Some of the most entertaining players in NFL history had nicknames that perfectly fit their character and the teams they led.
“Broadway” Joe Namath led the New York Jets to a guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III.
Reggie White, “The Minister of Defense,” helped Green Bay return to a championship after several decades.
Joe Montana, “Joe Cool,” led the San Francisco 49ers to multiple championships.
Then there was Ken Stabler.
Never bet against a team that has Ken Stabler and Jim Rockford. pic.twitter.com/TQqqhLqgUw
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) March 17, 2022
“The Snake” was a perfect fit to lead a renegade band of misfits known as the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s.
Stabler had a hard-living, rabble-rousing, never-say-die attitude that propelled the Raiders to their first-ever Super Bowl title in 1977.
Throughout his life and NFL career, Stabler’s personality was evident in everything he did. He wasn’t shy about sharing his vices with teammates or the general public, either.
This is the off-the-wall story of Kenny “The Snake” Stabler.
Kenneth Michael Stabler was born on December 25, 1945, in Foley, Alabama.
— Waylon Jennings Songs (@WaymoreJennings) December 25, 2020
He played sports from an early age and excelled in football, baseball, and basketball at Foley High School.
Stabler started at quarterback for Foley High for three years and led the Lions to a 29-1 record and three state titles during that time.
He was also named to the All-State Team and received a moniker from his high school coach that would stick for the rest of his life.
“That was when I gave him the nickname ‘Snake,'” said Denzil Hollis, Stabler’s high school coach, in 1977. “Back in the eighth or ninth grade. He’d run 200 yards to score from 20 yards out.”
While in high school, Stabler averaged 29 points per game in basketball. Plus, he pitched well enough on the baseball diamond the Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees all offered him minor league contracts.
His athletic ability eventually earned Stabler an All-American designation.
As a senior, Stabler won nine games as a left-handed pitcher for the Lions and had 125 strikeouts and five shutouts by primarily throwing fastballs.
Baseball could have been Stabler’s early ticket to the pros, but the Snake enjoyed football too much to give it up.
“When I was 17,” Stabler said, “the Pittsburgh Pirates offered me $50,000 to sign. But by then, I’d gotten to like football. And I wanted to play for Coach Bryant. If it hadn’t been for sports, I wouldn’t have gone to college.”
The University of Alabama and their head coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant recruited Stabler.
As he graduated from high school, Stabler accepted a scholarship to play for the Crimson Tide.
Not Dazzling, but Effective
Bear Bryant’s steady leadership meant Alabama was consistently good and consistently loaded.
When Stabler arrived on campus for his freshman year in 1964, he watched as senior Joe Namath led the Crimson Tide to a 10-1 record and a national title.
In 1965, Stabler was stuck behind Steve Sloan who took Alabama to a second straight national title.
Finally, in 1966, Stabler was named the starter. He had 956 passing yards, nine touchdowns, five interceptions, and a 152.7 quarterback rating.
Bryant’s teams were notoriously run-heavy, which meant that Stabler wasn’t able to throw the pigskin that often.
— Roll Tide #18™ 🐘 (@jerrysandersRTR) March 21, 2015
However, he used his legs to pick up yardage and added 397 yards and three touchdowns in ‘66.
Alabama went 11-0 that year and defeated Nebraska 34-7.
Despite being undefeated, the Tide was not awarded a third national title.
Curiously, Alabama ended the year as the nation’s third-ranked team behind Notre Dame and Michigan State.
Neither team had played in a bowl game.
Uneven Senior Year and the “Run in the Mud”
Alabama had just completed three years of dominant football that saw the program only lose two games total.
Entering 1967, Tide fans expected Stabler to deliver another national title.
Unfortunately, the team wasn’t as solid as it had been the past few years, and Stabler found himself in hot water.
After being caught skipping class and spending too much time partying, Bryant kicked Stabler off the team.
The Bear would eventually allow Stabler to return and The Snake provided one of his most memorable moments in the Iron Bowl against Auburn.
With the Tide down 3-0 near the end of a rain-soaked game, Stabler once again lived up to his nickname by weaving 47 yards through traffic for the game-winning touchdown.
