The Raiders mourned the loss of Ken Stabler Thursday, a clutch and fun-loving left-handed quarterback who came to symbolize the franchise during the glory days of the 1970s.
Stabler, 69, died Wednesday from complications from colon cancer, according to a release from the family.
Unbeknownst to many of his former teammates, Stabler had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in February.
Stabler “passed peacefully surrounded by the people he loved most, including his three daughters and longtime partner” as some of his favorite songs played in the background, according to the release.
Nicknamed “The Snake” by a high school coach in Alabama after a long, winding touchdown run, Stabler played for the Raiders from 1970 through 1979 and led the franchise to its first Super Bowl championship following the 1976 season.
“The Raiders are deeply saddened by the passing of the great Ken Stabler,” owner Mark Davis said in a statement. “He was a cherished member of the Raider family and personified what it means to be a Raider. He wore the Silver and Black with pride and poise and will continue to live in the hearts of Raider fans everywhere. Our sincerest thoughts and prayers go out to Kenny’s family.”
In 10 seasons with the Raiders, Stabler was 69-26-1 after winning the job from Daryle Lamonica in 1973 and had signature plays such as the “Sea of Hands” touchdown pass to Clarence Davis in the 1974 playoffs against Miami and the “Holy Roller” intentional fumble for a touchdown by Dave Casper against the San Diego Chargers in 1978.
Stabler arrived in 1970 as a second-round draft pick out of Alabama under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Known more for his mobility than his throwing arm, Stabler evolved into a deadly-accurate passer _ particularly when the game was on the line.
In stark contrast to coach John Madden, who prowled the sidelines wearing his emotions on his short sleeves, Stabler had an ability to remain calm in pressure situations.
“I’ve often said, If I had one drive to win a game to this day, and I had a quarterback to pick, I would pick Kenny,” Madden said in a statement released by the club. “Snake was a lot cooler than I was. He was a perfect quarterback and a perfect Raider. When you think about the Raiders you think about Ken Stabler. Kenny loved life. It is a sad day for all Raiders.”
Former Raiders right tackle John Vella, who protected Stabler’s blind side, said “You couldn’t have picked a better guy to be the leader of a team coached by John Madden and owned by Al Davis . . . he was probably the most popular Raider of all time. If you held a vote, I don’t think it would be close.”
Stabler, who also played for the Houston Oilers (1980-81) and New Orleans Saints (1982-84) was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1974 and probably had his best season in 1976, when he completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in a predominantly run-oriented offense.
In the days preceding a 32-14 Super Bowl XI win over the Minnesota Vikings, Stabler was so good he had Madden worried.
“That whole practice, we passed the ball one-on-one, skeleton, team (drills), only one ball hit the ground. One ball,” Madden told this newspaper in 2006. “It was a ball out on the left to Dave Casper. It went right through his hands. That was as good a practice as I’ve ever been involved in. Stabler was as good as I’ve ever seen him.”
Tom Flores, the former Raiders coach and an assistant at the time, said Madden cut practice short and was concerned Stabler had peaked too soon.
Halfback Pete Banaszak said he went out for a few beers with Stabler and wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff following practice and went back to the team hotel believing the Vikings had no chance.
“Snake said if Minnesota plays us the way we think they are, we’re going to kill them,” Banaszak said. “And we did.”
Stabler and the Raiders were known to have a good time at local watering holes, and they were given a wide berth by Madden, whose only rules were to be on time and play hard.
“He was a unique guy and he had so much fun playing the game and off the field it rubbed off on all of us,” Banaszak said. “He always knew the right thing to say in a serious situation and we’d pull it off.”
Raiders fullback mark vanEeghen remembered a trip to New York to face the Jets where Stabler had apparently carried his Friday night party well into Saturday and beyond.
“I’m going to breakfast to get my steak and eggs at 8 o’clock the day of the game,” vanEeghen said. “Kenny’s just walking in, and he looks like hell. I asked him what time he got in. He said, `Mark, I’m just getting in.’ . . . we won the game. Now, he didn’t do that all the time, but if he was going to stay out a little late we were going to pick him up.”
Vella said Stabler would occasionally ask for a another second or two to throw when the Raiders were in a difficult situation and that, “It was never hard to come up with an extra effort for guy like Kenny.”
In 2009, Stabler conceded he wasn’t the “first in the building and last to leave” type when it came to preparing to play football but said he didn’t have to be, considering the talent on the roster.
“I didn’t really work at the game. I didn’t have to,” Stabler said. “The game came easy to me. Once we learned the system, we could play, but you have to lok at the people in the system . . . I’m the last one to tell somebody about work ethic. On the field, I worked hard and understood the system. It was old-school, simple football _ just go play.”
Flores worked closely with Stabler as an offensive assistant and said “He was perfect for what we had at that time. He was loose, he was fun to be around, he was competitive, and most importantly, he won.”
Banaszak echoed the sentiments of other teammates who didn’t even know Stabler was seriously ill.
“I’m sitting here watching TV and not even comprehending what I’m watching,” Banaszak said. “I’m stunned.”