Remember the ‘Snake’

Even the wind is weeping.

As an impressionable kid growing up in the 1970s, nothing captivated my imagination like sports.

Whether it was the Big Red Machine in baseball or the magicianship of the Harlem Globetrotters on the hardwood, I would be mesmerized for hours in front of our seemingly 200-pound console television on the living room floor.

Nothing, however, sparked the thoughts of competition more than the National Football League. Each Sunday afternoon (and Monday evening) I would be transfixed enjoying the sights and sounds of gridiron clashes.

Raised in Upstate New York, I was predestined to be a Buffalo Bills fan. As mediocre as they have been in recent memory, it pales in comparison to their awfulness back then. And while I admit I was a huge OJ Simpson fan (the best athlete I have ever seen play live — the elusiveness of Barry Sanders, but a foot taller — ironically, able to cut on a dime), I just had to find another NFL team that held a chance of being successful.

While in the 1970s I could have latched on the bandwagons of the near-perfect Pittsburgh Steelers or as-they-keep-reminding-us-they-were-perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins, I was drawn to the Oakland Raiders.

The Raiders were a swashbuckling team of misfits who had crazy linemen (Ted Hendricks, John Matusak, Otis Sistrunk), quiet receivers (Fred Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch, Dave Casper), a cartoonish coach (John Madden), and a firecracker for an owner.

Leading the way was the charismatic quarterback, Ken Stabler. The “Snake” as he was nicknamed, passed away last week after a courageous battle with cancer. His Hall of Fame credentials are debatable — his leadership and swagger are not.

Stabler was the perfect guy to lead this group. He was the West Coast version of fellow Alabama alumnus, Joe Namath, in his attention from the ladies. As a gunslinger and scrambler, Stabler was a left-handed Brett Favre before there was a Brett Favre.

Most of all, he was a winner.

Slithering through defenses with two bad knees and a slightly unorthodox delivery, the Snake would always come up with great plays — Ghost to the Post, Sea of Hands, and Holy Roller.

In the mid-1970s, a highlight for kids in the thriving metropolis of Henrietta, New York was the Monroe County Fair. Each year there would be a surprise in store.

One year it was some new group called the Charlie Daniels Band.

The best county fair memory I have, however (tied with winning the purple, white and blue bowling ball in a raffle), was that Stabler came and signed autographs. While I don’t remember what he said, I do remember his genuine nature as he placed that looping signature on a football.

I wasn’t smart enough to hold on to that football, but did hold on to the memory.

When learning of Stabler’s passing, the sound I kept hearing over and over again in my head was the hypnotic voice of NFL Film’s John Facenda and Steve Sabol’s poem, ‘The Autumn Wind.’ I always thought it was written with Stabler in mind.

The Autumn Wind is a raider,

Pillaging just for fun.

He’ll knock you ‘round and upside down,

And laugh when he’s conquered and won.

Now, the wind is still as it mourns the loss of an iconic player.

Jeff Gates, a self-described sports history nerd, is a frequent contributor to The Madison Press.