One of the greatest plays in college football and Alabama Crimson Tide history. Snake's "Run in the Mud" play on Dec. 2nd, 1967 depicted by artist Daniel Moore. Alabama beat Auburn 7-3 in this classic game, and another Ken Stabler fantastic finish in the clutch. #RollTide pic.twitter.com/n8jiKPjEop
— Ken Stabler (@TheKenStabler) September 3, 2019
The play has been dubbed the “Run in the Mud.”
Alabama would finish the ‘67 season 8-2-1 and include a 20-16 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
Stabler passed for 1,214 yards, nine touchdowns, and 13 picks.
He also racked up 113 rushing yards and five more scores.
Stabler was named both an All-Southeastern Conference and All-American player in 1967.
During his college career, Stabler accumulated 2,196 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions.
He also rushed for 838 yards and scored nine rushing touchdowns.
Slow Start as a Pro
Although he was limited as a passer in Bear Bryant’s offense, the Oakland Raiders selected Stabler in the American Football League’s second round in the 1968 draft.
With the 52nd pick in round 2 of the ‘68 NFL draft, the Raiders draft QB Ken Stabler from the University of Alabama. The man they called "Snake" would lead the Raiders to their 1st World Championship in SB XI, and become the clubs all-time leading passer and NFL Hall of Famer. pic.twitter.com/Ze8rQpQatC
— Ken Stabler (@TheKenStabler) April 23, 2020
The year before, Oakland had won the AFL Championship (but lost Super Bowl II) behind quarterback Daryle Lamonica.
Stabler was signed by the Raiders in early 1968, but with Lamonica firmly entrenched as the starter, Stabler didn’t see any time on the field.
That same year, Major League Baseball tried again to lure The Snake back to the diamond when the Houston Astros drafted him.
This came on the heels of the Yankees and New York Mets also drafting him in 1966 and 1967, respectively.
Knowing that he was stuck on the bench did not persuade Stabler to leave football.
In November of 1968, Oakland sent him to the Spokane Shock of the Continental Football League to get some more pro-playing experience.
Stabler returned to the Bay Area after only a handful of games with the Shock.
The following spring, Stabler left the Raiders and missed the entire 1969 season.
In early 1970, Raiders coach John Madden announced that Stabler would be rejoining the team.
From 1970 through the 1972 seasons, Stabler started in just two games and passed for a total of 844 yards, five touchdowns, and eight interceptions.
The Snake Becomes a Starter
At the tail end of the 1972 season, the Raiders were at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh taking on the Steelers in the Divisional round.
The heated rivalry between the two clubs was on full display that afternoon as the score was knotted at zero by halftime, and Pittsburgh held a slim 3-0 lead at the end of three quarters.
Stabler entered the game for Lamonica who was not himself due to a severe case of the flu.
With the Steelers leading 6-0 in the fourth quarter, Stabler snaked through the defense for a 30-yard touchdown run.
The touchdown and successful PAT made the score 7-6.
Minutes later, Pittsburgh had the ball at their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds left and facing 4th and ten.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass to running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua, and as the pass arrived, so did Raiders safety Jack Tatum.
The ball bounced off one of the players and flew through the air back toward the line of scrimmage.
At the last second, Steelers’ running back Franco Harris snagged the ball before it hit the turf and rumbled for the game-winning touchdown.
One of the greatest plays of all time.
49 years ago, Franco Harris made the Immaculate Reception 👏
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 23, 2021
“The Immaculate Reception” is still debated today and both Fuqua and Tatum claim the ball caromed off the other.
According to NFL rules at the time, if the ball had hit Fuqua last, the reception by Harris wouldn’t have counted.
The year after the disaster at Pittsburgh, Stabler started in 11 contests.
He helped lead the Raiders to a 9-4-1 record and an eventual AFC Championship game loss to Miami.
His first season as a starter led to 1,997 passing yards, a league-best 62.7 completion percentage, 14 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.
The Snake also scrambled for 101 yards, and he was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
In early 1974, Stabler shocked Raiders fans when he signed a contract with the new World Football League’s Birmingham Americans.
“I was born in the South and raised in the South and played football in the South. Oakland could have offered me as much money as Birmingham but they couldn’t have let me play in the South,” said Stabler after signing.
