Ken Stabler, Rest in Peace

Football player, Ken Stabler

Photo courtesy of Ken

Ken Stabler, Rest in Peace
| published July 10, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff writers

His nickname was The Snake, and legendary coach John Madden has famously said that when it was crunch time, and you had only one play in which to move the ball a certain distance, Ken Stabler would have been that player.

“I’ve often said,” Madden was quoted yesterday, “that if I had one drive to win a game, and I had a quarterback to pick, I would pick Kenny.”

Madden was among the millions of football and sports fans saddened to learn that Stabler died at the age of 69 after a long battle with colon cancer. His family released a statement on Thursday explaining that he had died peacefully and quietly at his home in Gulfport, Mississippi, surrounded by family and close friends.

Stabler, like Joe Namath, began his gridiron stardom early. Born in Foley, Alabama on Christmas Day 1945, Stabler led his hometown high school football team to 29 victories out of the thirty games he played. A famous coach in Tuscaloosa took notice of his skills, and Stabler would later become the starting quarterback at his beloved Alabama in the middle 1960s. He was so good—taking the Crimson Tide to an undefeated season in 1966—that the NFL plucked him from Bear Bryant’s talented Tide after just two years. But not before Alabama handed Nebraska a 34-7 beating in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 11-0 season.

Stabler went on to become a four-time Pro-Bowl player, and the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the year 1974. That year he topped the charts with his 26 touchdown passes and his 2469 yards of offense. Stabler also led the Oakland Raiders, coached by Madden, to a huge win in Super Bowl XI when Oakland beat the Minnesota Vikings 32-14.

Stabler was also present in what may be one of the most famous NFL games of all time—the 1972 playoff game between the Raiders and the Pittsburg Steelers, a game that ended with the now infamous and controversial play known as the Immaculate Reception (see Earl Perkins’ article on that topic in Thursday Review’s archives).

Stabler had a particular forte on the field which resembled, in some fans eyes, that of the Dallas Cowboy’s Roger Staubach: an ability to rapidly assess any situation under extreme pressure, then, deliver measurable results. Known as a scrambler in college, in the NFL he thrived less by running fast and more by operating well under pressure in the pocket, and especially for being able to bring the team back against long odds. Stabler also worked well with what amounted to one of the best offenses ever deployed, firing off rapid but highly accurate passes to receiver Fred Biletnikoff and tight end Dave Casper. Adding to the list receiver Cliff Branch (one of the fastest players ever to appear on the NFL fields), the lineup amounted to one of the most formidable offenses in NFL history.

According to the sports trivia websites and the history books, Stabler became the fastest quarterback ever to reach the 100 winning game mark (he did it in 150 games), toppling the famed Johnny Unitas's previous record of 153. In the decades since, only three quarterbacks have topped Stabler's record: Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Tom Brady.

Stabler’s family said that Stabler had decided before his death to donate his organs to medical science. Among his gifts after death: his brain and spinal cord, which will be given to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center as a tool to help researchers better understand brain injuries and degenerative spinal cord conditions in athletes, young and old.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Most Famous Play in NFL History; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; December 28, 2012.

Super Bowl, Super Blowout; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 3, 2014.