Snakebit: Remembering Kenny Stabler

It was Thanksgiving weekend of 1965. I was sitting low in the north end zone of Legion Field in Birmingham. The University of Alabama was drilling my beloved Auburn Tigers to the tune of 30-3.

The rout was getting on into the 4th quarter when Bear Bryant decided to pull starting quarterback, Steve Sloan, and allow his backup to play.

Sloan’s understudy was a skinny kid from LA (Lower Alabama). His name was Kenny Stabler, but his nickname was Snake.

Kenneth Michael Stabler was born on Christmas day, 1945, in Foley, AL. During his three years as QB at Foley High, he led his teams to a 29-1 record.

We are familiar with Snake’s formidable football skills, but he was a great all around athlete. He averaged 29 points a game in basketball and was an excellent southpaw pitcher in baseball, receiving offers from the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees.

Stabler, of course, signed a football scholarship to play for legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama. He did not play on the varsity his initial year on the Capstone, 1964, as freshmen were not eligible to play at that time.

In 1965 he played sparingly, completing 3 passes in 11 attempts, with 1 Touchdown and no interceptions.

Snake became the starting signal caller for the Crimson Tide in 1966 and held that position for the next two seasons.

Alabama went 11-0, behind Stabler, in his first season as the number one QB. The 1966 season, despite it’s unblemished record and number three ranking, remains, in some ways, a painful one for Bama fans as they finished behind Notre Dame and Michigan State in the AP and UPI polls. The Irish and Spartans played to a 10-10 tie on November 19th.

The poll results, during those years, were issued immediately after the regular season. This worked to Alabama’s favor after the 1964 season when they went 10-0 but lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl. They dominated Nebraska, 34-7, in the Sugar Bowl, following the ’66 campaign, which solidified their place atop the college football world in the minds of many. But it was not to be.

December 2, 1972 is a day that will live in the minds the Auburn faithful as one of, if not THE MOST, important wins in Tiger football history. That game has come to be known, simply, as “Punt Bama Punt.”

I don’t have to refresh anyone’s mind on what happened that day in Iron Bowl history.

December 2, 1967 belongs at the opposite end of the spectrum for those who proudly wear the burnt orange and navy blue. This game is now referred to as the “Run in the Mud” by crimson and white faithful.

I spent the bulk of the evening of December 1, 1967 at my brother Jerry’s in-law’s house in Canton Bend, AL, which is about five miles from where I grew up in Camden, which is the county seat of Wilcox County.

My brother was married to Nellie Autrey, and Nellie was one of my closest friends, at that time.

Nellie and I were listening to WLS “Music” Radio that night from the kitchen of the Autrey’s home. The only song I distinctly remember, that came emanating from the AM airwaves, was Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”. GREAT SONG!!!

I like this incarnation of Rogers more than his later solo work, but that is another story for another time.

The next morning my father and I climbed into our Dodge Cornet and headed for Birmingham and storied Legion Field. My record at the hallowed venue was a dismal 1-3 at this juncture of my life. The win was over Georgia Tech in 1962 and the losses were consecutive year defeats to Bama, 1964-66.

But I was feeling pretty good about Auburn’s chances on that rainy, blustery morning of December 2. The Tigers were having a very good season, at 6-2, before being beaten by the Georgia Bulldogs, 17-0, in their previous game.

Alabama came into the contest standing at 6-2-1. So, the records were strikingly similar and the stage was set for a classic Iron Bowl. It did not disappoint.

When daddy and I arrived at the “Old Grey Lady on Graymont”, the winds had picked up considerably as had the rain. We parked behind a Gulf Station and began our trek to Legion Field. Our umbrella, that we shared, was turned inside/out by the nasty elements. Tornado warnings had been issued. That did not deter us or tens of thousands of other football fanatics from witnessing this regular season finale.

This was, and remains, THE game of each and every season in the great state of Alabama.

We made or way to the west stands, where our seats were located, to a row which was not far from the top of our section. Our direct line of vision was somewhere around the goal line. Auburn was clad in blue jerseys and white pants with white helmets. Alabama wore all white with crimson helmets.

By game time the rain was coming down in sheets and the wind was whipping furiously.

Auburn took the opening kickoff. Freddie Hyatt burst through the first line of defense and was within a hair of taking it all the way before he was stopped. Auburn drove deep into Alabama territory and tuned the ball over on downs inside the ten yard line. The Tigers lived in the Tide’s red zone those first two quarters but they came away with no points. They had disdained field goals for an opportunity to go up by, at least, seven points. It was not to be.

Auburn 0, Alabama 0, at the half.

The concourses at Legion Field were packed during halftime. It was no small wonder as the weather was utterly miserable. Daddy and I ran into Mr. Nettles Ivey and, my dear friend, Tommy Ratcliffe at the break. Their seats, with Mr. Ivey’s father, were on the fifty yard-line. They invited us to sit with them. The stands were not full as a great number of people decided, probably wisely, to remain in the shelter of the stands. There was plenty of room.

But the view, here, was terrible. We could barely see as our seats, behind the Auburn sideline, were now on a very low row.

Auburn mounted a 60 yard drive, to the Alabama 21, in the third quarter. Coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan” finally opted for a field goal. Somehow John “Rat” Riley connected on the 38-yard attempt. The driving rain, coupled with the players cleats grinding up the turf, had made conditions almost unplayable.

The bulk of the field was not unlike a pig pen. The game was now being played entirely in the mud.

Auburn took their tenuous, 3-0, lead into the fourth quarter. The outlook was promising. How on earth could anyone score again in this slop? My hopes of witnessing, in-person, Auburn defeat Alabama, were rising by the minute.

As the game moved deep into the final stanza, the Tigers set up to punt near the fifty yard-line. The snap was fumbled and the Crimson Tide recovered at their own 48. They lost a yard on first down.

Quarterback Kenny Stabler took the second down snap and broke toward right end. It appeared to be an option. He kept the ball and neared the corner. The crowd rose to its feet. I could not see. What was going on?

Then there came a thunderous burst from the opposite “visitors” stands. That roar became deafening as the stomping in their upper deck, helped to create a deafening roar. I jumped up and down in a futile attempt to see what was taking place. I looked up at my father and queried, “What happened, daddy? What happened?” “He scored,” was the reply.

My heart sank to my toes. I was numb. The “Snake” had slithered to a 53-yard touchdown and, shortly, this play would be entered into football folklore as one of the most dramatic plays in Iron Bowl history.

As most people know by now, Kenneth Michael Stabler departed this world on July 8.

“Snake”, along with a legion of others, this Auburn fan salutes you. May you rest in peace.

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