The Night I Met Kenny Stabler

Editor’s note: Alabama All-American Kenny Stabler is a former quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. On one Saturday night in 1974 he was sitting at the bar in the Brown Palace Hotel preparing a game plan for Sunday’s game. With him was good friend and fellow conspirator, Fred Biletnikoff, a sneaky receiver with more guts than natural talent. Neither of the men were strangers to a good time.

Bobby and I had disguised ourselves as gentlemen, ala herringbone sport coats, shined boots and wallets bulging with one-dollar bills. If not blue-blood portraits of affluence we looked to be brown tin types of cowpuncher chivalry. Two taxi-delivered hayseeds grasping for an evening of sport or at least a mild diversion from the never-ending cattle drive of the Gunnison drywaller.

“There’s the bar,” said Bobby. “Every man for himself.”

We grabbed a stool at the end of the mahogany barricade that stretched around the stately tavern.

“Good evening,” said the bartender wiping away the sins of our thirsty predecessor. “What would you like?”

“Scotch with a beer back,” said Bobby. “It’s only Saturday night once a week.”

The bartender smiled. He was well polished like the oak floor and as eloquent as the market would bear.

“And you, sir?”

“I’ll have the same but with a Bud.”

“What’s an Irishman doing drinking Scotch?” started Bobby, the red-haired outrigger of a longshoreman and a chowder chef. “What’s the matter with the Jameson? Has it gone bad?”


We survived several toasts, secure in the fact that our safe return to the Pig N Whistle was cinched by prior prudence and the good fortune that a praetorian cabbie would still be lurking in the wee hours.

“I’ve got the cab money in my left pocket and the brannigan funding in my right,” laughed Bobby. “Two-fifty a beer, damn this must be a nice place,” he mumbled.

I looked around the bar stopping short of stare in the direction of two men sitting in an adjacent booth. They were overcome with laughter, slapstick tears in their eyes rising from the complexion of their banter. They ordered another, tipping the barkeep with wave of the hand.

“I know that tall guy,” I whispered. “And the little guy looks familiar too.”

“I think he used to be President of the United States,” chided Bobby. “I think I saw him on a ten thousand dollar bill.”

“You’ve never seen a ten thousand dollar bill,” I responded. “You’re lucky if you’ve seen a hundred.”

Bobby turned in his stool, frowned, and looked compulsively in the direction of the pair. His brass texture charged ahead like a fumbler with one last match looking for a lantern in the dark.

“He’s Kenny Stabler. It’s Kenny Stabler!” Bobby shouted gaining the attention of most of the patrons and the glance of the Oakland quarterback.

“You win!” snapped Stabler, not offended, in fact entertained by the remark. “And who are you?” he asked in a muddled Alabama twang.

We exchanged introductions and, as I had calculated, the other guy was Fred Biletnikoff, the enchanted receiver, built more like an ballet dancer than a football player.

“It’s nice to see the two of you uptown,” said Bobby. “You look larger than you do on television.”

Stabler told him it was all done with mirrors and that he really should buy a TV with a larger screen, at least for the playoffs.

“Can we buy you guys a drink?” I asked.

That’s how it started. We talked about football, and women, and living in the Bay Area. We talked about Bear Bryant and Gulf Shores and Pat Sullivan in the Auburn game back in 1970. Fred told us Sullivan, who had won the Heisman that year was out of football altogether.

“I think he’s selling cars or insurance in Mobile,” said Biletnikoff. “And the no name left-hander from the Crimson Tide is sitting here at the downtown Brown Palace surgically dismantling yet another defensive backfield while he masterminds the collapse of yet another set of brain cells.

“Where’s Floyd Little when you need him,” teased Stabler. “Get him on the phone, Fred…Fred, Get him on the phone. I want to talk to Floyd,” slurred Stabler. “Bartender: Get Floyd Little on the phone and get us another round while you’re at it.”

The other patrons smiled.

“And get me George Blanda too,” demanded Stabler as the bartender scoured the phone book in mock response to Stabler’s sudden request.

Kenny held up a menu in false desperation.

“I have a secret message for Daryle Lamonica. Please. Clear the area. I must speak to Daryle. We’ve broken the code.”

“Daryle Lamonica. Now there was a quarterback.” drooled Biletnikoff, swimming in his bourbon and water.

“Damn, Fred, you’re old. I can hardly remember back that far. I was a just a boy…”

“Oh, shut up, Kenny or I swear I’ll forget to block for you tomorrow,” said Fred. “It’s hard enough catching those flimsy passes thrown from the wrong side.”

“Your brain is on the wrong side,” said Stabler, “but what can we expect from a sawed-off Cossack surfer masquerading as a wide receiver. Besides the last time you threw a decent block was in high school.”

Although it was entertaining to listen to the two it was also difficult for Bobby and I to keep our mouths shut especially with the tonnage of alcohol that miraculously orbited our table through the evening. I still had cab fare and, considering the importance of the meeting, ordered some shrimp and potato skins.

“I thought pro athletes had to stay in training,” said Bobby fueled by libation. “Don’t you guys have a curfew?”

“Oh, I think so, don’t we Fred?” he laughed, “but once Madden’s asleep we can pretty much do as we please. What are they gonna do? Trade me for Craig Morton?”

Stabler stopped his windy rambling long enough to sign an autograph for a man who wished him good luck in tomorrow’s game. Caustically sketching a conglomeration of Xs and Os on a bar napkin he covered up his work accusing us of spying for the Orange and Blue. His cloak and dagger shenanigans continued pressing the shrimp and potato skins into service. It then culminated with an offer to sell out the entire Raider game plan for another drink.

Someone at the bar sent over another round.

“What time you getting up tomorrow, Kenny,” asked Fred suddenly squinting at his watch.

“What time is the game, Fred? laughed Stabler attempting to return our attention to his pigskin schematic.

“It’s at two, or three,” answered Biletnikoff now returning to a more jovial mood. “Is this Rocky Mountain Time?”

“What time does the bar close?” continued Stabler.

“Two or three,” quipped Fred which brought another chorus of whoops.

Just then a voice from across the room interrupted our rare silence.

“Hey Kenny, the well-oiled man bellowed. Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

“Thanks for the reminder,” joked Stabler, “but Al Davis should be by to pick us up in a minute.”

“I wouldn’t wait if I were you,” continued the drunk. “You look as if you need a little sleep before the game tomorrow.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” quacked Stabler. “We’re only playing the Broncos!”

The bar grew quiet. One could hear a mouthpiece drop. Everyone gazed in disbelief. This ruffian from Oakland via Alabama had insulted our sacred Broncos. Seconds crept by. The drunk stood up, walked to our booth, staggered once more trying to say something to Stabler, he then fell head first over into a large Boston fern minding its business in the corner.

That was enough to bring an explosion of laughter and more drinks.

“I didn’t mean to insult your team,” smiled Stabler in our general direction.

“That’s no problem,” said Bobby, “the plant got the worst of it.”

“Yeah, we’re Raider fans anyway,” I swilled. “You’ve been buying most of the drinks.”

“There’s still hope for you provincials,” said Stabler as he and Biletnikoff headed for the door at last call.

“We’ll be watching you tomorrow,” said Bobby. “We’ll be in the South Stands.”

“I’ll throw you one late in the fourth quarter,” said Stabler as he hopped into a cab.

The next day the Raiders beat the Broncos 42-6 with Stabler tossing three touchdown passes to Fred Belitnikoff, who ran his pass routes with uncompromising precision, although he did look a little shaky on the team bus at the end of the game.

– Melvin Toole 


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