee haw. Hee haw. All that was missing for me was a corncob pipe and a hay wagon. What a rube.
Snake said he didn’t want to talk. Sorry. But I’m here. Let’s chat. Nope. Well, I’ll talk to the folks in Gulf Shores and neighboring Foley. Wish you wouldn’t do that, he said. Then talk to me, I said. Nope. Off I went. Spent 36 hours interviewing people. Wrote a three-part series for the Bee.
The worst of it? The folks said Snake needed to get in better shape. Do a little jogging. Get to bed earlier. Oh, and it’d be terrific if he’d marry that woman he’s living with — Wonderfully Wicked Wanda. In the Bible Belt, of which Alabama holds the buckle, living in sin wrinkles the noses of those good Southern Baptists.
As damning evidence, I thought what I wrote was rather lightweight. The series’ third part was how Foley and Gulf Shores loved football. What I failed to realize — forgot, actually, since I grew up in Florida — is that the South don’t cotton to outsiders. Southerners like their privacy. As the risk of generalization, Southerners are most comfortable and trusting of Southerners.
In a statement that would become quite prophetic, Billy Walker, a friend, told me, “You don’t want to make Kenny mad.”
Stabler felt invaded. I see that now. Furious, I was to find out. In Miami later that month to cover Super Bowl XIII, I got a call midweek. Kenny wanted “to spill his guts” to me. On everything, including how he was treated by Al Davis. Fly up as soon as you can. I did, the morning after the Steelers beat the Cowboys. On Jan. 22, 1979.
Met Stabler at Lefty’s, a restaurant he co-owned. Stayed for a few minutes. Suddenly he had to leave. I’ll give you a call. Call came. Meet me at BJ’s, another local restaurant. Stayed for a few minutes. He was not conversant. Sullen was his expression. Gotta go. A business deal. I’ll give you a call. Call came. Meet me at the Silver Dollar Lounge.
By this time, I developed a bit of a twitch. An anxiety became too real when he said at the Silver Dollar, “I don’t know why you are out to get me. I never met anyone like you. You’re the first reporter to come into my town trying to dig up dirt.”
I just wanted you to talk about the season, Kenny. You said you would. I might as well have said: “Why don’t we scramble some eggs and rub them into my hair?” for all the good it was doing. Snake wasn’t listening. He was lecturing. For 10 minutes he went on, pounding the table, uttering the occasional curse word.
Snake saw my tape recorder and burst out with “You better make sure that son-of-a-bitch is off. This is all off the record. Otherwise I’m going to get my lawyer and sue your ass.”
Snake left the table. Two of his friends, Randall Watson and Walker, remained, looking like I just tried to pick their pocket. Snake returned, calm. Gotta go again. Sorry. Meet me back at BJs. I’ll tell you everything there. Watson, Walker and Kenny left. The lights in the restaurant were out. I noticed, from where I was sitting, I couldn’t see my luxurious 1979 Mercury Bobcat rental car.
I walked to my rental car and just as all four wheels touched down on Highway 59, three police squads peeled rubber to surround me. Guns drawn. Get out of the car. I was patted down. Placed in handcuffs. Read my rights. One law enforcement officer went directly to my left front wheel well. Removed a magnetic key case that contained a white powder that later was analyzed as cocaine.
At the police station, I was asked to partially undress. I assume it was to determine if I had stored any baggies where the sun don’t shine. I peeled back some clothes, to snickers.
I was arrested for possession of a controlled substance.
“Where did you get the cocaine?” asked the interrogator, which I now find interesting since the toxicology report was weeks away.
“I’m a sports writer,” I replied weakly.
“Now I’ve heard it all,” he said. “I know a judge and I’m going to ask him for the maximum sentence.”
After placing my one phone call to the best journalist I ever knew, Bee Managing Editor Frank McCulloch, I was escorted to my cell. It was only for five minutes. Felt like five hours. Especially with the commode smelling like skunk road kill.
Cotton Long, a Gulf Shores cop, fetched me. “I think you’ve been set up.” I told Cotton he was onto something, all right. Let’s go back to the Holiday Inn where I was staying. Call Stabler and tell him you got mistakenly pulled over for DUI. Maybe the bad guys will return to retrieve the cocaine, I was told.
