Stabler and me, 30 years later
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since I was set up in Alabama
The Press Democrat
Published: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 1:37 p.m.
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.