From the day you first pull on that crimson jersey to the end of your life, you reap the reward of playing football for Alabama. That reward is in being remembered. It may be for something specific, or it may be just for being a former Crimson Tide player.
It still amazes me the number of people who will tell me about seeing the run in the mud. The details of the rain and wind, umbrellas turned inside out, clothes ruined, and yet they stayed to watch as we beat Auburn, 7-3, in 1967. And I hear this virtually every day from some Alabama fan. I listen to the whole story, because it is a thrill for them, and it is a great feeling for me that they remember. And we old Alabama players like to talk about Alabama football, too, particularly a win over Auburn.
A lot of people think the Alabama-Auburn game is the most emotional rivalry in college football, and it is gratifying to have been part of a play that will live forever because it was Alabama-Auburn and a game-winning play. I go through airports and inevitably someone will yell, “Roll, Tide” or “Hey, Snake.”
I have two teenage daughters, and it’s great for them to see where Dad fit into the mix in the legacy of Alabama football, to see people ask me for autographs or talk to me because I am a former Alabama player. They can look at the photographs or even the old films, but it is the people who make it real.
To have been an Alabama football player is, as Coach Bryant said, to be part of a family. And no matter your role, you were a productive part of that family.
And more than anything, Alabama football was Coach Bryant. I don’t think I realized what he was doing for me until I was old enough to look back on it. In my case, I was young and dumb and wild, and when I became a disciplinary problem, Coach Bryant disciplined me. At the time I couldn’t see it, but he was teaching me a life lesson. I was close to throwing everything away, and he saw something worth saving. He suspended me, then gave me the opportunity to get back. Don’t think I got off light. I got the hell beat out of me at practice, but he didn’t let me throw it away.
Coach Bryant had a knack for treating everyone fairly, and in a way that everyone thought was the same. You believed that he was as polite to the janitors cleaning up the stadium as he was to the president of The University, that he treated the fourth team guard the same way he treated the All-American.
He was taking care of me. He saw I needed a kick in the pants. I was just about to throw away my college career, which led to a 15-year career in the NFL and to a lot of other good things in my life. Without Coach Bryant saving me, I guess I’d be a bartender somewhere.
He gave me two opportunities. The first was when he offered me a scholarship to The University. The second was when he saved me from myself with his discipline. He prepped me for the next level, the next level of football with his teaching of fundamentals and understanding, and the next level of life with lessons that seem to come back to me all the time.
The greatest disappointment was an excellent season. We were two-time defending national champions going into the 1966 season and that year we went 11-0 and outscored our opponents 267-37 in the regular season. We had six shutouts. And then we beat Nebraska, 34-7, in the Sugar Bowl. And we finished third in the nation.
I had watched as a kid as Pat Trammell won a national championship, then watched Joe Namath and Steve Sloan win national championships, and I thought 1966 was my turn. We made a pretty good run, but we didn’t get there. It was disappointing, but I believe we did all we could do.
I was around a lot of winning football. In high school under Coach Ivan Jones at Foley we went 29-1 in my three years. Then at Alabama we were 28-3-2. And then I went to Oakland, where I played for John Madden, who was like a big brother. We made it to the championship game five times, then finally beat Pittsburgh to get to Super Bowl XI and beat Minnesota, 32-14. And then I finished my career in New Orleans for Bum Phillips, who was like a grandfather. I always played for someone I respected and wanted to please.
I wasn’t highly-recruited out of high school. Dee Powell recruited me for Alabama, and Lee Hayley recruited me for Auburn, and I think I got some letters from Mississippi State and Tulane. I was a typical small town athlete, playing football until it was time to play basketball and then playing basketball until it was time to play baseball and on and on.
My father was a huge Alabama fan. He would really get excited on Saturdays as we got ready to listen to Alabama games when Pat Trammell and Billy Richardson were playing in the early 1960s. Being around him and listening to Alabama football on the radio sold me pretty early.
I did consider going straight to pro baseball. I threw hard and had a good overhand curve and good control. A Yankees scout offered me $50,000 and a college education. I had to take a pretty hard look at that. In 1964 in Foley, $50,000 was a lot of money and it could have been a help to my family. My father was a hard-working mechanic for automobile dealerships and we were probably lower middle class. But we had the essentials and didn’t absolutely have to have the money. My parents left it up to me and were genuinely supportive. They wanted me to be happy.
I loved baseball. But I also had a love of football and of Alabama. Coach Bryant came to my house and had dinner with us and told me he wanted me to come to Alabama and play football. Alabama was winning; I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Trammell and Namath; I wanted to play for Coach Bryant; I wanted to win a national championship; and I wanted to be a part of the Alabama football lore that my father loved.
Looking back, I made the right decision to be a part of the Alabama family. And I always thought I would have a chance later to make some money as an athlete.
I love my relationship with the football program now, being able to participate as a member of the radio broadcasting team. It is a thrill to be close to the program where I played.
Ken Stabler was an All-American and SEC Player of the Year in 1967 and was MVP of the Sugar Bowl as he completed 12 of 17 passes for 218 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 40 more yards and another touchdown. In 1992 he and Joe Namath were selected as quarterbacks on Alabama’s Team of the Century.