EDITOR’S NOTE: Other than Kenny Stabler himself, no one did more in putting the Stabler credentials in front of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee than did Stabler family friend and BamaMag.com reporter A.P. Steadham. He was an honored guest when Snake Stabler was enshrined into the PFHOF last weekend.
CANTON, OHIO - Ken Stabler completed a 15-year NFL professional career in the fall of 1984. Almost thirty-two years later the man fondly known as “Snake” formally entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio on Saturday evening posthumously. He was synonymous with winning and fun.
The Foley, Alabama native became the eighth Crimson Tide player to be inducted into the hallowed gridiron sanctuary joining charter member Don Huston (1963), Bart Starr (1977), Joe Namath (1985), John Hannah (1991), Dwight Stephenson (1998), Ozzie Newsome (1999), and Derrick Thomas (2009). He is the first Alabamian from South of Montgomery to be enshrined in the prestigious fraternity. Stabler, a Foley High School Lion, joins the previous six prep stars to create a “Magnificent Seven” cast of Alabamians immortalized in Canton – Buck Buchanan, John Hannah, Walter Jones, Ozzie Newsome, John Stallworth, and Bart Starr.
Alabama now reigns as the all-time leader with three quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – Bart Starr, Joe Namath, and now Ken Stabler.
Former Oakland Raiders Head Coach John Madden presented his favorite quarterback for enshrinement via a video tribute. Recent hip replacement surgery prevented the PFHOF Coach from traveling to the ceremony.
Twin 17-year old grandsons, Justin and Jake Moyes, known as the “grandsnakes,” along with Stabler’s favorite pro wide receiver target and fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame member, Fred Biletnikoff, unveiled the Hall of Fame bust on stage. PFHOF Raiders and former teammates of Snake, Willie Brown, Dave Casper, Ted Hendricks and Art Shell gathered around the trio for support. The twins shed a few tears before Justin embraced and kissed the sculptured likeness of “Papa Snake”. Three times Stabler was a PFHOF finalist prior to the selection in February 2016 through the Veterans Committee.
Coming out of Alabama after a brilliant career, his future path was tenuous due to one specific reason. Oakland scout Ron Wolf was the advocate that convinced Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis to select Stabler.
“The big thing was the fact that Kenny Stabler was left-handed,” said Wolf who ascended to be a top NFL executive and a PFHOF Class of 2015 inductee as a contributor. “All the big experts in football said left-handers could not play professional football.”
Former Georgia All-America QB John Rauch and then Raiders head coach, was extremely familiar with the landscape of the SEC. He inquired all around the league about Stabler including discussions with Alabama Assistant Coach, Ken Meyer. “It all came down to this which I thought was really remarkable,” replied Wolf. “Basically the problem is we were all right-handed and did not know how to handle a left-hander. That was the part that switched it. He was a really talented individual, a guy who demonstrated at the highest level of collegiate football that he was an outstanding quarterback prospect. He was an amazing athlete, had marvelous touch on the ball, and was highly competitive.”
The Raiders penchant for drafting a perceived risk in the second round paid exorbitant dividends. Stabler was the 52nd overall pick in 1968. His circuitous journey began with walking away from the game for a year and reluctantly playing briefly in the Continental League. He was a reserve with a pair of starts before eventually earning the lead role in 1973. A five-year run as a starter produced a 50-11-1 regular season total along with an unprecedented five consecutive conference championship appearances, the most since the AFL-NFL merger. Certain future PFHOF QB, New England Patriots Tom Brady, recently matched the feat last season.
The southpaw erased a prejudice and forever transformed the league.
Play calling by a quarterback was common in the era. Field General Snake was a master spreading the ball to all the receivers while selectively incorporating the running attack to keep defenses off-balance. Stabler, a passer savant, would seek counsel on the ground game for every opponent from two All-Pro teammates, left tackle and guard Art Shell and Gene Upshaw.
“Kenny knew what he could and couldn’t do against a team,” said All-Pro New England Patriots guard John Hannah. “He studied the opponent and just made the right calls at the right time. He was the commander-in-chief.”
Biletnikoff said, “The great thing about Kenny was he was such a good quarterback that when he came into the huddle he just had that demeanor about that he was in charge. He knew what to call and knew how to use the personnel really well. He knew the asset everybody had to contribute. About 99 per cent of the time he put everybody in that offense in a situation where you were going to be successful. You talk about someone who knew what you were doing on a pass route; he would get the ball there.”
Stabler was famous for precision and accuracy with a career completion percentage of 59.85 ranking second at the time of his retirement. Individual highlights include leading the league with a 103.4 passer rating in 1976, All-Pro honors in 1974 and 1976, being named All-AFC three times (1973-74, 1976) and selection to four Pro Bowls (1974, 1975, 1977, 1978). Additionally he was the Associated Press NFL MVP in 1974 and won the Maxwell Football Club “Bert Bell” NFL MVP Trophy in 1976.
Super XI was the crowning moment for the left-handed pioneer as the Oakland Raiders dismantled the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 in Pasadena in January 1977. The 1970s All-Decade Team member completed 12 of 19 passes for 180 yards in the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory.
A practice in preparation for the contest foreshadowed the outcome. Two-time Super Bowl winning Head Coach Tom Flores, an assistant coach with the Raiders at the time, said, “I can remember during an offensive day Snake was flawless. I don’t think one ball hit the ground. It was eerie. I looked at (Head) Coach (John) Madden and he wasn’t sure what to do. He finally said, ‘That’s enough.’ We thought we peaked too early, but Kenny was flawless during the game.”
