Monday, September 22, 2014

OFF-FIELD VIOLENCE IN THE NFL



Hi folks,

Unless you haven’t ventured outside your cave in the past week or so, you’ve seen a kazillion stories and opinion pieces on the child abuse and spousal/female abuse featuring NFL players. All of this furor reminded me of an experience I had a long time ago when I lived in New Orleans.

At the time, I was the styles director of one of the town’s leading salons, Snobs. Among my clientele were a number of Saints players, coaches, cheerleaders and others associated with the team. One of my favorite clients was Shea Hill, wife of King Hill, the quarterbacks coach. Shea and King and I go way back—they were a year ahead of me in high school at Freeport (TX) High School. King was our All-State QB and from Freeport, he went on to star first at Rice University where he was named an All-American, and from there to the NFL. Shea was his high school sweetheart, a cheerleader (natch!), and they got married when they were both at Rice. We reconnected decades later in New Orleans.

Snobs was the “official” hairstylists for The Breakers, the cheerleading squad for The Breakers, NOLA’s entry in the USFL League. It was a cool deal. The squad had 33 cheerleaders and before the home games in the Super Dome, us Snobs folks would do their hair in their suite in the Super Dome and then go watch the game on the field—the cheerleaders had a bench behind the players’ bench and that’s where we’d sit. During halftime, we’d to back to their suite, fix their hair again, and then back out to the field. Our payment was having the Snobs name and logo flashed on the Super Dome message board during the game as the official hairstylists. Sometimes, we also did the Saints cheerleaders. Now, remember, this was in the days when folks referred to the Saints as the “Aint’s” so it wasn’t like our prime spots were worth anywhere near what they would be today.

Enough background. One day, Shea Hill was on my book and she was always prompt. Except this time. She finally rolled in, twenty minutes late, pretty well flustered and out of breath. She asked me if I could still do her hair and I said, sure, and she sat in my chair.

First thing, she apologized for being late. Seems King was home that day and had planned to watch their kids while she got her hair done. Except, at the last minute, he got a call from the Saints office, ordering him to come in asap. Shea said the entire team was called, including coaches, support people, players, equipment manager… everyone.
 
They were all called out to Metry because of something one of the star players had done. Actually, he was more than just a “star”—he was the biggest name on the team and one of the best-known players in the NFL. A guy who kept an apartment two doors down from me and my roommate, Mark Toal, during the season. A guy I knew quite well. Quarterback Kenny Stabler. I’d even been invited to his wedding just a few months before this day. During the reception, we were yakking and I said, “Hey, Kenny, now that you’re married, can I have your little black book?” He just laughed and said, “No way, Les. Don’t you know a good player always has a backup plan? Well, I don’t have one little black book—I’ve got seven… and they’re big black books.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. He was well known as a bon vivant, man-about-town, and always had dozens and dozens of babes trying to get him home with them to do the nasty. Well, we all did that shit in those days so that only makes him a regular guy.

I remember one Saturday night I went to Confetti’s, the hot club at the time in Metry (“Metairie” for you tourists…). I hit their doors about one am—which is the usual lifestyle of native young New Orleaners. The way it worked, is that if you worked a day job and got off at five, you went home and grabbed a few hours sleep. Then, around midnight, you got up, took a shower and cleaned up and then hit the bars and clubs until the morning and then went to work. That way you avoided most of the rubes in from Iowa who mostly followed their usual routine—go out until one or two ayem and then head back to the hotel. The serious partiers in the Big Sleazy didn’t hit the trail until one or two and then we just stayed out all night.

Well, about the same time I hit Confetti’s, Kenny came in. When I left, around six in the ayem, he was still there. Every time I hit the bathroom to do a line or two, Kenny was in there powdering his own nose. When I left, he was both high and drunk. Kinda normal… This wasn’t the first time I’d seen Kenny out and about…

That day (Sunday), they had a home game and after the girl I’d taken back to the apartment left, I turned on the game. It was all I could do to stay on the couch without falling off to watch the game. Major hangover and massive weakness in all the extremities. But Kenny? Well, all he did was throw 4-5 touchdown passes. After each series, he’d go back to the sidelines, collapse, and they’d hit him with the oxygen. This guy is out throwing TD’s and I can barely hang onto the couch! Just a pure beast!

The reason he got married, was one of the (many) babes he was dating was a former first- or second-runner-up Miss America, a former Miss Alabama, and she’d laid down an ultimatum—“Marry me, buster, or I’m history.” Since she was definitely a looker, he married her.

