Tom Sorensen

Sorensen Classic: That time Kenny Stabler came to Charlotte, lived up to reputation

In 1988, retired Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler visited Charlotte, and he was as Tom Sorensen expected him to be.
In 1988, retired Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler visited Charlotte, and he was as Tom Sorensen expected him to be. AP

Editor’s note: This column was originally published on May 28, 1988:

The Snake looks like he is supposed to look and acts like he is supposed to act.

He has long silver hair, a dazzling 1977 Super Bowl ring and, on the bar in front of him, a cold beer. You would not expect Kenny Stabler to walk into a steak house, draw in the country music and order tea.

“You caught me in a rare moment, “ he says about the beer.

“Another one?” the bartender asks.

“Yes, please, “ Stabler says. Nothing ever looked more right.

“Cold beer, pretty women, country music and fast cars, “ somebody says. “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolets,” Stablers replies.

It will mainly be fast cars this weekend. Stabler will be honorary starter at Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s a dignitary. He looks like a dignitary.

Gone are his trademark beard and his black-and- silver Oakland Raiders uniform. He played for Oakland from 1970-79, leading them to a Super Bowl victory in 1977. After Oakland, he played for the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints. His last season was 1984.

Darts are what he threw, and he was as stylish and smart as any quarterback to stand behind a center. All he brought to Charlotte Friday was the silver hair. He’s wearing a beige sports coat, brown pants and dress shoes. But from the other side of the room, you can tell he is somebody.

Up close, you know he’s the Snake.

“Nothing’s changed,” says Stabler, 42, as he takes a swig of cold beer. “The uniform – that’s it. There are no cleats on my shoes.”

An attractive woman named Suzanne comes up and Stabler stands to greet her. His manners are as impeccable as his hair. She tells him about a friend who lived in New Orleans when Stabler played for the Saints. He looks at her as if she is the only person in the world.

“New Orleans was a great city to play in,” Stabler tells her. “It was a great city to play football in, too.”

Do people still swoon? If so, that’s what Suzanne is doing.

“You’d have to be crazy not to appreciate women,” Stabler says after she walks away. “I appreciate them, that’s all. I’m married.”

Stabler lives in Mobile, Ala., with wife, Rose, and 2-year-old daughter, Alexa. You can’t imagine him living anywhere else. He was born in Foley, Ala., played for Bear Bryant at Alabama and was almost as well known for his adventures on the Gulf of Mexico – the Redneck Riviera – as he was for the passes he threw.

He’s a businessman now. He heads a Colorado-based speakers group that includes former football stars such as Paul Hornung and Franco Harris, and is a real estate developer in Mobile. He worked for CBS last season as a commentator on 11 NFL games and hopes to return this season.

A man walks up and introduces himself.

“You don’t remember me,” says the man. “I met you at The Longhorn the last time you were here.”

Stabler stopped here at The Longhorn two months ago. He was in the center, and on the sides, at one time or another, were at least 25 people.

“I remember you,” says Stabler, clutching the man’s hand. “We were standing over there.”

Happy – he met the Snake – the man walks away.

“When you’re in the public eye, you’re supposed to remember people,” Stabler says after another pull of beer. “If you don’t, they think you’re too good or got too big. I just like to leave them with the idea they had a good time.”

Which is how he expects Charlotte to leave him.

“There are the parties, and I love that,” says Stabler, whose father, Slim, was an auto mechanic. “But what I love more is the cars and the sport. And the thing I really enjoy is the noise.

“I respect the drivers and what they do, and I like the edge that goes with the sport. But I love the noise. When I left football, I missed the noise. On the field, I was cheered or booed by 60,000 people. When I completed a successful business deal, nobody clapped. There wasn’t any noise.”

He hears some Friday. It’s muffled, but it’s here. A star is in the bar.

Strangers offer their hands, have napkins autographed and answer his questions. Stabler pulls a dollar from his wallet and leaves it on the bar.

The bartender, a woman, spins in a small circle.

“Can we frame that dollar?” she asks. “This was from him.”

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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