For 90 minutes, I sat in Room 114 at the Holiday Inn. Gulf Shores police chief Jimmy Maples was in my room, holding his .357 Magnum.
“I got five cars staking out the area,” Maples said. “I can take an army, if that’s what they want.”
Great, I thought. I’m in the Battle of the Bulge. Can’t wait to see what happens next. Maybe I’ll get to interview Big Foot. I was trying to dial down the tension.
After those 90 minutes — as Maples pointed to a cop on the roof of the Holiday Inn — Long returned.
“I don’t want to sell you a bill of goods,” Long said, “but I just learned your life might be in danger.”
Do you want a police escort to the airport in Pensacola, to fly back to Miami?
Thought you’d never ask, I said.
Maples sat with me in my luxurious Bobcat, showing me his weapon resting on his lap.
“This is a submachine gun,” the chief said. “If anyone tries to stop us, you brake the car hard, swerve to the shoulder — and I’ll take care of them.”
Fine, but would you mind if I pee in my pants first?
So I crossed state lines, one police car in front of me, one behind me. Maples and one of his cops walked me up to a runway on the Eastern Airlines passenger jet. Each cop was openly carrying a weapon. When I saw the look of the seated passengers staring at me, I’m fairly certain that, if asked, they all would have deplaned eagerly. I felt more naked than when I had partially disrobed for the boys in blue in Gulf Shores.
I checked into the Pier 66 hotel in Fort Lauderdale under an assumed name. I wrote through the night, finishing after going two days without sleep.
The story broke. Kenny said he had no idea what was going on. He was totally surprised. He said maybe it was one of his friends. The state of Alabama, the FBI and the NFL investigated. No one was charged or arrested. Curiously, there was no arrest report in Gulf Shores, even though I had been arrested and was going to get the maximum sentence.
Apparently, the cocaine in the magnetic key case just magically adhered itself to my rental car. Maybe I was living an out-take from a Harry Potter movie. In a small town where you can hear someone sneeze, no one knew anything.
I tried speaking to Snake at the beginning of the 1979 training camp. Walked up to him on the practice field at the now-gone El Rancho Tropicana in Santa Rosa and said hello.
“Duck you,” said Kenny. Or something like that.
Stabler went to Houston after the 1979 season. His career had crested. Time moved on for the 1974 NFL MVP. I’d get messages whenever a Stabler story emerged and opinions as well, that Snake should never be in Canton, that he didn’t have the great numbers over many seasons, that he wasn’t consistent enough.
I’d respond by saying I never enjoyed watching a quarterback more, and that includes the great Joe Montana or Peyton Manning or even Brett Favre, the closest I’ve seen to matching Stabler’s charisma. It’s a tossup for me who leads the offense 80 yards downfield with two minutes left, Joe or Kenny.
What Kenny Stabler revealed to me was a truth I needed to know and I learned it 36 years ago: Athletes are human, like sports writers. They make mistakes, like the rest of us. They let ego trump common sense, like the rest of us. They are capable of exceptional examples of physical wonder. That’s why we go to their games, to see possibly what has never been seen before, like the “Sea of Hands” catch by Clarence Davis.
If along the way they go sideways and make us scratch our heads, oh well. It’s what us human beings do and have been doing for thousands of years. Such a conundrum can happen to the best of us or the least of us.
History is best written after the passage of time, smoothing out the raw edges of hyperactive impulse. The last time I saw Snake was 2009 at Sonoma Raceway. He smiled. I smiled. I said Kenny. He said Bob. We shook hands. I wasn’t expecting a dinner invitation, not even a mint under my pillow or a magnetic key case in my wheel well. What I did see, however, was what I was hoping to see.
Time took both of us down a notch. The most bizarre story in the history of sports gave us both a moment of pause. Jan. 22, 1979 linked us forever but didn’t define us. Which brings me to write something I never thought I would.
I liked Kenny Stabler. And I will miss him.
To contact Bob Padecky email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.