Shea said the big brouha was over an “accident” Kenny’s new bride had just suffered. Seems they got into a little tiff and Kenny began smacking her around the ol’ condo. She made a run for their car and just as she reached it, he came running up behind her, shoved her into the car and began driving all over town, smacking her the whole time. I believe there was some alcohol involved and most likely some Peruvian marching powder, and the way Shea described it, he’d really laid into her. According to Shea, they ended up on the Ponchartrain Bridge and then he hit her so hard she flew against the door and out of the car. She was in the hospital and the team was gathered together to make sure everyone was on the same page with the official story. Shea said she’d been told some money would be changing hands with the abused person to make the story fly.

The official version of what happened neglected to mention he’d gone medieval on her or that they’d even had much of a fight. The Saints’ version was that they were just out for a drive and he’d turned a corner too hard, going too fast, and she’d simply and accidentally fallen out of the car. Shea said that’s why King had been called in with everyone else--it was a meeting conducted by the team’s lawyers and other suits to be sure everyone was on board with the “official” version.

And that was the version that made the Times-Picayune and the tube. Seems reporters didn’t bother to challenge this version or even question the physical impossibility of him turning a corner too sharply, being as they were on the Ponchartrain Bridge, which, last I drove on it, was a straight-as-an-arrow shot for 26 miles across the lake. Kind of hard to turn a corner on it, but that was mostly overlooked by the press. I seem to remember they ended up placing her “accident” at a different location so as to account for the “quick turn” bit.

The point of this little story isn’t to illustrate that NFL players sometimes get violent with their significant others or even their nonsignificant others. It’s what Shea told me next that really defined what happened.

She and King had been together ever since high school—high school, college, the NFL as a player and now the NFL as a coach—and Shea said that they’d never one single time gone to a social gathering with any of those teams during any of those years—high school, college, the pros as a player, the pros as a coach—where at least one time during the party some player or other had smacked his date or wife or whatever. She said it was always the same. Just a fact of life. And it always got hushed up. The press was well aware that this kind of thing went on regularly, but this was in an age where teams were protected by the guys who reported on them. She said if the public ever got wind of what a lot of players were like, they’d be horrified.

This was in, I believe, 1984.

Shea had her own ideas as to why that was. “Les,” she said, “I’ve lived with these guys most of my life and it’s easy to figure out. In fact, King is one of the few guys I’m aware of who never hit his wife—me—but he’s not that way and besides, he knew if he ever touched me I would be gone so quick his head would spin.

“But,” she said, “It’s fairly common. It’s because of the culture. All of their lives, they’ve been rewarded for violence, beginning in high school. They’re lionized by everyone. Half of the guys I know from high school and college never went to half their classes—the teachers and profs would cover for them. It begins there and it just gets worse the higher level you get to. In college, I knew so many players who got cars and girls and money and were drunk or high half the time. In the pros, it just gets worse. There’s all these groupies who hang out after the games to ball the players, married or not.

“Well, what happens, it takes a special kind of person to withstand that kind of hero worship. They get it from everyone. I’m truly fortunate—I’ve got a guy who’s got morals and a great sense of decency and treats me wonderfully and there are others like King, but there’s an awful lot who aren’t.
“And, when you’re God to thousands of people—especially women—after awhile, you start to believe that you really are God. I mean, you’ve got thousands, if not millions of people screaming your name every week on game day and women throwing themselves at you constantly, and that changes people. And after awhile, to little ol’ Mary Sue who married you, who may have started out as one of your many hero-worshippers, but eventually, you’re not the demigod she may have started out thinking of you as, but just ol’ Billie Bob, who she just wants to take out the garbage like any other married guy… and that’s when some of ‘em come unglued and can’t take it that their main squeeze no longer treats them like they can walk on water.”

She laughed, a bit bitterly. “And sportswriters are the worst. They’re the biggest hero-worshippers around. They see all the stuff that goes on constantly and it never makes the paper.”

I can attest to that. I was a sportswriter for a couple of years for the South Bend Tribune back in the late sixties and could tell you stories about icons like Bobby Knight, John Wooden and Cal Ripken that you wouldn’t believe and would call me a liar. Things I heard and saw along with other writers, and we all kept it to ourselves. Nowadays, that’s changed, at least somewhat, but when I was a reporter in the late sixties, all kinds of things went down with some of the most revered figures in sports.

If I told you what John Wooden told a small gathering of sports writers (of which I was one) at a private gathering one night, when someone asked him what his secret was for winning national championships, you’d either call me a liar or simply be stunned. He swore us all to secrecy and said if we ever reported what he'd said, he'd deny it.

Or, what I learned about the “saintly” Cal Ripken when I was doing research for my baseball history of Perfect Game USA. I almost published it in my book, but at the last minute took it out. I won’t tell you, but it might put a dent in that “loves kids” rep that he enjoys.

