Before his Silver and Black days with the Oakland Raiders and before some of his legendary throws to the likes of Cliff Branch and Dave Casper, Ken Stabler had long since carved his niche into Alabama lore forever.
For those of us who cut our teeth on SEC football, it’s difficult to think of Alabama football and not think of Stabler, known simply as “Snake” to much of the football world.
So as we mourn Stabler’s passing Thursday at the age of 69 — and it’s only natural that Stabler’s NFL exploits have dominated the national headlines in the past day — let’s not forget what a treasure he was to Alabama.
The Foley, Alabama, product played under Bear Bryant from 1964-67 and arrived in Tuscaloosa at a time when the quarterback pool was ridiculously deep. Freshmen were ineligible to play in those days, and Stabler watched a guy by the name of Joe Namath lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship in 1964.
The next season, Stabler backed up Steve Sloan at quarterback as Alabama repeated as national champions. Then in 1966 as a junior, Stabler got his chance to run Bryant’s offense and was a perfect fit with his ability to run and throw. A free spirit off the field, Stabler also played that way and guided Alabama to an 11-0 record on what many at the Capstone consider to be one of Bryant’s best teams. The only problem was that Alabama finished No. 3 in the final polls behind Notre Dame and Michigan State.
Stabler’s senior season in 1967 is best remembered for his most memorable play at Alabama, the famed “Run in the Mud” to beat archrival Auburn 7-3. It was the game’s only touchdown, and Stabler rambled 53 yards on a football field turned quagmire in what turned out to be the Tide’s longest touchdown run of the season.
It was vintage Stabler. Never one to be confused for the great runners who would later play the position, Stabler still had a knack for rising to the occasion and making big plays, no matter what it looked like. His passes weren’t always darts, but they had a way of finding their targets, and there’s a reason they called Stabler the "Snake." He was accustomed to snaking his way around the defense.
One of the treats in those days was listening to Bryant describe a play on his coach’s show. And on Stabler’s “Run in the Mud,” Bryant pointed out a few key blocks and growled, “And Stabler turned it on. I could watch that all night.”
In truth, Stabler probably had a better NFL career than he did a college career. Part of that was Alabama was loaded at quarterback when he arrived, but that didn’t keep Stabler from being voted in 1992 along with Namath as the quarterbacks on Alabama’s Team of the Century.
Stabler played hard off the field and competed even harder on the field. Everybody has a Stabler story, from his teammates to his dentist to those who bumped into him around town. Even after his retirement from football, he remained intertwined with the Alabama family and was the color commentator for several years on the Crimson Tide’s radio broadcasts.
He was larger than life, but never really carried himself that way. Always kind and always accommodating, Stabler never forgot his roots.
And now that he’s gone, his legend will endure where it all started — in his beloved state of Alabama.