The last time Cliff Branch ran into his old quarterback, he pulled a role reversal without any thought of pulling a hamstring. The former wide receiver called the audible, and Ken Stabler responded. “I looked at him, smiled, and went, ‘Red 24!’” Branch recalled Thursday night. “Kenny knew the play and just said, ‘Go!’ That was my favorite play, a deep pattern for me, and it usually always worked. Great memories.”
There was no sprint to the end zone this time, just a bearhug between graying friends, a slow-motion reunion of a pass/catch combo that symbolized the vertical Raiders of the 1970s. This final reunion was in February, before a function featuring retired Raiders greats.
No one commanded a field quite like Stabler of those famed Raiders, and no one worked a room like “The Snake,” either, right to the end. Stabler looked fit and typically upbeat on this February afternoon, Branch recalled by phone, and that’s why Stabler’s death Wednesday at age 69 from colon cancer surprised so many. In the same manner in which Stabler performed in some of the greatest games in NFL history – “The Immaculate Reception,” “Sea of Hands,” “Ghost to the Post,” “Holy Roller” – no one outside his family and closest confidants saw this coming. Stabler navigated his final difficult weeks with immediate family, slowly succumbing to the disease, his teammates in the dark.
“I had no idea Kenny was so sick,” said Branch, 66. “I’m so sad to hear this. I loved that man. When I last saw Kenny, he looked great. He had the pearly white teeth, the stories. It was wonderful.”
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Branch and two other Raiders greats – Fred Biletnikoff and Willie Brown – were scheduled for an early flight Friday morning to Virginia for an autograph show. Branch said he and the others will speak fondly of Stabler while signing photos and memorabilia this weekend, helpless in the thought they couldn’t reach out to their quarterback to offer comfort in recent months.
“This is hard, really hard,” Branch said. “Kenny was a great guy, a field general, the leader of our ship. Everyone on the team loved him. He’ll be missed.”
Branch lives in Santa Rosa, a deep-ball route away from the Raiders’ 1970s training camp site. . The El Rancho Tropicana motel was a haven for the swashbuckling Raiders, with stories of the occasional jukebox hurled through a tavern window. The Snake reveled in his nocturnal regimen in a series of watering holes the players called “The Circuit.”
A line of Costco gas pumps and a strip mall occupy the El Tropicana site now. It’s a trip down memory lane for Branch every time he stops by the site to shop, where, he said, “the ghosts come out.”
And those stories of Stabler illuminated by the glow of a bar backdrop? True.
“Kenny used to ask, ‘How many hours of sleep do I need for a three-hour game?’” Branch said. “He learned the playbook by the light of a nightclub.”
Stabler famously once said in his Alabama drawl: “Nowadays, every athlete has an agent and lawyer. In my day, you had a bartender and girlfriend.”
For years, Stabler had Al Davis in his corner before the Raiders’ owner traded him for Dan Pastorini of the Houston Oilers in the spring of 1980.
“Al called me the night before the trade to tell me,” Branch recalled. “I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ It was the end of that era.”
Greg Roeszler, an Encina High graduate and longtime Sacramento-area prep coach, was a quarterback prospect with the Raiders during training camp in 1979, Stabler’s last with the team. He was wowed by Stabler’s larger-than-life presence.
“I was a rookie hoping the Raiders don’t realize I don’t belong here,” Roeszler said Friday. “Being with Stabler in meetings was something. I remember like it was yesterday when (Hallof Fame lineman) Gene Upshaw said of Kenny, ‘When he steps in the huddle and pulls his helmet down, you know who the man is,’ and Snake was the man.”
Roeszler said he and Stabler several years ago brainstormed for ideas on Roeszler’s annual “Playmaker” football camp in Sacramento that stresses leadership and community involvement.
“That was Kenny, caring about something clear across the country,” Roeszler said. “I’m going to weave in this weekend to the campers how football is a lifelong fraternity. These kids don’t understand that now, but it’s true.
“I believe Kenny became larger through retirement and in recent years, when he became more of a father, a grandfather. Reinvented himself into family man, a lasting value. I know he was special to me. I’m sitting here watching NFL Network with the ‘Sea of Hands’ game against Miami, crying like two girls watching ‘Steel Magnolias.’ But it’s a good cry.”