It’s just what lots of sports writers do—cover up for our heroes. Been going on forever, back to the days when Babe Ruth would regularly get drunk and pick up whores and it never got reported. Things have changed somewhat these days, as today there are reporters who dig for the dirt and report it, but not nearly as much as people may think.

Here’s what the lovely Mrs. Stabler had to say about her “accident” from a newspaper account:
The wife of former football star Kenny Stabler said Monday they`re ``doing fine`` despite a night of domestic turmoil that ended up on police blotters prior to his induction into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

``The events sound exaggerated,`` said Rose Stabler in a telephone interview. ``The problem was as much my fault as my husband`s.``

Police said Monday that Stabler`s wife called officers at 10:03 p.m. Friday from a downtown telephone booth and reported that Stabler hit her with his fists and kicked her before pushing her out of a moving car.

Police officer C.D. Carpenter said the 27-year-old Mrs. Stabler did not appear to be seriously hurt and was taken to a motel. ``She was just real upset,`` said Carpenter.

But a second police report was filed by officer W.A. Cox, according to police records official Sandy Triplett, who said Cox responded to a call at 11:15 p.m. Friday. The address given was the Hyatt Hotel.

``He grabbed his wife out of the bathtub and pulled her to bed, where he beat her,`` according to the second police report, which also said Mrs. Stabler had a bruise and ``an eye swollen shut.``

Ms. Triplett said the police report also quoted Stabler as using ``foul language`` about his wife but did not indicate that any action was required by police.

``It`s the kind of thing that everyone that`s married goes through at one point or another,`` Mrs. Stabler said Monday. ``Kenny and I are doing fine.``

The couple appeared together Saturday night at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame ceremonies, where the 40-year-old Stabler was among the inductees. At the ceremony, Stabler praised his wife as an important part of his life.

Police said no charges were filed and no further action was planned.

Does any of this sound like any of the current stories circulating? A bit…

I have one more Kenny Stabler story. A few years before his wife’s “accident”, there was a lot of publicity about Sacramento Bee reporter Bob Padecky and the story he was preparing on Stabler. Word got out that it was about Kenny’s use of cocaine (which I witnessed personally, more than once…). Turns out, the reporter himself was arrested in Gulf Shores, AL (where Kenny lived during the off-season), for possession of cocaine his own self. Imagine that! A friend of mine was a NOLA sheriff’s deputy and he told me one of his best friends was involved in the frame-up.
Here’s the reporter’s own version of what happened:

Stabler and me, 30 years later

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since I was set up in Alabama


By Bob Padecky,
The Press Democrat
Published: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 1:37 p.m.
Bob Padecky has been a sports columnist for The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, CA (sister paper of The Tuscaloosa News and part of the NY Times Regional Group) since 1987. Padecky was the journalist involved in the infamous cocaine in a key case incident in 1979 during an interview with former UA and Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler. Read a detailed Sports Illustrated account here.
SONOMA - ‘‘So, how you doing, Kenny?”

That’s the question I asked Kenny Stabler on Sunday morning at Infineon Raceway, and I had no idea what would happen next. The last time I asked Stabler a question, he responded by using an action verb and the second-person personal pronoun and then walked straight past me on the Raiders’ practice field behind El Rancho Motel in Santa Rosa.

Of course that was 30 years ago and times change, people change, events change people. The dust-up Stabler and I had in Southern Alabama is ancient history for most people and I was curious if it would be the same for Stabler. I mean, after all, I was the one thrown in jail, not Stabler.

During NASCAR race week, a Stabler representative had called Infineon and asked if the track’s local paper, The Press Democrat, would do a story on the former NFL MVP. The very competent John Cardinale, Infineon’s vice president of communications and marketing, who I bet could get an interview with Osama bin Laden if I asked real nice, said the reporter most likely to do the interview would be me.

Go check with Stabler first, John suggested. A few minutes later Stabler’s representative called back and said the former Raiders quarterback would not be doing the interview.

In the interim, Cardinale had told me, Stabler was supplying nearly every Bay Area TV and radio station with interview upon interview, filling up every second with charming, insightful, humorous anecdotes and opinions about the Raiders and Al Davis. That’s the way I remember Stabler as well before Jan. 22, 1979.

I had flown from Miami, the site of the Super Bowl that year, to Pensacola, Fla., and then driven to Gulf Shores, Ala., to do an interview at Stabler’s request. Three weeks earlier, I had been in Gulf Shores for a day and a half, interviewing local people for the Sacramento Bee on what they thought of Stabler’s mediocre 1978 season. I had wanted to talk to Stabler.

He had stopped talking during the season, said he would talk after the season, and so there I was, ready to chat. I was naïve, as I look back on it. I thought he would.