Despite his excitement at the prospect of returning home, the WFL folded in 1975 with Stabler never having played a down for the league.
By then, all the years of running and scrambling had finally caught up to the Snake.
After a series of significant knee injuries, Stabler relied less on his legs and more on his arm.
That wasn’t a bad thing as he was already known for his uncanny accuracy.
“Kenny was the most accurate thrower,” said former Raiders fullback Pete Banaszak. “If you wanted the ball between the four and the zero, he’d put it there. If you wanted it in the ear hole, Kenny could put it there.”
In 1974, Stabler was voted to his second Pro Bowl and received a first-team All-Pro nod after passing for 2,469 yards, an NFL-best 26 touchdowns, and 12 picks.
Ken Stabler was the NFL's MVP in 1974. Snake became the first Raider to win the award in leading the league with 26 TD passes and Oakland to a 12-2 record. pic.twitter.com/NNwoOhioln
— Ken Stabler (@TheKenStabler) March 13, 2021
He also led the league in four other categories while taking Oakland to a 12-2 season and a loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game.
For his efforts, Stabler became the NFL’s MVP as well as the Offensive Player of the Year.
The following season, Stabler passed for over 2,200 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. This helped the Raiders return to the postseason only to lose again to the Steelers in the AFC title game.
Super Bowl XI
The 1976 Oakland Raiders were an absolutely nasty bunch.
After they navigated their way through a 13-1 regular season, Stabler went to the Pro Bowl for the third time.
That year, he passed for 2,737 yards, an NFL-best 27 touchdowns, and 17 picks. Ken Stabler received the Bert Bell Award for the player of the year in the NFL.
Stabler also led the league in eight other categories including game-winning drives (four) and a career-best 103.4 passer rating.
At the time, Stabler was also known for his hard-drinking and entertaining lifestyle away from the field.
It's Monday. Go attack life this week like Ken Stabler driving a goddamn speedboat. pic.twitter.com/2KW3MEpDsi
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) August 2, 2021
He was notorious for showing up to games (allegedly) hung-over from the night before.
However, according to Stabler, it didn’t matter what condition he was in on game day, so long as he produced.
“You don’t have to do the conventional things the night before. It doesn’t matter as long as you did it the next day—and we did it consistently,” Stabler once said.
In a 1977 Sports Illustrated article about Stabler, even Bear Bryant reminisced about Stabler’s wild ways the nights before ‘Bama games.
“Ah remember that boy,’ said Bryant. “He looked like a good ‘un, but he always left his football game in some parked car the night before we played.”
During the 1976 season, Oakland lost badly to New England in Week 4 for their only loss, then nearly lost to the Patriots again in the Divisional Round.
At one point, New England led the Raiders 21-10 before the silver-and-black scored two unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win 24-21.
One week later, Oakland finally got past their nemesis as they crushed Pittsburgh 24-7 to advance to Super Bowl XI.
“Don’t let no one tell you that the Pittsburgh-Oakland rivalry is a press hype,” Stabler commented in 1977. “We hate them; they hate us. Beating them that bad in the playoffs was sweet indeed. People who’d been saying we couldn’t win the big ones had to eat crow.”
During the Super Bowl, Stabler completed 12 of 19 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown as the Raiders crushed the Minnesota Vikings 32-14.
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) May 22, 2022
The win was the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory, and Stabler was feeling good.
“I remember thinking that there are only about six quarterbacks who have ever won the Super Bowl, and now I’m one of them,” said Stabler in 1977. “A great feeling, a great release, an ego balloon. Freddie (Biletnikoff) was crying and Coach Madden was all red and grinning and guys were hugging each other like a bunch of fruits and pouring champagne over each other, and then I suddenly had this tremendous urge for a great big plate of scampi and a bottle of Johnnie Red.”
“Ghost to the Post”
In 1977, Oakland hoped to repeat as Super Bowl champs and put together an 11-3 season.
Stabler was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl after passing for 2,176 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 20 picks.
The Divisional Round pitted Oakland against the Baltimore Colts.
Down by three with only 2:17 remaining and facing second and ten, offensive coordinator Tom Flores had Stabler run a pass play where the two Oakland receivers ran specific routes.
He also told his quarterback to, “take a peek at the Ghost to the post.”
