Ken Stabler, One of a Kind
I first knew Stabler when he was drafted by the Raiders in 1968 in the second round of the AFL draft. (I covered the Raiders for The Chronicle, 1967-71). Al Davis didn’t want him and never liked him. Eldridge Dickey, a black quarterback with great athletic ability but no discipline, was Davis’s pick on the first round. Ron Wolf and then coach John Rauch lobbied heavily for Stabler on the second round and Davis reluctantly agreed.
Marital problems and a knee injury from his college days kept Stabler away from the field so it wasn’t until 1970 that Stabler became a factor for the Raiders.
That was a momentous year for the Raiders because it was the first year the two leagues were merged into one, with two conferences. It turned out to be a devastating change for then Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica. In the AFL, Lamonica had prospered because AFL teams played a man-to-man defense, and the Raiders receivers were superior to the AFL defensive backs. The NFL, though, often played zone defenses and Lamonica didn’t have a clue how to combat them because, as a pro, he had never played against them, even in practice because Davis hated zone defenses.
For a time, John Madden, who became the head coach in 1969, went back and forth between Lamonica and Stabler, but inevitably, Stabler won the battle because he knew how to attack a zone. He had an accurate arm but not a strong one, so he changed plays – most obviously, an out pattern to the sideline, which he made a shorter throw – which angered Davis. In practice, he would stand behind Stabler and say “Look deep.” Stabler just ignored him.
Stabler and Tom Flores, then the quarterbacks coach, would have meetings during the week. Then, Stabler would take the play book home and decide which plays he would use in the upcoming game. He called the plays during the game; none of this signaling from coaches on the sideline.
Stabler never made excuses and he never criticized teammates. There was one season when he was struggling, with poor pass protection, and his statistics were way down. He also stopped talking to writers, though he had been very cooperative before. It wasn’t until the next year when we realized what was happening. The Raiders had a rookie offensive tackle who wasn’t playing well. Stabler wasn’t going to criticize him, so he just stopped talking.
He was just as independent in his private life. He liked the ladies and the ladies liked him. Many of the stories about the Raiders in those days were exaggerated but not with Stabler. In training camp, he bedded a number of women and took a souvenir from each – their panties, which he pinned to the ceiling of his room.
In retirement, he moved back to his beloved Alabama, living primarily in the Gulf Shores area, but he made frequent visits to the Bay Area. He had a good friend in Santa Rosa that he visited, and he told me on one of his visits that he wanted to start a business, probably a restaurant, in Oakland, but he never did. He probably realized he’d have to spend too much time away from Alabama.
The last time I saw Kenny was about 10 years ago when he was in the area promoting one of his business ventures. At that time, Comcast and The Chronicle had a partnership for a nightly sports/feature show and we were both guests on the show that night. As it happened, we had house guests, friends from St. Louis, Don and Brenda Gay, and Don was a big sports fan – and Stabler admirer. We were waiting in the “Green Room” when Stabler came in. We talked briefly and I introduced him to Don and Brenda. Don had a lot of questions, which Stabler answered without hesitation.
Greg Papa was the host for the show but he had never seen Stabler play. So, when Stabler came on, Greg turned over the microphone to me and I interviewed Kenny, going over many of the topics we had discussed earlier in the dressing room. We both enjoyed it and I’m sure the audience did, too.
I’m not close to NFL players now but I seriously doubt that there’s anybody like Ken Stabler playing today. He was truly one of a kind.
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