Saturday, July 25, 2015

Snakes in the NFL

From the moment I heard about the death of Ken “the Snake” Stabler on July 8th of this year, I felt compelled to blog about the injustice that has been done to his name.   My assumption was that this blogpost would focus on Stabler and Stabler alone.   After all, he was one of my all-time sports heroes -- one of the most dynamic personalities, effective quarterbacks, and clutch athletes I have ever seen -- and yet he died without ever making his sport’s Hall of Fame.   Stabler was the best quarterback in the history of the Oakland Raiders, one of football’s most storied franchises and a team I have cheered on for nearly five decades.  On the mantelpiece of my family room, I have placed a framed picture of Stabler and his sidekick, Fred Biletnikoff.   I even worked a reference to him into my second novel, “Moses the Heretic,” which centered around Judaism and the Israel-Palestine Conflict, not football.

Ever since Stabler’s death from colon cancer, I planned on writing a blogpost that would marshal all of Stabler’s credentials so as to convince objective readers that the man belonged in the Hall of Fame.   I was going to point out that Stabler was one of only three quarterbacks who were named to the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team.  (He and another QB tied for second place on that team.)  And yet even though the other two guys named to the team made the Hall, as did two other QBs whose careers similarly peaked in the 70s, Stabler was the odd man out.   I was going to point out that the Snake led his team to its first Super Bowl Championship, was the first QB to reach 100 wins without more than 50 defeats, and won a whopping 72 percent of his games during his decade with the Raiders, including 19 come-from-behind fourth quarter victories and 26 game-winning drives. 

In this blogpost that I intended to write exclusively about Stabler, I was going to talk about how he was known for his phenomenal accuracy, leading some people to call him a dart thrower.   The Snake was so accurate, in fact, that in 1976 – two years after he was named the Quarterback of the Year in the NFL – Stabler became the only quarterback to throw at least 250 passes and complete more than 65 percent of his throws, a record that would not be eclipsed until the 80s, after the NFL had changed its rules dramatically to make it harder for defenses to stop the forward pass. 

How great was Stabler in his prime?   Last year, the passer ratings in the NFL averaged 25 points higher than in 1976, but Stabler’s passer rating in 1976 was within ten points of the top rating in 2014.  In short, he was dominant, and consequently, he was feared and even hated by opponents.   But most importantly, he was adored by anyone who enjoyed the Raiders and their rebellious, maverick style.   With the exception of the team’s owner, Al Davis, nobody personified that image more than the Snake.

Indeed, it is Stabler’s image that was going to be the prime focus of my intended blogpost.  You see, the point of the post would be to argue that the Snake deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Stats.   Stabler was the ultimate Bad Ass, the ultimate party-animal-turned-sports-hero.  He is often linked to Broadway Joe Namath, who the Snake immediately followed as the starting quarterback for the University of Alabama, yet as ESPN’s Mike Greenberg put it, if Namath was “Hollywood Cool,” Stabler was “Pool Hall Cool.”  Kenny was known for his hard drinking, gambling and womanizing.   He looked like a Hell’s Angel when he took his helmet off, and even with it on you could see his unkempt dirty blonde hair flowing from the back.   

The motto of Stabler’s Raiders was “Just Win Baby” – meaning that they didn’t care if you never watched game film (which he didn’t), or went out carousing the night before the games (which he did); as long as you could bring the wins on Sunday afternoons, you were a Raider.   Stabler always seemed to find a creative way to do just that.   A number of his victories have been memorialized in NFL lore to the point where they have recognizable names.   There’s the “Sea of Hands” game, in which Stabler threw what looked like a prayer into a sea of Miami Dolphins, but the ball miraculously settled right into the hands of his running back, Clarence Davis, to end the Dolphins’ playoff victory streak.   There's the "Holy Roller” game, in which Stabler knew that the only way to win was to roll the ball toward the other team’s end zone, essentially faking a fumble; the gambit resulted in a victory for his team and a permanent change in the league’s rules.   There’s the “Ghost to the Post” game, where the Snake immortalized his now Hall-of-Fame tight-end, Dave “The Ghost” Casper, by throwing a high arcing 42-yard pass that seemingly stayed in the air forever until it was finally grabbed by Casper, ultimately leading to yet another of Stabler’s many playoff victories.   Finally, it was Stabler’s late-game heroics that forced the Steelers to come up with a miracle of their own – the play that became known as the “Immaculate Reception.”  I can’t imagine any other quarterback who has become associated with so many immortalized games – let alone a quarterback who never made the Hall of Fame.

I’m sure the NFL’s brain trust has its reasons for not letting Stabler into the Hall.  His last few years in the league were duds, a product of a decade of hard hits and a bad-boy lifestyle.   Stabler also was implicated in various off-the-field incidents, including one in which he allegedly had a role in causing a journalist to be inappropriately busted for cocaine.   In the end, Stabler died after three failed marriages and three DUI citations.   He was not a choir boy, to say the least.   But he WAS a Hall of Fame caliber football player.   And for the past two weeks, I have felt compelled to say that.   

So why don’t I just leave it at that?   Because it isn’t enough to talk about Stabler’s life.  I am reminded also of his death – and specifically, the request he made about what to do with his body after he expired.   “He wanted to make a difference in the lives of others in both life and death,” posted the Stabler family on Facebook.   “At his request, his brain and spinal cord were donated to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center (CTE) to support research for degenerative brain disease in athletes.”