This referred to a deep pattern run by tight end Dave Casper (as in “Casper the Friendly Ghost”) down the field and then angling to the goal post.
Although he wasn’t the intended receiver on the play, Stabler noticed that the Baltimore safeties had cheated toward the line of scrimmage, and he arced the ball over their heads and into Casper’s hands.
— NFL (@NFL) September 21, 2019
The tight end snagged the ball and rambled to the Colts’ 14-yard line before being tackled.
With 29 seconds remaining, the Raiders kicked the game-tying field goal which sent the game into overtime.
After both teams failed to score in the first overtime, the game went into a second overtime.
Only 43 seconds into the second extra period, Stabler found Casper again for a game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass.
When the contest finally ended, it was the league’s third-longest game at that point.
Unfortunately, a week later, Oakland’s dreams of a repeat died when the Denver Broncos defeated them in the AFC title game 20-17.
“The Holy Roller”
Although he passed for over 2,900 yards and 16 touchdowns in 1978, Stabler also had a career-high 30 interceptions.
Oakland still went 9-7 but failed to make the postseason for the first time since 1971.
That didn’t mean the year was any less exciting.
Nothing was off limits when Hank Jr., Ken Stabler, & John Matuszak were runnin together….. pic.twitter.com/n5MsxxZzL5
— PolyesterPalace (@PolyesterPalace) January 20, 2022
In Week 2, the Raiders faced the San Diego Chargers and were losing 20-14 with only 10 seconds remaining.
With Oakland perched on the Chargers’ 14-yard line, Stabler took the snap and was about to get sacked by San Diego linebacker Woodrow Lowe.
Before he hit the ground, the ball came out of Stabler’s hand and rolled toward the end zone.
Raiders fullback Pete Banaszak tried to corral the ball but ended up batting it closer to the end zone.
Casper then tried to pick up the ball but also couldn’t find the handle and ended up kicking the loose ball into the end zone.
Finally, Casper fell on the ball for a touchdown and the extra point gave the Raiders an improbable 21-20 victory.
The fumble during the “Holy Roller” was legal at the time of this game. Ken Stabler fumbled the ball forward which led to Dave Casper picking it up for a TD in the final seconds of the game. Because of this play, any fumble in the last two minutes of each half,… pic.twitter.com/OWzDYfT6jI
— Ian Wolin (@footballref215) August 1, 2020
While the Oakland players and coaches rejoiced, the Chargers and their fans wanted an explanation.
According to NFL rules at the time, a ball that is intentionally fumbled forward was considered a forward pass.
The league office would later confirm the game officials’ ruling of the play and award Oakland the victory.
Raiders fans dubbed the contest the “Holy Roller” while Chargers fans called it the “Immaculate Deception.”
After the season, the Ken Stabler Rule was put into effect. This rule permitted only the fumbling player to recover the ball during a fourth-down play or during any down played after the two-minute warning in a half or overtime.
Years later, Stabler, Casper, and Banaszak all admitted that they had fumbled the ball forward on purpose.
“I mean, what else was I going to do with it? Throw it out there, shake the dice,” Stabler said in 2008.
In the summer of 1979, Sacramento Bee reporter Bob Padecky traveled to southern Alabama to interview Stabler.
Padecky was invited to Gulf Shores, Alabama, where Stabler resided, to talk football.
Stabler had ceased speaking with Padecky the year before while Stabler was faltering through his 30-interception season.
After arriving in Alabama, the reporter quickly found his way into Stabler’s dog house after the two were involved in a series of testy interviews.
Apparently, that’s when Stabler decided to get even, according to Padecky.
— OddsLink (@oddslink) July 13, 2015
Not long after leaving a Gulf Shores restaurant, Padecky found himself being pulled over by police.
“I pulled out of the restaurant parking lot and onto the highway, and was hemmed in by two police cars and a motorcycle policeman,” recalled Padecky. “I was searched and placed in handcuffs while a cop went to my left front fender and pulled a magnetic key case from inside the wheel well. The key case contained cocaine.”
Padecky was put in jail. Later, armed guards escorted to the airport in Pensacola, Florida.
After writing about the incident, a number of concerned parties looked into the matter.