Super Bowl XI MVP Biletnikoff adamantly believes Stabler should have won the award. He said, “Everybody in that game played so great. The one thing I was always saddened by was he didn’t get the Most Valuable Player in the game award because he really deserved it. The way he handled our offense against Minnesota’s defense was just phenomenal.”
The Raiders Empire of the mid 1970s involved a swashbuckling quarterback famous for plundering the will to win of opponents and dashing the hopes of their fans with trademark comebacks. Relying on statistics to critique Stabler would be the equivalent of reading a synopsis for the epic Southern novel, “Gone with the Wind.” Further examination is required to fully appreciate the depth of Snake’s value to a team. Stabler excelled in the “Just Win, Baby” category, a motto made famous by legendary Raiders owner, Al Davis. His NFL career starting record is 96-49-1 for an outstanding .661 winning percentage. Pocket poise and grace under pressure in must-win possessions became signature moments. Home or away did not matter to Snake as 15 of the 26 game-winning drives were on the road. Nineteen times he performed the heroics in the decisive fourth quarter.
Trust in Stabler’s affinity for miraculous game saving deeds permeated the organization. “We’d always say in a game if a team was close to scoring near the end just let them score so we can have the ball last,” said Mark Davis, currently the principal owner and managing general partner of Oakland. “Let Kenny takes us down to win. I think the Raiders have the most games with names and Kenny was a big part of that. I just loved him.” The Holy Roller, Sea of Hands, and Ghost to the Post are epic games embedded in team and league folklore.
Flores summed up the mystical and universal admiration of Stabler. “When you’re from the South, you’re a hero for life,” he said. “I can see why the people in Alabama and Foley loved him and love him to this day because that’s the way they were in Oakland. It’s hard to pinpoint but it’s that feeling when you get around him. You watch him interact with the fans and little kids and little kids in big bodies. That’s what he played with, they were his teammates. He was remarkable. He was fun to be around. Kenny treated everybody with charm, grace and humor.”
Teammates were devoted to the endearing quarterback known for exuding confidence. Shell was honored by the city of North Charleston, SC., and his high school after Super XI. Two players were invited to the celebration – Upshaw and Stabler. Shell said, “Kenny’s one of the warmest guys you would ever want to meet. He cared about people. He was a fun-loving guy and family was important to him, I wouldn’t miss this (PFHOF Induction weekend) for anything in the world. My quarterback is going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame where he belongs.”
Stabler was a fierce competitor and embraced all challenges with optimism and enthusiasm. Reverence for the unique style of play transcended generations. Fellow 2016 PFHOF Classmate, Brett Favre, witnessed the panache and joie de vie in person attending a New Orleans Saints game as a 14-year old. He invoked Stabler and that specific moment in his induction speech on Saturday evening. Favre aspired to be the next Stabler.
“I was a Kenny fan.,” Favre said. “Not only was he a great player but he was a great character. He seemed to always come through in the clutch. To people who have had success in their life, that’s important. You have to come through when you are needed the most. It seemed like Kenny was one of those guys who always came through.”
The declaration by Madden expressed last September during a ceremony honoring Stabler and replayed on the video tribute Saturday in Canton defined the essence of his quarterback. He said, “I always said that if I had one quarterback to make a drive the length of the field at the end of the game to win that game, that guy would be Ken Stabler, number 12. We miss you. We love you and we’ll see you in the Hall of Fame.”
Great player, great teammate and great friend reflect a trifecta of compliments any individual aspires to achieve. Kenny Stabler reached the elusive goal with teammates, coaches and staff members.
Earl Campbell, the 1977 Heisman Trophy winner and fellow PFHOF member, was a Stabler teammate with the Houston Oilers. Campbell said, “He was a great friend and a great teammate. He was just an incredible guy. He would do anything for you. Kenny Stabler, what a guy. I don’t know anyone who can say something bad about that man. He was a winner and he did not like losing.”
Campbell continued, “’My fault we did that, my fault.’ He would always take the blame for somebody else.”
Fans adored the charismatic quarterback. A handshake, smile or brief encounter signing autographs produced lifelong admiration.
Kenny loved the night life and made jukebox lighting popular for studying the playbook. He was far from a choir boy even though three legendary coaches at Foley High School, Alabama, and Oakland - Ivan Jones, Paul W. Bryant and John Madden - sang his praises from the amen corner. His affection for people bred loyalty and the feeling was reciprocated in kind. He was generous and big-hearted. Stabler was a frequent participant in charitable events. His own foundation continues to operate (http://kenstabler.com/xoxo-stabler-foundation/).
Diagnosed posthumously with C.T.E. (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), Stabler’s final noble gesture was to donate his brain to scientists at Boston University School for Medicine for research in hopes of finding a cure for others.
He slithered all across the field with those long legs to earn the moniker “Snake” from junior high football coach Denzil Hollis. He lived 69 plus years before colon cancer took the life of LA’s (Lower Alabama) beloved favorite son on July 8, 2015. Although he passed nearly seven months prior to his name being announced for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Ken Stabler triumphed in the end paralleling all the dramatic finishes on the field. His legend is immortalized for the football loving community to cherish.
PFHOF President, David Baker said on Sunday, “If Kenny Stabler was alive this celebration would go far into next week.” He was right.
Daughter Kendra Stabler Moyes, channeling her “Daddio” as she affectionately referred to him recited the best line on Saturday night in a live TV interview immediately after the festivities before the 22,469 in attendance at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, “There’s a Snake in the Hall.”
Born on Christmas Day 1945, he was a precious gift to the football fans across the country. Long live the legacy and legend of Kenneth Michael “Snake” Stabler, a Southerner by birth and a true, genuine American original.