NAPA, Calif. -- It was the morning of some long-ago, forgotten, preseason road game in the late 1970s, and the Oakland Raiders were gathered for the pregame meal in a nameless hotel ballroom.
The monotony of camp was subsiding, and jobs could be on the line in that day’s exhibition, so yeah, there was tension at breakfast.
“Everybody’s looking around like, ‘Where’s Snake at? Where’s Snake?’” Rod Martin recalled this week. "Nobody knew where he was."
Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler was MIA, in a manner of speaking.
“Then all of a sudden, you see him come in with his shades on in the morning, bloodshot, been up all night long, and then he went out there and played a good game,” Martin said with a giggle that turned into a full-throated chortle.
“It didn’t interrupt what we had to accomplish. He was our leader. We all respected him, and he just showed us, all of us, how to keep the Raiders tradition going, on and off the field.”
No one represented the badass Raiders of the era more than Snake. No one.
Author of such signature plays in NFL history as the Sea of Hands, Ghost to the Post and the Holy Roller, Stabler’s predilection for the night life -- who else bragged about reading the playbook by the light of a jukebox in some honky-tonk bar the night before a game -- often overshadowed what he accomplished on the field.
“Everybody’s metabolism is different,” Stabler told NFL Network. “Some people need eight hours. Some people need three hours. I don’t really need an awful lot of sleep.”
“I thought, 'He’s the coolest guy,'" Oscar-winning actor and Bay Area native Tom Hanks said in an HBO special on Oakland’s professional sports teams of the 1970s.
“He’d be 10 times more drunk than we were, and he’d be out there playing football, and we couldn’t get out of bed the following morning, you know?” a Hells Angels biker offered in the same program.
All of which is why Stabler, who died last July of colon cancer and was found to have suffered from CTE, getting his due by being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday is a bittersweet affair for his family and friends.
“Just a winner, man,” said Cliff Branch, who played receiver for the Raiders. “His thing was, 'How much sleep do you need to go play a three-hour football game?' And you know how he felt about that. Just total command of the huddle.”
Branch said Stabler often told his teammates that the Raiders were going to engage in some “playground football” and ask for their input.
"You guys let me know what you can do out there, and we’ll go with it," Stabler said, according to Branch.
"I come off the line of scrimmage, and a guy’s playing 5 yards off, and I said, 'Kenny, he’s sitting on me,'" Branch said. 'He said, 'We’re going up right now.’ Eighty-yard touchdown, and he comes back, 'Good call, Cliff.'"
Stabler was Oakland’s second-round draft pick in 1968 out of Alabama, where he succeeded another night owl, Joe Namath (the Raiders had selected quarterback Eldridge Dickey out of historically black college Tennessee State in the first round). Stabler spent his first two professional seasons with the Spokane Shockers of the Continental Football League.
“He wasn’t really ready for the rigors of the NFL yet,” said Raiders owner Mark Davis, who was a ball boy for his father, Al Davis, and the team at the time. “But then, the Immaculate Reception game -- that’s when he started to get his groove on.”
Indeed, were it not for Franco Harris' last-second catch-and-run in that Dec. 23, 1972, playoff game, the heroics of the left-handed Stabler, who replaced Daryle Lamonica at quarterback, would have been the story of the day. It was Stabler’s 30-yard gallop down the Three Rivers Stadium left sideline late in the fourth quarter that gave the Raiders a short-lived 7-6 lead.
As the younger Davis hinted, the die was cast for a decade worth of white-knuckle rides and epic comebacks.
“He had a lot of fun, but he worked his ass off,” said Davis, who will be in Canton, Ohio, with his mother, Carol, to represent the Raiders and Davis family.
Stabler will be introduced via video by Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who is recuperating from hip surgery and unable to make the trip. Stabler’s favorite target, Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff, will be joined on stage by Stabler’s grandsons, Jack and Justin Moyes, to unveil the bust.
“In the big games, he was big,” Madden said in a halftime ceremony honoring the late Stabler last season at O.co Coliseum. “In the tough games, he was tough. The hot games, you know, when it really got heated? He was the coolest guy on the field. And I always said that if I had one quarterback to make a drive the length of a field at the end of the game, to win that game, that guy would be Ken Stabler. No. 12. The Snake.
“Thanks for the memories. We miss you, we love you, and we’ll see you in the Hall of Fame.”
After taking over as the Raiders starter in 1973, Stabler went 50-11-1 in the regular season and 7-4 in the playoffs. He was the 1974 NFL MVP. That’s when he led the NFL in touchdown passes (26) and TD percentage (8.4) while throwing for 2,469 yards, and he had an interception-free streak of 143 straight passes.
Under Stabler’s direction, the Raiders were an NFL-best 12-2 in the 1974 season. They were the highest-scoring team in the league, with 355 points, and they boasted the NFL’s best point differential, at plus-127. Still, the Raiders fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers at home in the AFC Championship Game.
It wasn’t until the 1976 season that the Raiders and Stabler finally got over the hump, thumping the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI.
The Thursday before the game, Stabler put on a clinic in practice.
"The ball only touched the ground once, and that was on a drop," Tom Flores told Sports Illustrated in 1981. "John Madden was standing next to me, and he said, 'What do you think, Tom?' and I said, 'Throw a blanket over him, and get him out of here. This is scary.'"
The efficient Stabler completed 12 of 19 against the Vikings for 180 yards.
"Al and I hugged in the locker room five minutes after the game, and I said, 'We finally did it,'" Stabler told HBO Sports. "And his reply was, 'Can you do it again?'"
He could not. After a run of five straight AFC title games from 1973 to 1977, a pair of postseason-less 9-7 seasons ensued, and Stabler was traded to the Houston Oilers in 1980 -- the Raiders thumped him in the AFC wild-card game en route to the Super Bowl XV title with Jim Plunkett under center -- and spent three years with the New Orleans Saints. He retired during the 1984 season.
The Cold War between Stabler and Davis did not truly end until 2009, when they mended fences in a closed-door meeting in Davis’ Alameda office.
Stabler finished with 27,938 passing yards after completing 59.8 percent of his passes for 194 touchdowns and 222 interceptions in an NFL career that spanned from 1970 to 1984. He was named to the league’s all-1970s team.
After Stabler was a finalist for Hall consideration three times, the veterans committee finally came calling during Super Bowl week this past winter.
“Long overdue,” Martin said. “Long overdue. The things he’s done in the NFL, he should have been there a lot sooner. We all appreciated him, but now the rest of the NFL can appreciate him.”
Hall of Fame linebacker Ted Hendricks agreed and recalled Stabler's leading the Raiders’ epic comeback on Monday Night Football on Dec. 3, 1979. Oakland rallied from a 35-7 deficit at the New Orleans Saints to claim a 42-35 victory.
“Finally,” Hendricks said. “You wondered why he hadn’t been [inducted] before. It’s really tragic that he’s not here to accept it himself.
"What a beautiful person he was. Always congenial, and always had that winning spirit inside of him that he never lost a game. He just ran out of time.”
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