by Frank Cooney

Stabler: “What I do in my own time is my own business.”

June 17, 1979
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Originally published by the San Francisco Examiner on June 17, 1979 • Cover photo © Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY Sports

The setup

In 1978 the Oakland Raiders finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs for first time since 1971 as managing general partner Al Davis began to overhaul the team that won a Super Bowl only two years earlier. In an ominous harbinger of a torturous season, New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley was paralyzed after a hit by Raiders safety Jack Tatum.

Wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, MVP of Super Bowl XI, started only two games; deep threat wide receiver Cliff Branch caught only one touchdown and running back Clarence Davis, who rushed for 137 yards in the Super Bowl win over Minnesota, was injured and started only two games. 

But when asked what was wrong with the team, Davis said, “If you’ve got to find someone to blame, then blame the lefty. He makes the most money, and he’s paid to take that kind of pressure.”

Lefty is quarterback Ken “Snake” Stabler, who had his worst season — 16 touchdown passes, 30 interceptions and, not coincidentally, a career high 37 sacks. He didn’t say so at the time, but Stabler was unable to throw long because of a jammed left elbow and a split tendon on the ring finger of his left hand.

Stabler was so frustrated he uncharacteristically criticized teammates. He named  new starters on the right side of the line — lefty’s blind side — guard Mickey Marvin and tackle Henry Lawrence. He mentioned Branch and Morris Bradshaw, Biletnikoff’s replacement, were dropping passes. Stabler, irritated at himself for saying such things, quit talking to the media. By season’s end he told a few people he wanted to be traded.

Coach John Madden was wracked by ulcers, haunted by Stingley’s injury, stressed by the team transition imposed by Davis.  In December, after the team’s early exit, he retired after becoming the first NFL coach to win 100 games in only ten seasons.

In February, Santa Rosa sportswriter Bob Padecky visited Stabler’s home town of Gulf Shores, Ala. In an ill-advised good  ol’ boy prank by Stabler’s friends, Padecky was set up — arrested for alleged cocaine hidden under his fender and shuffled off to the airport by the local police. Padecky’s story gained national attention and Stabler, who didn’t rat on his friends, was assumed to be the perpetrator until the truth came out years later.

Against that background, San Francisco Examiner Sportswriter Frank Cooney contacted Stabler in Alabama and arranged a visit during the quarterback’s week-long football camp for kids in Marion, Ala.


Stabler:  “What I do in my own time is my own business”

By Frank Cooney

Examiner Staff Writer

June 17, 1979

MARION,  Ala. Controversial quarterback Ken Stabler is confused.

The 33-year-old All-Pro still wants to play and he still wants the Oakland Raiders to trade him. But it appears the only chance he has of playing In the National Football League is with the Raiders.

As the date for reporting to training camp draws near (July 10), Stabler is trying to solve the dilemma in his own way, as always.

Although fans in Oakland are anxious to see this resolved, Stabler’s old-time followers here don’t seem to care.

You see, suh, Stabler always will be a folk hero down heeah,  whether he ever throws a football again or not. Even a pair of blurry eyes could clearly see that after watching Stabler run several hot days and long nights together in one of his famous marathons.

For the past week he has worked from dawn to dusk with 135 young boys who came from all over the South to be tutored by their idol at the Ken Stabler Football Camp. Unlike some pros who make only token appearances at their camps, Stabler spent all day, every day, working out, eating and chatting with “his kids.”

Original SF Examiner Article, June 17, 1979

The rest of the time he shared with some good ol’ boys —  pro players, lifelong buddies and. yes. even this sportswriter who tried to keep up with him from dusk to dawn. Stabler even found time to break his media silence to tell The Examiner:

— He has a burning desire to return to the NFL and to lead some team — any team —  to a great season, so his critics could “stick it where the sun don’t shine. “

—  He believes the Raiders will not honor his demand to be traded, because they are asking for “the moon” in return.

—  Within the next month he will decide whether to return to Oakland, retire or consider the intriguing notion of Joining the Alabama Vulcans of the new American Football Association.

 — Despite the infamous Bob Padecky/Gulf Shore cocaine fiasco, which seems to have blown over without legal consequences for Stabler, he has no grudge against sportswriters (whew!).

 — He feels it is unfair and ridiculous to equate his off-season lifestyle with his performance as a player, citing he has “lived the same way for 10 years, including our Super Bowl season and our nine-and-seven season.”