“The NFL, the FBI, and the state of Alabama investigated,” continued Padecky. “After all, cocaine had been found. No one was arrested, although I imagine it wasn’t a pleasant time for Stabler.”
Needless to say, the relationship between Stabler and Padecky would never be the same.
“Stabler told me to buzz off the following training camp. That’s the nut of it,” said Padecky.
Trade to Houston
The incident in Gulf Shores notwithstanding, Stabler passed for a career-high 3,615 yards in 1979 along with 26 touchdowns and 22 picks.
Oakland finished the year 9-7 again and started cleaning house.
In May of 1980, the only franchise Stabler had ever known traded him to the Houston Oilers.
You know your train sure as hell just hit the right town when Ken Stabler and Bum Phillips meet you at the goddamn station. pic.twitter.com/RRXvkeeG39
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) January 27, 2021
He left as the Raiders’ all-time leader in completions (1,486), passing yards (19,078), and touchdown passes (150).
Casper was also part of the trade. He joined Stabler in Houston where the duo played alongside Earl Campbell.
That year, the Oilers went 11-5 and lost to the Raiders in the Wild Card round, leading to the firing of coach Bum Phillips.
The loss was even more bitter when Jim Plunkett led Stabler’s former team to a Super Bowl XV win after the 1980 season.
Stabler still had a productive year, throwing for 3,202 yards and 13 touchdowns. However, he also tossed 28 interceptions.
He retired after the season but returned five weeks later.
Starting 12 games during the 1981 season, Stabler passed for 1,988 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 18 picks as Houston went 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
Stabler Ends His Career in New Orleans
After the 1981 season, Houston released Stabler, and he was reunited with Phillips in New Orleans.
He played for the Saints for three years.
The organization had never been to the playoffs in its history, and not even an athlete like Stabler would change that.
Between 1982 and 1984, New Orleans wouldn’t win more than eight games in a season.
Stabler started every game in ‘82 and ‘83, but couldn’t return to the 2,000-yard mark either season. He passed for 15 touchdowns and 28 picks total.
Ken Stabler on the Saints was only 37 years old in these pictures.
Good heavens. pic.twitter.com/6UkZ0aWIXj
— Joel Sigrist (@JoelSigristFF) February 23, 2022
In 1984, the Saints won seven games and Stabler saw action in just three games, passing for 339 yards, two touchdowns, and five interceptions.
Once the season concluded, Stabler called it quits.
During his 15-year playing career, Stabler was the fastest quarterback to 100 wins, doing so in just 150 games.
Only three players have since passed that mark.
His record of five consecutive appearances in conference championships (between 1973 and 1977) wasn’t broken until Tom Brady surpassed that mark in 2016.
Stabler also had totals of 27,938 passing yards, 194 touchdowns, and 222 interceptions.
He was a Super Bowl champion, NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, Bert Bell Award winner, first-team All-Pro once, second-team All-Pro once, four-time Pro Bowler, two-time NFL passing touchdowns leader, two-time completion percentage leader, and led the league in passer rating once.
Stabler was later named to the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team.
Retirement and Death
After retiring, Stabler did color commentary for CBS during NFL games and then performed in the same role for Alabama football games.
He also performed charity work with the XOXO Stabler Foundation and acted as a host for celebrity golf tournaments that partnered with The Ronald McDonald House of Mobile, AL.
Stabler was married three times and had three daughters.
In 1986, he also published an autobiography with the title, Snake.
Diagnosed with colon cancer in early 2015, the disease eventually claimed Ken Stabler’s life at 69 years of age on July 8 of that year.
Months after his death, researchers at Boston University found that Stabler also had Stage 3 CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) at the time of his death.
Stabler had requested that his brain be donated to the research group after his death.
A year after his passing, Stabler was posthumously voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
• NFL MVP (1974)
• Won Super Bowl XI
• Career .661 win %
Ken Stabler, 2016 Hall of Fame class. pic.twitter.com/Qzl4YvO34J
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) February 7, 2016
Although he had lived a wild life, Stabler did not live with regrets.
“I started my life third and long,” Stabler said. “Everybody’s had rocky moments from day one. But sometimes you pick up third and long, and that’s where you make your money. That’s where the satisfaction comes, from the game and from life.”