WE MOURN THE passing of great athletes for the splendor of their work, for titles won and records set, for moments given to those of us who can only watch and for memories made that will outlive their mortal selves, and ours. Yet on occasion death comes to an athlete who lived a life so large that it nearly obscures his work, blending the man and the legend. Former NFL quarterback Ken (the Snake) Stabler, leader of the outlaw Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, who died last week at age 69 from complications associated with colon cancer, was just such an athlete. He was respected for his work on the football field and mythologized for his life off it.
Stabler was inarguably one of the best quarterbacks of his era, a 6'3", 215-pound lefthander who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama with a silky delivery and good knees. The former would endure, the latter would not. Drafted in 1968, he was the NFL MVP in '74 and led the Raiders over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI in January 1977. He was accurate before accuracy became commonplace: In that championship season of '76 he completed a then NFL-record 66.7% of his passes when the league average was 52.2%. (In 2014, Tony Romo led the NFL at 69.9%, but the league average was 62.6%.) Stabler's work was more instinctive than learned. "I didn't study in front of film, like a Peyton Manning," he told author Peter Richmond in the 2010 book Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death and John Madden's Oakland Raiders. "I went out and played the game. It was a simpler time. The defenses weren't sophisticated. But I didn't study the game."
He was at his best in the closing minutes of a tight game, as cool inside his helmet as the sweaty blond hair that flowed out of it. Upon the news of Stabler's passing, Madden said, "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." It was Stabler who came off the bench in 1972 and led the Raiders to the go-ahead touchdown against the Steelers that preceded the Immaculate Reception. And in 1974 it was Stabler who completed the unlikely touchdown pass to Clarence Davis—the so-called Sea of Hands reception in a divisional playoff game that eliminated the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Dolphins.
Those are the football moments. Stabler is just as excitedly recalled for the nights spent swilling booze and shooting pool in Oakland, Alabama and many places in between, a symbol of the play-hard, party-harder Raiders and a man who stood on the cultural fence that separated Bobby Layne's generation from Tom Brady's. In the summer of 1977, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer Robert F. Jones spent a week with Stabler, much of it in his beloved Alabama hometown of Foley and in nearby Gulf Shores.
July 20, 2015
Early in the cover story Jones summarized the rollicking tale that would follow: "The week shot by like a long wet blur. Through it ran the sounds of Stablerian pleasure: the steady gurgle of upturned beer bottles, the clack and thunk of pool balls, the snarl of outboard motors, the whiny cadences of country music. At the end of it, anyone following in Stabler's wake would be ready for a body transplant: liver and lights, heart and kidneys, eardrums—maybe even a few new teeth."
And this was the Snake, a species nearly extinct: a man who could outdrink you on Friday night and beat you on the field two days later. Stabler's family said he died in some small way just as he lived, with Lynyrd Skynyrd's music in the air. Forever the rebel.
To read Robert F. Jones's 1977 SI cover story on Stabler, go to SI.com/stabler