Padecky: Ken Stabler memories,?on and off the football field
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.