By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News
Kenny Stabler is the only national celebrity I have known, and I wasn’t a bosom buddy. But I knew him enough to know that Scott Fitzgerald was right when he said the very rich are different. And not just moneywise.
The extremely skilled are different, too, and Stabler was gifted. For the poor non-football fan, I rush to explain that Ken “Snake” Stabler was one of the great athletes who have graced this planet. He was athletic, sole to crown, 6’3” and 215 with a whip for a left arm. He had an easy smile and blondish hair that went red in beard. He could talk to anyone, great or small.
What makes one an artist, in my opinion, is doing a thing as well or better than just about anyone else. Stabler was an artist at his trade, which was throwing a ball.
Doing that very thing, he won a Statie in high school, a Natty at Alabama, and the Superbowl for the Oakland Raiders. I say he because he was MVP in all three champy games. Hall of Fame, all three incarnations. He won a hundred games faster than any pro QB up to his time.
The other thing is that a gifted athlete almost certainly is going to become rich. Stabler never doubted he was going to be a superstar pro quarterback. Doubts rarely had the temerity to even consider the mere possibility of crossing Stabler’s mind.
Well, except that time when he was a high school sophomore and decided he would just play baseball and ditch football, though he had made considerable impact as a freshman QB at Foley High School. The Yankees were interested in his pitching.
I know firsthand his prowess as a baseball pitcher. The first time I met him was on a fogent spring day in Tuscaloosa when he and [first] wife Isabelle lived in my apartment complex.
Four of us took out ball and glove and were pitching it crosshatch to warm up. Stabler walked out and politely asked to join. He had completed his stardom at Alabama, had signed with the Raiders and a contract dispute let him spend a summer in Tuscaloosa chasing women and raising hell (Hall of Fame at that, as well).
So he joined, and happened to step right across from me. So he’d throw to me, I’d throw to the guy on his left, who would throw to the guy on my right, who…well, you see.
He threw easily, without visible effort. I caught three from him and my hand began to sting and then swell. Mind, he was not trying to do that. He was pitching, for him, soft. I just swapped with the guy to my right, who thought he was going to be happy playing catch with Kenny Stabler. Ho, ho.
And so, the narrative. Summer camp had started at Foley and no Stabler. His coach called his father, Slim, to tell him Stabler wasn’t at practice and might he do something.
Slim said, “I’ll whip his ass every day until he shows up.” And the rest is history.
Stabler was at once extremely simple and extremely difficult. It’s easy to say he did mostly what he wanted. The difficult part is to determine what it was he wanted most, and why. Stabler, much as anyone I’ve known, was true to himself.
The fact that his “self,” so far as I knew him, was a complex blend of self-absorption, self-interest and kindness. And near limitless ability. He was unflappable and tough as a kevlar doughnut.
He could be foolish. We’d be playing touch football out in the complex square and Stabler would amble out to play quarterback for both sides. An awkward step by him or anyone and his already challenged knees could’ve gone forever. Some of us mentioned it. “This is good practice,” he said.
The defense, such as it was, didn’t try to touch him down. All wanted to watch him throw. He did not disappoint. He’d loose a long, long pass and shout, “That oughta be six!” The pass usually had velocity almost to knock someone down 60 yards away. One day it was me.
In the little huddle he looked at me and said, “Tucker, go deep.” I wasn’t fast but that day (for me) I flew. I got downfield quick and when I looked around, the ball was right there. (That was another thing; his hand/eye coordination. Whether he was throwing deep to a lout like me or an All-Pro receiver, the ball was anticipatorily almost always “right there.”) It about knocked me down, and the big ole boy guarding me did knock me down, but I held on. Touchdown, Stabler to Tucker. Nice.
“Go deep,” became Stabler’s motto. It fit. Everything he did, he did full out. Some sportswriter once read him a fairly intricate passage from Thoreau or somebody, and asked Stabler its meaning. It was deep thought and so Stabler said it meant “Throw deep.” Deep is as deep does.
But “bad boy” ran through him, first to last. He didn’t like practice and broke rules when it he felt it was an emergency. Sometimes, I reckon, he felt like everything was an emergency.
One day we’d played football and were walking back to Stabler’s place for a cold one. There was a big flapdoodle going on about college players getting payoffs. Someone asked Stabler if it were true. We just were pass his shiny red corvette. He pointed at it, said, “Where you think that came from.”
He and Isabelle were great hosts. He loved to serve fondue, mostly I think because after we’d eaten he’d ask, “Are we fondid or fondone?” He was always moving around the room, making sure everyone had a drink or food. Kind as could be.
The last time I saw him in Tuscaloosa, he was sitting in his car one afternoon, full of beer, and I as I walked by he yelled, “Hey, Skip. You my horse if you never win a damn race.”
In his later years, when the skillset weakened, he was traded to Houston for the playoffs, in Oakland, against his old team, the Oakland Raiders. The Oilers had Earl Campbell, a legendary running back. (When asked if Earl was in a class by himself, his coach said he wasn’t sure about that, but that it wouldn’t take long to call the roll.) Stabler knew he wouldn’t be throwing very often.
So the week of the game, Stabler didn’t show up for two days. Which failed to escape the attention of the media.
When asked about it, Coach Bum Phillips said, in his best aw shucks voice, “I ain’t worried. Kenny’ll be along.” And he was.
When he was asked why he hadn’t been to practice, Stabler (in his best aw shucks voice) said, “How much practice does it take to hand somebody a ball.” The Oilers lost, as oddsmakers predicted, 30-20.
Stabler and his career, and his life, can be found somewhere in this old joke:
A farmer advertised a horse for sale, and a fellow driving past stopped to inquire. The horse, sleek, black, beautiful, was running around the pasture on a fine summer’s day. Just as the fellow was about to make an offer, the animal ran full-tilt headlong into the only tree in the pasture.
“Say,” said he fellow, “is that horse blind?.”
“Naw,” replied the farmer. “He just don’t give a damn.”
Kenny Stabler was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2015, a year after he died of colon cancer at 69. I caught four thrown balls from him when he was in his prime, and that’ll do for a memory.
Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at www.ALDailyNews.com.