It’s nice to see former Ole Miss lineman Michael Oher protecting Cam Newton’s blind side as Carolina takes on the Denver in Sunday’s 50th pigskin extravaganza known as Super Bowl. Still, I’ll be rootin’ for Archie’s kid. Hoping that Peyton Manning can ride the Broncos into the sunset of one of the great careers in NFL history and on a direct path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As eager as I am to see the outcome of Sunday’s game, I’ll be just as eager to hear Saturday’s announcement about the Hall of Fame class of 2016 – to find out if my all-time favorite NFL player made it. To find out if the football writers have finally forgiven Kenny Stabler … for being Kenny Stabler.
I will be all the more anxious knowing now just how very much Stabler gave to the game of football. And how much it took from him. Beyond his perpetually gimpy knees that limited his mobility the last several years, it was announced Wednesday that Stabler was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., when he died of colon cancer on July 8 in Gulfport, Ms., where he was living with longtime companion Kim Bush. He was 69.
C.T.E. is thought to be cause by repeated concussive blows to the head. Having suffered for years with excruciating headaches and aware of his deteriorating cognitive abilities, Stabler asked that his brain and spinal cord be donated for research into C.T.E. The study concluded that Stabler had been living with Stage 3 C.T.E., on a 1-4 scale.
“He played 15 seasons in the NFL, he gave up his body and, apparently, now his mind,” Stabler’s youngest daughter Alexa, 29, tearfully told The New York Times this week.
One teenage night in the mid-1970s, a Ripley High buddy and I were parked on a bridge above the Tippah River. We propped beers on the rail and talked turned to football as surely as summer was turning toward another Mississippi fall. In the moonlight, rows of cotton and soybeans danced to the cool tune of a northeast breeze, and the ghosts and glimmers of Ole Miss gridiron legends and NFL stars came out through our conversation to keep us company.
Dreaming of quarterback glory never to be attained, I drained the beer, rolled out three strides to my right, cocked it beside my ear and threw the bottle as far downriver as my rag arm would carry it. Which wasn’t far.
What exactly brought the thought to mind, I don’t know, but I said, mostly to myself, “If I ever have a son, I’d want him to grow up to be like Archie Manning. But when I grow up, I want be like Kenny Stabler.”
I bent, rambled my hand in the ice chest and pulled out another beer. I was well on my way.
In junior high school, I did not let my region fix my professional football allegiance. I looked around for a team that was to my liking that played with style and flair. I found the Oakland Raiders of the late 1960s with the “Mad Bomber” Daryle Lamonica at quarterback. Throwing long, stretching the field with receivers that streaked down the sideline in a blur of black and silver.
The Raiders’ dual mottos of “Commitment to Excellence” and “Just win, baby” appealed to me. But I wasn’t so sure about the former Alabama quarterback nicknamed “Snake” when he was elevated to the Raiders’ starting job in 1973 by Coach John Madden. He didn’t have Lamonica’s big arm and besides, he’d played college ball for the much-hated Bear Bryant. But soon I came to appreciate Stabler’s league-leading accuracy and his preternatural calm in the huddle. Of course, when as a skinny teenager you’ve stared down the barrel of shotgun held by your hard-drinking father threatening to kill the whole family, and had to wrestle it away from that Goliath of a man (6-5, 250), throwing a winning touchdown pass in front of packed stadium and a national TV audience probably didn’t seem like all that much pressure.
“I was always emotional and all fired up,” Madden told me during a 2001 interview. “But the tougher the game got, the calmer (Stabler) got.”
Learning of Stabler’s death, Madden, the Hall of Fame coach and legendary NFL broadcaster, remarked: “I’ve often said, if I had one drive to win a game to this day, and I had a quarterback to pick, I would pick Kenny.”
Bearded and often bedraggled, his long hair flying, Stabler led the Bay Area’s wild bunch to five AFC Championship games and their first Super Bowl victory. I fell in love with the way he played the game and, frankly, with the way he lived his life.