Stabler said no thanks. He also said he really wished I wouldn’t go to his hometown. I did, writing a three-part series for The Bee as a result. I thought it was a fair treatment and not very inflammatory. His homies were disappointed, not happy, guessed he might have partied a bit much, but they weren’t ready to send Stabler out of town in a pine box either.
 


Stabler was angry, however. That’s what he told me at the third restaurant in which I met him that day in Gulf Shores. He pounded the table, using a voice in a borderline scream, and said we would have to find another restaurant to do the interview.

That’s when I suspected something funky was up. We already had been to two restaurants and neither one was suitable for an interview. This third restaurant did not have a view on my rental car.

What happened in the following minutes and months will be condensed considerably.

I pulled out of the restaurant parking lot and onto the highway, and was hemmed in by two police cars and a motorcycle policeman. I was searched and placed in handcuffs while a cop went to my left front fender and pulled a magnetic key case from inside the wheel well. The key case contained cocaine.

I was thrown in jail, then taken from jail to my hotel room, where we waited for the bad guys who planted the cocaine. The bad guys never came. I was given a two-car police escort to the Pensacola airport, entering the Eastern Airlines passenger jet with armed officers on both my left and my right. The passengers looked at me like I was John Dillinger.

I wrote a story about it for both the Miami Herald and the Bee. As a result, the NFL, the FBI and the state of Alabama investigated. After all, cocaine had been found. No one was arrested, although I imagine it wasn’t a pleasant time for Stabler.

Attorney Leigh Steinberg contacted me and after some discussion with Hollywood said Michael Douglas was interested in doing a movie and John Belushi was going to play yours truly.
All I needed to do was sign off on it. I didn’t. I didn’t want this story to turn into a “Smokey and the Bandit” remake. Stabler told me to buzz off the following training camp. That’s the nut of it.
Thirty years passed. I must admit I was probably as interested in talking with Stabler again as he was with me. Torches were being carried. Then Eric Branch of The Press Democrat’s sports staff said something last week that struck home. “Stabler should get over it,” Eric said. “It’s been 30 years after all.”

And, I thought, so should I.

Thirty years have passed. I have made mistakes and lived through them, as I am sure Stabler has. I have lost loved ones, as I’m sure Stabler has. I have seen too many things happen too suddenly, not to know life can end in a blink; Stabler has had to see the same things. And the worst of it, for me, was a short time in jail, while feeling I was in the middle of this really bad movie.

“So, how you doing, Kenny?”

This was an Infineon press conference, not a confessional. I wanted to respect the environment. I also waited until most of the questions were asked.

“I have been good,” Stabler said. “Things have been good. It’s all because of my family. My three daughters ... Everything is going well for me. I am content with my retirement. I am content with my relationship with football.”

I hadn’t expected him to respond with more than two words. He was civil, professional.

As Stabler left the podium, I stood in front of him, extended my hand and repeated the question I asked earlier. Stabler reached out with his right hand, shook mine and said, “I’m good, Bob. I’m good.”

And then walked past me quite nimbly. He may have thought about driving a stake through my heart. I don’t know.

Wasn’t I disappointed that Stabler was so cordial? That’s what people asked later. Surprised? Yes. Disappointed? No. All yelling does is make you lose your voice.

What did I expect to come out of it?

A curiosity would be satisfied for me: After 30 years, would I get the feeling Stabler was still ready to pound a table again? Maybe. Don’t think so. Life, be it sports or otherwise, is a series of adjustments. I’d like to think Stabler made his. I’d like to think maybe even Stabler was surprised he could do it. Who knows.

But I do know this. When I reached my car in the parking lot Sunday after I was through writing in the press box, I checked under my left fender. Just to make sure nothing was there.

Bob Padecky has been a sports columnist for The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, CA since 1987. He previously worked at The Sacramento Bee. He can be reached at bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com or through his blog at padecky.pressdemocrat.com
 
The point of this isn’t to reaffirm that Kenny Stabler was a user and an abuser—that’s fairly well-documented. The point is, what Shea Hill told me about the culture of football. What is revealing in my opinion, is that she said this nearly thirty years ago and she was talking about a culture that had existed from her days in high school (late fifties).

And now, folks are all indignant about something that’s been going on forever. Kenny Stabler for sure isn’t and wasn’t the only one smacking around women. It’s just getting exposed a little. And, I don’t see it as a racial thing at all—Kenny’s about as white as one could be—looks to me as if it’s a cultural thing—sports culture…

A bit late in the day… but at least it’s coming to the light of day. If folks think these are isolated cases, they’re very wrong.

Blue skies,
Les

P.S. Here’s another fairly revealing article about Stabler at http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20069536,00.html

1 comment:

dawnall said...

Good post. The sports culture has embraced this for far too long and it's past time everyone (the press included) paid attention. :-(