OAKLAND (AP) — Ken Stabler’s death came as a shock to John Madden. The Hall of Fame coach, like almost everybody else, had no idea the former Oakland Raiders quarterback had Stage 4 colon cancer.
“If you know Kenny Stabler, that’s Kenny Stabler,” Madden said Friday, a day after Stabler’s family announced his death.
Madden, the coach of those great Raiders teams in the 1970s, recalled fond memories of Stabler but was still reeling from the news when he spoke to reporters on a conference call.
Madden said Stabler’s death came as a “shock to all of us” because Stabler kept his cancer diagnosis a secret. He said that Stabler was the ultimate tough guy and never wanted people to watch him at a time of weakness.
“He didn’t want any of his teammates to ever see him in the training room getting treatment, and I think that probably followed him through life,” Madden said.
Stabler’s family said he died as a result of complications from colon cancer, which he was diagnosed with in February. He was 69.
“You just think that Kenny’s one of those guys that whatever you throw in front of them it’s not going to get them down. And then when you hear Kenny Stabler died, it’s like a kick in the gut,” Madden said.
The 79-year-old Madden said that Stabler should be in the Hall of Fame.
He believes people get too caught up in comparing statistics from different eras and should understand Stabler was among the best of his generation along with Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw and Miami’s Bob Griese, who are both enshrined in Canton.
Stabler was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1974 and a four-time Pro Bowl selection who led the Raiders to consistent success throughout the decade, including a 32-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the 1977 Super Bowl.
The Snake’s sly demeanor and flair for the dramatic delivered famous games that earned nicknames such as “Holy Roller,” ‘’Sea of Hands” and “Ghost to the Post.” Not to mention leading the Oakland Raiders to a touchdown that set up the Pittsburgh Steelers for the “Immaculate Reception.”
“He was involved in more games that have names than probably anyone,” Madden said.
One of Madden’s most cherished memories came in a double-overtime playoff game at Baltimore in 1977 that he said showcased the best in Stabler, who was known for his calmness under pressure and ability to come through in the clutch.
During a timeout on the winning TD drive, Madden said he was anxiously trying to draw up a play when Stabler cut him off.
“I’m there and I’m thinking and I’m talking to Kenny during the timeout and he has his helmet cocked back and he’s looking up at the stands and I’m talking to him, ‘Let’s do this, let’s do this,’” Madden said. “And he goes, ‘You know what, John? And I thought, ‘Oh, great. He has a play.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘These fans are getting their money’s worth today.’
“That’s the way he was. I’m going all over the board over what we should do. And he’s just coolly looking up at the stands.”
Madden said he went to Alabama to talk to coach Paul “Bear” Bryant before drafting Stabler, who led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated 1966 season and was chosen the Sugar Bowl MVP after a 34-7 rout of Nebraska.
Madden said Stabler enjoyed life, but stories of his off-the-field fun were “vastly exaggerated.” He said Stabler is “at the top of the class” of the great players he coached and somebody he could always lean on when times were tough.
“The hotter the game, the hotter I got. And Kenny was truly, truly just the opposite,” Madden said. “The hotter the game, the cooler he became.”