As I wrote in a feature piece for Scripps Newspapers in 2001 entitled “Still Alabama’s Prince of Tides”: Stabler “let the passes fly and the good times roll from Tuscaloosa to Oakland to New Orleans. …
(He) loved well-balanced motorcycles, sleek speed boats, high-performance cars and women who we faster than all of them. … (Leaving) behind him a trail of beer cans and broken hearts.”
What more could a red-blooded son of the American South aspire to?
Stabler often said he studied the playbook by the light of the jukebox. By the time he arrived in New Orleans in 1982, his football career was almost at an end. My career in journalism was just getting under way, when I was covering the Saints at the same time. But I was doing my best to live up to the Stabler ethos, writing many of my columns by the light of the jukebox at Mollys on Toulouse, just off Bourbon Street.
It was an almost unimaginable treat for me as an adult to get to meet and interact with the man who had been my sports hero growing up. Whose games and stats and rapacious off-field lifestyle I had closely followed, including the famous – or to this day infamous? – story of how Stabler or someone close to him allegedly planted cocaine in the car of a reporter who had written a highly unfavorable piece.
If that actually happened, I find it hard believe that Stabler was part of the plot. The Ken Stabler I got to know slightly, professionally during his two-and-half-year tenure with the Saints was far different from his raucous reputation, at least in the locker room. With his graying mane combed back, wet from a shower, he was always the same — well-mannered and soft-spoken, whether the Saints had won or lost. He was patient even when reporters asked him redundant, often pointed questions that sometimes bordered on the inane.
For me, however, writing about the Saints and the man who had once been my sports idle was a melancholy task. As he neared 40, Stabler gave the team all he had to give but it was not enough to lift a squad long on losing and short on talent. Stabler also clearly was a man in pain. In the locker room, his knees practically wobbled, held together only by long lines of surgical scars. But he didn’t talk about it.
He didn’t complain. He was one of Bear’s boys, and he could take the pain. He could even deal the plethora of stupid post-game questions. But what he could not deal with was being demoted to third string by then Saints coach A.O. “Bum” Phillips, whom Stabler much respected. So halfway through the 1984 season, he retired.
“The decision to get out was pretty easy, because I felt terrible,” Stabler told me in 2001. “But finishing up with (“Bum”) was a lot of fun. It was a good way to go out, on kind of a soft note.”
Stabler returned full time to Alabama’s barrier islands – always his real home, his true anchorage – his days no longer marked by practice schedules, film sessions and game-day preparations, but by the rising and falling of the tides between Old River and Bayou St. John.
The one-time league MVP tended his business interests – mostly in bars and marinas around Mobile Bay; put in some time as TV football analyst; had his own radio show; and enjoyed a long stint as color commentator for the Alabama radio network. Though a third marriage failed, he remained devoted to his three daughters. During the last couple of years of his life, Stabler rented a home in Arizona to be near his football-playing, teenage grandsons, Justin and Jack, now 17.
While he loved tossing a football around with kids in the neighborhood and his “grandsnakes,” as he called them, and seeing them play, he already was concerned about the damage the game might be inflicting and was openly excited about the possibility that one of the boys might leave the sport, Stabler’s oldest daughter, Kendra Stabler Moyes, 45, told The Times this week.
When Stabler was diagnosed with late Stage 4 colon cancer in early 2015, he told almost no one. Not old friends, not old teammates and only family members on a need-to-know basis. Instead he bought boxing equipment and worked out hard whenever he felt up to it amid the regimen of chemo therapy.
I told you, Stabler was a tough guy, and that’s how the tough sons of mechanics and shrimpers and small-plot farmers were taught to do it in the Foley, Alabama of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. And Stabler was always one tough son of … Foley mechanic.
For more on Ken Stabler, read the wonderful piece by Ole Miss alum William Browning on SBNation; The New York Times piece on Stabler and C.T.E.; and his memoir, “Snake,” published in 1986 by Doubleday & Co.
Louis Hillary Park is an Ole Miss journalism alum who spent some 30 years in the newspaper business in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. He now is involved in web site development and social media marketing. His first novel, Wolf’s Run, came out in 2010 and is available at Amazon.com; his second novel, Hard News, is scheduled for release in fall 2016. He resides in Palm Beach County, Florida with his wife, Joyce. He can be reached at LOUIS_PARK@pba.edu.