On July 8, 2015, we lost a true legend of the game of football. Kenny ‘The Snake” Stabler passed away of cancer at the age of 69. That’s far too young for anyone to leave this world and his death shocked and saddened those who knew and loved him.
Shortly after Stabler’s death, I hopped on a conference call with John Madden who had coached Stabler to the Raiders’ first Vince Lombardi Trophy in 1976. And as close as the two of them were, even Madden was shocked by Stabler’s death. It was “like a kick to the gut” as he put it.
With as stunned as Madden was, I asked him if he even knew of Stabler’s diagnosis. He didn’t know. But keeping his pain from him teammates and coaches was just the kind of guy Stabler was.
“I was unaware. I was not aware that he had cancer,” said Madden. “That was a big part of the shock. But if you know Kenny Stabler, that’s Kenny Stabler. We used to have a thing. Kenny Stabler never went in the training room. He didn’t want any of his teammates to ever see him getting treatment. Never went in the training room. He wouldn’t be seen in there. He wouldn’t step in there. And so I thought, well this is ridiculous, because he would take a little beating during these games too and he needed treatment and so I would talk to him about it and he just didn’t want to go in the training room. So, I said let’s do it at night. When everyone leaves and George Anderson, our trainer would come back like at nine o’clock at night and that’s when he got his treatment. But he didn’t want any of his teammates to ever see him in the training room getting treatment. And I think that probably followed him through life.”
Madden once said that Stabler “was probably involved in more games that have names than anyone.”
Games like The Sea of Hands, Ghost to the Post, Holy Roller, and Immaculate Reception all involved Ken Stabler’s heroics. Yes, I add the Immaculate Reception because had it not been for Stabler coming off the bench to score a touchdown, the Steelers would have never been in the situation where they needed a miraculous stroke of luck to pull out the win on the final play. Stabler put them in that position.
Stabler defined an era of football and a launched a dynasty in Oakland. He is an icon of the NFL and was beloved by all who played with him or most anyone who knew him off the field.
And yet at the time of his death, he was still not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Despite waiting through 26 years of eligibility.
Shortly after Stabler’s death, the Hall of Fame senior committee would end the wait and make him one of their selections for the following year. Somehow his post-mortem induction hurt even worse because he deserved to have his moment in life. He deserved to walk across that stage, address the crowd and dons his yellow jacket with the rest of the NFL greats on that stage. And now it was too late.
One of Stabler’s top targets in his 10-year run in Oakland was Cliff Branch. A year after Stabler’s death and just prior to his official induction into the Hall of Fame, Branch along with a host of other Raiders legends converged on training camp in Napa for their annual Alumni weekend.
It would not be the only reunion Branch would have with his former teammates. They were planning a big party after Stabler’s bust was enshrined in Canton.
“I’ll be there in person,” said Branch. “The Raiders have a plan, going out with [Mark] Davis and then Mrs Davis, so it will be me, Willie Brown, Raymond Chester, and then Clem Daniels, and Freddie Biletnikoff and his wife. So, we’ll be there, and of course John [Madden] takes his bus. He don’t take no airplane or trains and stuff, so we’ll be back there. It’s going to be one hell of a party for Kenny.”
Branch too deserved to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame during his lifetime. And in August of last year, he too passed away, again leaving heavy hearts and serving as a somber reminder of his QB getting snubbed for so many years.
Unlike Stabler, even death and an expanded class to include 15 senior inductees weren’t enough for the Hall of Fame committee to put Branch in.
Stabler’s family would take the stage to accept his bust. But Kenny’s absence wasn’t the only thing that made the day incomplete. Because the Hall of Fame callously denied the Stabler family the yellow Hall of Fame jacket and his Hall of Fame ring. Those would have been priceless mementos for the family which they could cherish forever.
You don’t have to be a Ken Stabler fan or a Raiders fan or even a football fan to feel he deserved to get the call and have his moment on the Hall of Fame stage and to party with his old teammates one more time. Or that his family deserved to receive the same jacket and ring he would have received and passed on to them.
When Cliff Branch died it brought all that back. Also denied induction as part of the Centennial class was Raiders’ two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Tom Flores. He just turned 83 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame appears to have no sense of urgency to keep him from suffering the same fate as Stabler.
Yeah, it still stings. Five years later. And it’s difficult to see that changing in another five years.