“NO NFL PLAYER AFTER STABLER WOULD PUBLICLY LIVE HIS LIFE THE WAY HE DID. THERE WAS NEVER ANYONE LIKE HIM. THERE NEVER WILL BE AGAIN. AND THERE’S SOMETHING SAD ABOUT THAT.”
So writes Mike Freeman in Snake, his concise biography of legendary Oakland Raiders quarterback, Ken Stabler. It’s a book of contradictions. Snake spent his spare time drinking and womanising, and hardly sleeping, but this seemed to have no effect on his ability to work magic on the field. He was married three times, and constantly unfaithful, but he was also a devoted father and grandfather.
In a similar vein, Freeman has his own contradictions, between loving the larger than life Snake but knowing that his behaviour wasn’t without cost, or between nostalgia for the brutal football of the Seventies and the knowledge that too many of those players paid a ruinous physical and mental price.
Beginning with Snake’s childhood, Freeman relates Stabler’s struggles with a violent father, Slim, including an occasion when the son had to wrestle a shotgun away from his father. Had Snake not done so, Slim might well have killed his family and then himself. But Freeman doesn’t just write Slim off as the book’s villain. Instead, he looks at how Slim’s war record and experiences in the Italian campaign of 1943 probably left him damaged and, in the culture of the times, unable to process the resulting pain and anger.
That’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation and that’s indicative of the book as a whole. Freeman writes about his subjects with compassion and when they do things we might consider wrong, he doesn’t excuse but he does explain.
Stabler, as you might expect, frequently kicked against authority figures and Freeman has plenty of examples of how this got him into trouble in high school and, later, with coach Bear Bryant, at Alabama. And yet Stabler’s skill on the field and some fundamental decency in his character ensured that he was never lost completely.
The Raider years and their highlights – ‘Ghost to the Post’, ‘The Holy Roller’ and the ‘Sea of Hands’ – are all present and correct but Freeman also digs into Stabler’s relationship with coach John Madden, who thrived on difficult characters like Snake and assembled a team packed with them. He also looks at Stabler’s progressive approach to race and how, with minimal fuss, the quarterback acted to ensure that black players were treated fairly,
Stabler’s relationship with Al Davis – owner of the Raiders and another complicated figure – had its ups and downs. Eventually it soured completely and Stabler was traded, creating a rift that lasted decades, until both men were coming to the end of their lives.
Stabler left the Raiders with a Super Bowl ring, and NFL MVP award, four Pro Bowl selections and a place as the Raiders’ leader in passing completions, passing yards and passing TDs. His short spells with the Oilers and the Saints did not see him achieve similar heights and he retired after the 1984 season. He was selected for the Hall of Fame in 2016, eight months after his death.
Freeman’s book, published shortly after the Hall of Fame induction, makes a good case that Snake was overlooked for too long and is underrated as a quarterback. He played 1970s football but his style was more like a modern QB. Freeman’s biography is an enthusiastic but balanced assessment of Stabler as a player, and as a man.
Photo: Keith Allison