Like many of his fans, I am proud of Stabler for making that choice.  And this weekend, only a fortnight after his death, the importance of this choice has been highlighted by yet another development involving the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

This time, the development involves a player who was inducted to the Hall.  His name is Junior Seau, and he was undeniably one of the finest linebackers ever to play the game.  A San Diego native, Seau was drafted in 1990 by his hometown Chargers and went on to be named a starting linebacker in the NFL’s 1990’s All-Decade Team.  Coupled with being named to ten All Pro teams and twelve Pro-Bowl teams during his dozen years in San Diego, Seau was always considered a “no brainer” Hall of Famer.  Not surprisingly, he was elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility.  Indeed, after the selections were announced, I recall articles saying that Seau was “headlining” this year’s class, which will be officially enshrined in just another couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, the NFL has turned what should be a celebration of Seau’s career into a mockery of his life.  You see, according to the National Institute of Health, Seau suffered from CTE, the brain disease that inspired Stabler to donate his body to science and that has sucked the spirit out of so many football players after their retirement from the game.  Three years ago, having lived hopelessly with that dreaded condition, Seau fired a gun into his own chest and died at the ripe old age of 43. 
As a player, Seau was a classic.  Playing arguably the NFL’s most vicious position, he was a heat-seeking missile, throwing his body at top speeds into the body of other world-class athletes, creating one head-on collision after another for the better part of two decades.  After his career was finished, Seau’s life was just as classic.  He played a game that takes a tremendous toll on many body parts, but none more than the brain.  Accordingly, once his playing days were finished, so was his brain.  The result was, if not inevitable, clearly foreseeable.

When he was alive, Junior Seau said that if he were ever to be inducted to the Hall, he would want his daughter, Sydney, to give the induction speech.  Thus, when his induction was announced, Sydney began preparing her speech to honor her father.  But just this week, the NFL announced that neither Sydney nor anyone else would be invited to speak on Junior’s behalf.   You see, a few years back, the league determined that induction speeches would only be allowed for inductees who are still alive.  The league would produce a video for all the inductees, but for the dead ones, that video would have to suffice.  Reportedly, in Seau’s case, the official video will avoid the whole CTE topic.   That means that it will celebrate Seau’s playing days and nothing more.   There will be no discussion of how football contributed to his brain damage and ultimate suicide, and no discussion of how his family has sued the league to ensure that what happened to their loved one won’t happen to other players.

Imagine being in charge of the NFL and denying to Sydney Seau the right to say a few words on behalf of her father.   Imagine being in charge of the NFL and making a tribute to this man’s life that omits the cause of his death.   The only analogy I can think of is if the army claimed to celebrate a fallen warrior as one of the all-time greatest soldiers, but refused to let his family say a few words on his behalf and refused to talk about what led to his death.  It would mock his military service and disgrace the army for which he gave his life. 

In the big scheme of things, whether Ken Stabler makes the Hall of Fame posthumously is not a big deal.  As Stabler reminded us during his last days on earth, there are far more important things in football than who makes the Hall of Fame, and none is more important than confronting the scourge of CTE. 

On August 8th, several Hall of Fame inductees will take the podium, introduced by a family member or a friend.  Each of them will be given an opportunity that has never been extended to the family of Ken Stabler and never will be extended to the family of Junior Seau.  My hope is that, in the style of the “maverick” Ken (the Snake) Stabler, one of these speakers will take more than a few moments away from their tribute to a living inductee and instead honor the greatest player of the class of 2015, Junior Seau.  Let this person remind us that for every man whose life has been graced by memories of gridiron glory, there’s another man whose football career led to the progressive deterioration of their brain.  Some, like Seau, have turned to suicide.  Others have turned to homicide.  Still others simply suffer in silence and depression.

For the league to brush this problem under the rug is worthy of the tobacco industry at its worst.   In fact, it’s almost worse in this context, for football is a sport that requires supreme courage to play at a high level.   When you think of a Junior Seau, it is precisely that courage that comes to mind first and foremost.  Yet there is nothing more cowardly than to run an industry that causes horrible brain damage in its workforce and then silences the critics.  Even the tobacco barons have to be impressed at the chutzpah.


Mary Lois said...

The tragedy that lies in wait for so many of the greats of football will be a long time being addressed with regulation and changes in the game. Kenny's behavior and his alcoholism could well have been a result of the brain damage he surely suffered. I knew him slightly--he was from Foley, Alabama, and I did know his wife Rose pretty well. He was always a courtly gentleman (except of course when he wasn't) and he deserved a better break than being a football hero afforded him. Like Elvis, he achieved too much fame too soon, and probably was addicted to the glory of his star moves in the game as much as the money and celebrity.

I'm not a fan of football so it's very difficult for me to comprehend the adulation of its heroes. But he was a small-town good guy with a big talent for what he did well, and I would like to have seen him given a chance to do something meaningful off the field after his retirement. What? I don't know. I guess nobody ever will. An American tragedy.

I do hope results of the tests of his brain and back will be made public and that the football industry will do something positive with those results.

Daniel Spiro said...

Mary Lois, I didn't realize you knew Stabler, though I was aware that you were both from Alabama. He did come across as a basically nice person, though he definitely succumbed to his passions far past what any of my intellectual role models would have approved of.