Kenny Stabler died this week at age 69, as first reported Thursday by the Tuscaloosa News — albeit contentiously.
The hour or so of social media kerfuffle that ensued as consumers (and producers) of news awaited confirmation prompted me to do some background on Stabler. I heard those who watched him play talk about what an exciting player he was. I knew of his reputation as something of a wild child, indicative of both the Oakland Raiders image and the 1970s ideal of machismo.
Among the photos I repeatedly came across was one of a bearded Stabler giving the cameraman the New York Salute. Stabler in a nutshell?
Maybe. At least, that’s the image the public at large was privy to. Kenny Stabler was also a proud grandfather, as Arizona Republic columnist Paola Boivin shared:
Kenny Stabler proudly tweeted this just 22 days ago about his football-playing grandsons in Arizona. pic.twitter.com/LxCVeBaoSb
— Paola Boivin (@PaolaBoivin) July 9, 2015
Stabler is also contributing to the advancement of the safety of football. Per his family’s statement confirming his death, Stabler is leaving his brain and spinal cord to Boston University’s renowned researchers.
In my neck of the woods, California, Stabler is best known for his days as the Raiders starting quarterback — and with good reason. Kenny Stabler led the Raiders throughout their heyday of the 1970s. He won Most Valuable Player of the NFL in 1974, claimed a Super Bowl in 1977 and was a four-time Pro Bowler. No one is more closely associated with the John Madden era.
In SEC Country, however, Kenny Stabler is perhaps better known for his time with the Alabama Crimson Tide. Stabler is firmly entrenched in Alabama history for his contributions in two of the program’s memorable wins over its most bitter rivals: Tennessee and Auburn.
AL.com readers voted him Alabama’s third-greatest quarterback of all-time earlier this year.
Like fashion, trends in football tend to come back around in waves. Today’s college football landscape is rife with mobile quarterbacks who have the size more closely associated with pocket-passers. With his gunslinger passing style and elusiveness out of the pocket, Kenny Stabler probably would have been right at home in the modern game, making plays in much the same vein as Marcus Mariota, as the above footage demonstrates.
In 1966, Stabler’s ahead-of-its-time style resulted in nine passing touchdowns and three scores on the ground. He rushed for an impressive 397 that season, as the Crimson Tide went undefeated, capping the campaign with a Sugar Bowl rout of Nebraska.
As I mention in the intro, Stabler’s best known for his NFL career, outside of the SEC at least. He’s widely considered one of the most deserving players not enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Mark Inabenitt wrote this impassioned and convincing argument for Kenny Stabler last August last week, just days before the 2014 Hall of Fame class was inducted. Two years earlier, the New York Times offered a different perspective.
Kenny Stabler’s brash on-field style reflected his off-field life, and vice versa. The 2010 book Badasses details the wildness of the ’70s Raiders, including The Snake. It’s hard to imagine today’s NFL, with its attempts at perfectly sanitizing its image, not taking a harsh stand.
Look at Johnny Manziel, a player whose on-field style reflects the free-wheeling influence of Kenny Stabler. Manziel went from the college party scene to the pressures of 24-hour scrutiny inherent in the modern NFL. For Stabler, the beard and long hair of his pro days were in stark contrast to the closely crop haircut that, judging from old photos, was General Issue under Bear Bryant.
In that image is a duality, much like Stabler’s run-pass playmaking style. Likewise, there’s duality to be gleaned from his death: the image of a bearded Stabler, middle finger in the air, juxtaposed with the proud granddad and the man who, posthumously, will help future generations of football players from head trauma.
No matter the image the athletes we follow convey, in Kenny Stabler there’s a reminder that there’s often more beyond that image.