Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Bittersweet Year of the Snake

It's bittersweet
More sweet than bitter
Bitter than sweet
It's a bittersweet surrender.
-Big Head Todd and the Monsters

This past Saturday, on the eve of the Super Bowl, the NFL announced the members of the 2016 Class for enshrinement into the Professional Football Hall of Fame.  Among the nine men to be added to the Hall's roster of football immortals this summer is Ken Stabler.  

As a little boy, I rooted principally for two teams, which were the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins.  The only rationale I can offer for the latter was that my older siblings were fans of the Jets and (as hard as this may be to believe) I enjoyed being a contrarian.  The only other possible explanation I can offer for it is that the Dolphins of the early 70's had a team full of cool nicknames, including Larry "Zonk" Csonka and Eugene "Mercury" Morris.  Apropos of nothing, I find it hilarious to the point of pathetic that Morris allegedly opens a bottle of champagne each NFL season to celebrate the first defeat of the league's last undefeated team.  One would think that a man who spent several years after his career ended in federal prison after he was convicted for cocaine trafficking would appreciate the difference between those things that are important and those that are not.  

I never have rooted for the Oakland/Los Angeles/Las Vegas/San Antonio Raiders.  Back in the day, they were -as were the Pittsburgh Steelers - Miami's principal rivals for supremacy in the AFC.  Even though I was not a fan of his team, I always loved watching Ken Stabler play.  

Perhaps it was the fact that he was left-handed.  Perhaps it was the fact that his nickname was "the Snake".  Perhaps it was the fact that while the quarterbacks for my team (Bob Griese) and the Cowboys (Roger Staubach) both appeared to have plucked from Central Casting for Up With People, Stabler looked every inch of the hard-drinking, riverboat-gambling gunslinger that he was.  He was the epitome of cool.  

Stabler's playing career ended prior to the start of Stuart Scott's career at ESPN.  I know not whether Stabler served as the inspiration for Scott's signature phrase ("As cool as the other side of the pillow") although I suspect that he did not.  Whether he did matters not.  He epitomized it. 

Kenny Stabler died on July 8, 2015.  He was only sixty-nine years old.  I must confess that until I read his obituary, which mentioned the fact that he was not yet a member of the Hall of Fame, I had assumed that he was.  It would have been nice - it seems to me - for him to have been alive when this honor was bestowed upon him.  

In the final few years of his life, Kenny Stabler battled something far more fierce than the Steel Curtain or the No-Name Defense.  He battled colon cancer, which is what killed him.  He also battled the effects of C.T.E. (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the degenerative brain disease that is believed to be a proximate result of repeated blows to the head - such as the blows one absorbs while playing football.  Neuropathologists apparently use a 1 to 4 scale to grade the severity of C.T.E. and the post-mortem testing performed on Stabler's brain revealed that he had "high Stage 3"

This summer, Kenny Stabler's family will gather in Canton, Ohio in celebration of his long-overdue moment in the Hall of Fame's sun.  Perhaps the Lords of Football were waiting for Brett Favre to become eligible for enshrinement so that he and Stabler could join the Hall together.  Their careers were separated by a generation but linked together by that same innate gambler's instinct, which made both of them great players.  

Hall of Fame players, as it turns out.  

"Sea of Hands" - Miami v. Oakland
December 21, 1974


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