When I was a young sports writer, just beginning an education on the world of sports and the men who made the majors great, I was fascinated with NFL quarterback Kenny Stabler.
There was, I suppose, a couple of reasons for that. Stabler was on the tail-end of a highly touted pro career, having followed the colorful head coach Bum Phillips from Houston to New Orleans. The men folk in my family talked admiringly of “Snake,” a nickname earned from his slithering footwork, so that first brought him to my attention.
He was like the men I grew up with – a rugged Southern boy from the Alabama backwoods who was expert at hunting and fishing. He played for the legendary Bear Bryant at Alabama, following the blazing heels of Joe Namath.
Stabler was storied.
At the time of this happy fascination, Stabler owned a bar on the coast of Alabama, one that briefly fascinated authorities. This particularly helps to explain my fascination — Stabler was a righteous renegade. A Southern boy with a good heart, plenty of backbone, amicable personality, impressive talent and worldly-leaning ways that refused to be tamed. He was cool.
We’re plum out of these righteous renegades, a realization that was crystallized for me when I heard of Stabler’s unexpected death. There’s no room in today’s society for those “in-between” because athletes have to be either really good or really bad. Colorful personalities are harnessed by leagues and sanctioning bodies. NASCAR hasn’t been the same fun since bare-knuckled, fist-slinging manly routs were banned.
Those who are never boring and live big personal lives are pushed to the fringe until they’re pushed out. Industry and commercialism remakes fun personalities into generic ho-hums. Oh, how sorrowed I am for the by-gone days when NASCAR had Curtis Turner, baseball boasted Mickey Mantle, basketball courted Wilt Chamberlain and football had Stabler and Namath. These guys were known for loving a good party, often staying out all night then walking into a game, hung-over and sleep deprived, and setting some kind of performance record.
Turner, a larger-than-life character who was a moonshine runner turned stock car winner, was remarkable in lust of life. On that subject, I recommend a page-turning book on Turner’s life called “Full Throttle.” His exploits are mind-boggling. Shortly before his death, I asked racer Buddy Baker about the first time he flew with Turner.
“Oh! It scared me death,” he exclaimed. “He put the plane on auto pilot, climbed into the back seat and said, ‘Wake me up when we get close.’ Then, he took a nap. I about had a heart attack.”
Turner, it should be noted, died at age 46 in a plane crash in Virginia while scouting timber for a land deal. An autopsy revealed that the passenger with him died of a heart attack before the plane hit the ground.
Regrettably, I never met Stabler face to face. We met through email, introduced by our mutual friend Eli Gold (Stabler shared the radio booth with Eli for several years of Crimson Tide football) and once talked back and forth about the importance of a man carrying a pocket knife.
“I do carry a pocket knife, a small little stainless ‘Fury,’” he wrote in an email to me. “Used mostly to trim price tags out of the clothes my daughter goes through.”
Once, I was doing a radio show with Paul Finebaum in Birmingham while on book tour and Stabler was live by remote from the Alabama coast so we bantered a bit. By all accounts, the intriguing Stabler was a man loved by both the guys and the gals.
Righteous renegades like him and Turner bring to mind the Waylon Jennings song line, “Ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs.”
And when they’re gone, they leave a big hole for all of us.