SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Deep down we all wanted to be Kenny Stabler, right? We all wanted to play quarterback with flowing, rock-star hair, studying the playbook by a jukebox's light when we weren't shooting pool and knocking down a cold one with an adoring blonde nearby.
We all wanted to be the Snake, the boys-turned-middle-aged-men of my generation, because he was the ultimate rebel among Oakland Raiders rebels and because he played the sport with the same amount of restraint defining his off-the-field life. That is to say, none.
The game was never going to catch up to the Snake, not after his junior-high coach gave him the nickname for his ability to zig when the bad guys zagged. Despite bum knees and the body of a man who too often called it quits at sunrise, and who once wrote he needed "the diversions of whiskey and women" to survive training camp, Stabler always knew how to escape. Bigger, faster defenders would close hard on him, and the Snake would somehow emerge from a raging pile of humanity and sling it left-handed with hardly a care in the world.
But as it turns out, the game of football ultimately runs down and corners everyone. Stabler might be inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame on Saturday, and if his legacy makes the journey to Canton, it will do so with the letters CTE attached.
Stabler is the most recent deceased NFL player found to have suffered from the progressive degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He died of colon cancer in July at age 69, and his family donated his brain and spinal cord to Boston University's CTE Center; Stabler was among the players who had sued the NFL over the occupational hazard that is head trauma.
The results surprised no football player or fan who followed the case of Frank Gifford, or knew of the suicides of Junior Seau and Andre Waters and Dave Duerson, or read about the accidental pain-medication overdose of Tyler Sash, who died with CTE at age 27 despite appearing in only 27 regular-season and postseason NFL games, and never as a starter.
A study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University determined in September that 87 of 91 deceased players tested had CTE. Bennet Omalu, the groundbreaking doctor played by Will Smith in the film "Concussion," estimated that more than 90 percent of all NFL players have CTE.
"The game is not safe," Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson said by phone, "and there's no way around it. You only have one brain. If you injure it, you can't get replacement surgery for your brain like you can for your knee or shoulder."
Carson already has informed his daughter and son-in-law that his 6-year-old grandson is not allowed to play football. "My daughter is afraid to go see 'Concussion,'" the former New York Giant said, "because she fears her father might end up like those guys who committed suicide. But I've assured her I've already gone through that period in my life."
Carson was speaking before the Stabler news broke and relaying the story that he practically jumped for joy when his younger son once failed a physical in his attempt to try out for the Auburn football team. There's something terribly wrong when a Hall of Famer celebrates his son's failed bid to play at the major college level and forbids his grandson from even trying to find a little joy on a Pop Warner field.
That's why dramatic change is needed from the lowest participation level on up in order to save football from itself. To reduce the number of blows absorbed by developing brains, a reasonable plan enacted by reasonable guardians would go something like this:
Outlaw tackling through eighth grade coast to coast. (Plenty of boys can have plenty of fun learning the game through the rules of flag football.) Spend freshman year in high school in full pads for practice-only drilling on the fundamentals of blocking and tackling conducted by coaches with proper training. Spend sophomore through senior years in full-contact junior varsity and varsity games and practices, giving players three years to attract interest from college programs if they so desire.
Although he didn't offer his official endorsement of such a plan, Carson did point out that the Sash case should enlighten those focused on the biggest names in the CTE crisis.
"He only played two years in the NFL with the Giants," Carson said, "but he did play 16 years overall. CTE is not an NFL problem. CTE is a football problem."
Still, Roger Goodell's NFL has to do more than throw $1 billion at the thousands of players who have sued over head trauma and deserve a bigger cut. The league has to dedicate even more time, energy and money on helmet technology and player safety, and add to its enhanced concussion protocol a provision that a concussed player must miss at least two full games before returning to action.
Carson's own story explains why. He was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in 1990 after suffering what he estimates to be 12 to 18 concussions over his 13-year career, and he believes his brain injuries contributed to memory loss, communication issues and a bout with depression that one day -- during the prime of his Giants career -- nearly compelled him to drive his car off New York's Tappan Zee Bridge before thoughts of his daughter stopped Carson from harming himself.
One former teammate with neurological issues called Carson to discuss his darkest thoughts, then sent him a follow-up text thanking the linebacker for saving his life. A fellow Hall of Famer called around Christmastime to say that he'd been diagnosed with a neurological disorder and that he considered Omalu a hero.
Carson also spoke with the son of the legendary defensive back Dick "Night Train" Lane, who died of a heart attack at age 74 in 2002, the same year Omalu began the examination of Mike Webster's brain that led to the discovery of CTE. Richard Lane said by phone Tuesday that he has no doubt his father had CTE in the final years of his life in Austin, where surgeons operated on what was described as fluid on the brain.
"He couldn't bathe or clothe himself," said Richard Lane, a Catholic evangelist and motivational speaker, "and he had a hard time remembering his grandkids' names. I had to take the car keys away from him. I remember getting a call in the middle of the night from the Austin police department that Dad was at a Denny's with no idea of who he was or where he lived.
"He suffered a lot and really lost all of his dignity. We went to the NFL [Alumni] Dire Need Fund; Dad was broke ... and they wouldn't help at all. He only got a $695-a-month pension from the NFL. It really pissed me off beyond belief, and what really gets me worse is that there are still guys out there freakin' suffering, and the NFL is putting a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. My dad sacrificed his life and his family just so he could be Dick "Night Train" Lane, because he loved the game of pro football, and the game screwed us over."
Lane is hardly the only family member of a fallen football star who feels that way, and Carson does what he can to reassure those who feel aggrieved. He speaks loudly on brain-damage issues without any financial incentive; he didn't join the lawsuit against the NFL because he wanted people to know this wasn't a personal money play.
"I know the league wants me to go somewhere, sit down and shut the f--- up about this," Carson said. "But I can't do that."
Although he prefers it when people don't describe him as a sufferer and instead point out he's managed his life with post-concussion syndrome quite nicely, Carson has decided his charmed football career wasn't worth it.
"If I had to do it all over again," he said, "I wouldn't. I would fly planes in the military, my true calling."
Meanwhile, a quarterback who might join Carson in the Hall of Fame this weekend is no longer around to say whether he shared the linebacker's sentiment. Like the star who preceded him at Alabama, Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler was what every man wanted to be -- cool, fearless and elusive when necessary.
The Snake would never let his fellow Raiders see him treating his injuries in the trainer's room. But in the end, the unforgiving game of professional football caught up to him just like it catches up to everyone else. And now that game needs an overhaul from the bottom floor up.