According to a statement released by the Stabler family, the former quarterback had been battling colon cancer since February. It seems virtually none of his former teammates knew he was sick. Yet none was surprised that’s the path Stabler chose to take.
“I was unaware,” former Raiders coach John Madden said. “But that’s Kenny.”
Madden said Stabler, known as “The Snake,” was often bruised and battered but never entered Oakland’s training room for treatment. As a leader, he didn’t want his teammates to see him in a vulnerable position. Madden figured Stabler kept that approach until his death.
“It was a shock to all of us,” said Art Shell, Stabler’s Hall of Fame left tackle. “When my wife said Kenny passed, I couldn’t believe it ... But yes, that was Kenny. He was one of those guys who didn’t want to bother anybody ... We all loved Kenny.”
Shell and Madden both said Stabler was the leader of one of the best teams of the 1970s, highlighted by the Super Bowl XI win over Minnesota in January 1977.
“He was a true field general,” Madden said. “Anything that came out of his mouth, [the players] totally believed.”
Shell said when Stabler walked into the locker room on Sundays, his teammates simply followed his lead.
“Snake had it all under control,” Shell said. “He’d get me and Gene [Hall of Fame guard Gene Upshaw] together and talk about the running game and say, ‘However you guys want to do it, we’ll do it.’ He was Cool Hand Luke. I never worried about Kenny.”
Madden joked Friday that during the double-overtime “Ghost to the Post" playoff victory in Baltimore on Christmas Eve 1977, he was going crazy over a game plan. His quarterback just looked at him and said: “The fans are getting their money’s worth today.”
Shell said Stabler often used that phrase in the huddle during tight games. Stabler loved those moments. He had 23 career comebacks in the fourth quarter or in overtime.
Shell laughed Friday when he recalled Stabler’s motivation.
“In close games, Snake would say, ‘Boys, the beer is going to get warm, so let’s go get this win and go get a cold beer,' ” Shell said. “That was the key, getting a cold beer. Amen.”
Both Madden and Shell bemoaned the fact that Stabler is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Stabler threw 150 touchdown passes from 1970 to 1979, the third-most in that decade. The other four quarerbacks in the top five from the 1970s are in the Hall of Fame.
Stabler is the only quarterback who started and won a Super Bowl in the 1970s who isn’t a member of the Hall. He was a finalist three times and he has been eligible through the seniors' committee for the past six years.
“I can’t believe he isn’t in the Hall of Fame,” Shell said. “All of us always talk about that.”
Added Madden: “If you just look at how he played and what kind of quarterback he was, he’s a Hall of Fame quarterback.”