Stabler had just finished a day with the football campers at the Marion Military Institute. Sweat rolled off him as he strolled into the dilapidated barracks where they were quartered. The good ol’ boys —  including Otis Sistrunk, Mickey Marvin, Barry Krauss —  were waiting in his room for another round of beer and BS.

From a low-playing radio Kenny Rogers offered sage advice with his hit song “The Gambler:”

You gotta know when to hold ’em,

Know when to fold ’em.

Know when to walk away.

There’s no doubt about it, I can still play this game as good as I ever did,” Stabler said as he plopped on his creaky bunk and opened a can of beer. His body looked like it could live up to the statement. It was in good shape from working out during those hard days. But his red eyes also reflected those hard nights.

“My choices now are going back to Oakland or quitting, because they aren’t going to trade me,” he said. “And I have two years left on my contract. I can’t calculate how much I’m worth but I’ve heard they’re asking for the moon.” 

One player in the room said he’d heard Raiders’ managing general partner Al Davis was asking for two first-round draft choices and two starters for Stabler.

“Imagine what he’d ask for if he liked the way I played last year,” Stabler said. “There’s nothing I’d like better than to go back,  play well and win a championship so all those critics could sink it where the sun don’t shine.”

It was suggested that perhaps Davis criticized Stabler In the first place Just to rile the quarterback into a more competitive frame of mind.

“Hell. I didn’t mean that I’d have to go back to Oakland, you know.”

Raiders QB Kenny Stabler
Raiders QB Kenny Stabler
© Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY Sports

“Hell. I didn’t mean that I’d have to go back to Oakland, you know.” Stabler added.

Stabler admits he’s confused as to what he will do. But his actions seemed to indicate a latent feeling that he would return to Oakland.

“One minute I want to straighten everything out and go back to Oakland.” he said. “And next I want to go someplace else. And the next I don’t know what I want.”

However, when old schoolmates dropped by the camp. Stabler sometimes mentioned the possibility of seeing them during this season. He also talked about his respect for new coach Tom Flores, especially in tough situations.

“I called to congratulate him on getting the Job,” Stabler said. “He wanted to come down here or meet me someplace. I wasn’t against it. But we Just weren’t able to put it together. Tom’s caught in the middle. He understands the problem I’m having because he was a player on this team. But as a head coach he has to take a stand.”

New Raiders Head Coach Tom Flores
© Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Recently. Stabler has become interested in the Alabama Vulcans of the AFA, a new pro league with teams mainly in the South. Last week he watched from the press box in Birmingham as the Vulcans win their third straight game.

“I hear this league is close to getting a decent television contract.” Stabler said. “If they got a few big-name quarterbacks, too, maybe people would sit up and take notice. Hell, you know another league did pretty good with that game plan.”

Stabler grinned as he made that obvious reference to the American Football League’s move into the big time. The AFL brought the NFL to its knees and the bargaining table by cornering the top quarterbacks and getting a large TV contract. Davis surely remembers that stroke of genius. It was his own.

“What I do in my own time is my own business. What I do between the hash marks is the only thing I have to answer to.”

Raiders QB Kenny Stabler

Stabler says the changes in the coaching staff and roster will not affect his decision, although the retirement of John Madden and the waiving of wide receiver Fred Belitnikoff did bother him.

“I hated to see John leave, but I’m glad he did for his own health,” Stabler said. “We got closer and closer during last year. When we went to play at Miami in December, I went to his room at 1 a.m. and we talked for about an hour. John aid, ‘Our asses are really in the wringer and all we got is each other.’ I think John made up his mind at mid-season that he was quitting.”

I do wish we still had Freddy. He is a money ballplayer. Check what he did in the big games, the playoff games, the Super Bowl. He was voted MVP in the Super Bowl.”

Stabler said he never intended to launch into a prolonged silence with the media last year, but the situation snowballed.

“I just didn’t want to make excuses at first,” he said. “But when everybody made a big deal about my not talking, I felt that if I started talking, I’d create even a bigger deal. “What I didn’t like was the guys who were slashing me apart because of my off-season lifestyle. I’ve lived the same way for 10 years. Nobody complained about it when we went to the Super Bowl, but last year, when we went nine and seven, I got drunker and fatter with each loss according to those guys.

“What I do in my own time is my own business,” he said with a tinge of bitterness. “What I do between the hash marks is the only thing I have to answer to.”

He flipped his empty beer can into the trash a perfect toss and picked up another can.

“This is me, the way I like to live,” he said proudly as he snapped open the tab. “I expect I’ll live this way as long as I damned well please.”

The room was silent except for the radio, where Rogers’ tune was winding up …

But the best that can hope for

Is to die in your sleep

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