“The Autumn Wind is a Stabler,” is how the Oakland Raiders theme song should begin. We always talk about ‘glory years’ with a sense of nostalgia, a sense of better times, a sense of purity. The glory years for the Raiders, however, are always about how they created a culture appreciated by past and present generations alike. There is nothing nostalgic about the idea of The Autumn Wind because today’s Raiders embody the same spirit and ideologies of the ’70s Raiders – and those ’70s Raiders moved and functioned through a wild era of NFL football at the pace that Kenny Stabler took them. If Al Davis represented the Raiders in the flesh, Stabler was its unequivocal soul.
On Saturday, Stabler will finally find his rightful place in the NFL’s Hall of Fame. Stabler was always one of those guys whose personality outshone his career, which is more a testament to how far, varied and extensive the mythology connected to him is. During his playing days, Stabler only finished a single season with a losing record – spanning from high school to college at Alabama to all of his years in the NFL. Stabler played in five consecutive AFC Championship games with the Raiders, led the NFL in passing yards twice, completion percentage twice, won a Super Bowl and an NFL MVP. Nothing is missing from his resume, and yet he’s rarely brought up in conversations about the NFL’s greatest passers.
Stabler wasn’t just a quarterback, he was a living, breathing, partying doctrine for what it meant to be a Raider. The late ’60s in Oakland began setting the tone for an organizational culture unique to any in sports. The team took chances on outcasts, outliers and those who would be out of work if not for the silver and black. The people of Oakland are as anti-establishment by nature as any group defined by geography in the nation, and the Raiders took on that identity during the peak of the civil right’s movement. The Raiders weren’t necessarily political in that sense, but they turned their back to the status quo and didn’t allow the power elite of the NFL to dictate how they ran their club or how the players handle themselves on the field.
This ethos carried over into the ’70s, and the swashbuckling swagger of Stabler was the driving force behind the team taking the baton from the first leg of a decade’s-long relay. When Stabler wasn’t leading his troops on the field, he was getting them in trouble off it. In his autobiography, Snake, he tells wild stories about sneaking out during training camps to get drunk with his boys, Playboy mansion parties and chasing women until the wee hours of the morning before a big game – sometimes against the wishes of John Madden, and at times against the wishes of the NFL. Stabler lived his life in a constant search for the things that would make him happy, and a happy Stabler off the field only made him better on it. He lived the way Leo Tolstoy saw the world, striving to have all the things we can and cannot control.
“Our life is a quest for gratification. There is physical gratification in health, in satisfying the lusts of the body, in wealth, sexual love, fame, honor, power. All these gratifications 1) are outside our control, 2) may be taken away from us at any moment by death, and 3) are not accessible to everyone,” began Tolstoy in a journal entry in the late 19th Century. Stabler had all of these things during his career. The women, the success, the fame, the money and the honor. He didn’t play football for these things, but he earned them because of the way he played.
“But there is another kind of gratification,” Tolstoy continued. “The spiritual, the love for others, which 1) is always in our control, 2) is not taken from us by death, and we can die loving, and 3) not only is accessible to all, but the more people live for it, the more joy there will be.”
This is what made Stabler the Snake, and this is why he was able to capture the zeitgeist of an organizational culture all on his own. Those who played with him, those who called him a friend and those who called him family all loved him. Stabler, who quit the Raiders during his rookie year because of knee issues and homesickness, had a rather unorthodox start to his career. After a couple of seasons off, he flew with an attorney named Henry Pitts to meet with new head coach John Madden about rejoining the team.
As the story goes, there was a point in the meeting where Madden got out of his chair, lumbered over to the secretary’s desk and asked her to lock the doors because he didn’t want Stabler to leave until he was officially a Raider again. Stabler played behind Daryle Lamonica for a few years hoping for a shot to lead a team that would ultimately become his own, and received that shot in the 1973 season, winning eight of the 11 games he started. Stabler left his stamp on the field during that first season but didn’t leave his stamp on the organization until he became a veteran comfortable in his role as the Raiders’ signal caller. Stabler was a free-wheeled man off the field, and that became his identity on it, taking chances to squeeze a tight pass between a pair of defenders or to hit a tightly covered Fred Biletnikoff up the sideline for a 60-yard bomb. He was a free spirit, and he was a fighter.
There’s an old black and white photo of Stabler wearing a black shirt tucked into white pants with the words “SILVER & BLACK ATTACK” written in all caps across his chest. He’s standing on the football field with blocking sleds behind him. With a short haircut and a full beard, he’s looking directly into the camera whilst flipping the bird. The general sentiment is ostensibly how he handled all of his post-career challenges.
On July 8, 2015, Stabler passed away with colon cancer. In William Browning’s fantastic feature for SBNation, he paints a picture of an aging Stabler, losing his strength via chemotherapy, literally fighting off the disease. For four months, Stabler spent time in his garage throwing punches at a speed bag and a heavy bag. From Browning:
He had bought some boxing equipment — a speedbag and a heavy bag — and he set them up in the garage, beside a stationary bicycle. For the next four months, when he had the energy, Stabler walked alone into the garage and threw punches until he couldn’t throw anymore. Faced with his own mortality at 69, that is how he responded. By balling up his fists and swinging.
It surprised no one that Stabler would spend his time fighting. He always went out on his own terms, and would do anything to ensure victory. In a win over the San Diego Chargers, Stabler fumbled on purpose to keep a play alive – a play that ended with tight end Dave Casper falling on the football in the end zone to secure a 21-20 victory described as “the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play” by broadcaster Bill King. In a 1977 playoff game, Stabler would hit Casper for a 42-yard gain late in the fourth against the Baltimore Colts, a play that would later be dubbed ‘Ghost To The Post.’ The play set up a game-tying field goal, sending the game into overtime. 43 seconds into overtime, Stabler found Casper again for the game-winning touchdown
In his only trip to the Super Bowl, he led a 90-second game-winning drive to unseat the 2-time defending Super Bowl champion Dolphins in an exhilarating 28-26 victory. Stabler was hit from behind as he floated a pass to Clarence Davis, who came down with the ball with three Miami defenders draped all over him. Stabler grew accustomed to beating the odds, and when he didn’t his opponent had a hell of a time talking him down – and the same would go for the colon cancer that would ultimately take his life.
Stabler’s fighting didn’t end with his death. As requested, doctors removed his brain the day after he died and was sent to scientists in Massachusetts. They found that Stabler had high Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) on a 1 to 4 scale. During his final years, the disease, it is believed, was the cause for him losing some of his mental sharpness and some of the verve that made him who he was during his playing days. Some of his motor functions started to deteriorate, bright lights and loud noises bothered him, and he was often found by family members repeating himself during his last year. And yet, with all of this going on, he had the presence of mind to want this study completed after he was gone. According to the New York Times, Stabler’s partner Kim Bush asked him point blank if this is a study he wanted to be a part of. His answer, “Yeah, I want to do that. I should definitely do that.”
There aren’t many characters quite like Ken Stabler. He was an incredibly flawed human, but he owned those flaws and turned them into a way of living for a sub-culture of football players. Stabler won football games; he won over his locker room, and he won over a legion of misfits all over the country who felt like, if given the opportunity, the could be great, too. Stabler was enshrined in our collective hearts decades ago, but his bust will live in Canton for as long as football exists. The Autumn Wind is a Raider, and moving forward, Stabler’s legacy will breeze through The East Bay as a member of the NFL’s Hall of Fame.Written by Philllip Barnett