Raiders Review: A look at the latest Ken Stabler biography

He had ‘Manning like’ accuracy, a ‘Favre like’ arm, and he partied like Gronk…he was league’s first cocky, swashbuckling pass thrower

- Author Mike Freemen on Ken Stabler.

Now that the Raiders 2016 season has tragically ended many of you might be searching for ways to interact with the Silver and Black. Obviously we will all be anticipating the OTA’s, the NFL draft and all the other events that appear as we await the 2017 version of the Oakland Raiders. One way you can keep yourself entertained is to visit www.BlackHoleBanter.com and read the many articles that it’s great authors post.

Yet another way to enjoy your time during the Raiders offseason is to read the latest book on the franchise’s greatest quarterback.

Mike Freemen’s “Snake: The Legendary Life of Ken Stabler” was released last November and many fans likely overlooked it as we were all engrossed in the Raiders remarkable 2016 season. Fans picking up this biography might expect to hear all about his greatest games like the “Sea of Hands”, Super Bowl XI, “The Holy Roller” and the “Ghost to the Post”. The reality is Freeman has created a quality biography of the Snake even though that biography might not be the most definitive.

Mr. Freeman has reported on the National Football League for many of our nation’s major newspapers for over 25 years. He has published eight previous books and is currently a national columnist for the Bleacher Report. Moreover, Stabler is both a worthy and interesting subject for an author to explore. Snake’s off-field partying and cool reputation as a leader is well known to Raider fans but Raider fans are always willing to hear more about the life of Ken Stabler.

Freeman has the resume, he has picked a great subject but did he create a biography that Raider fans can truly enjoy investing their money in?

THE BAD

I believe that Freeman’s book is well researched and well written it is unlike many of Ken Stabler’s passes in that it misses its mark.

The first thing that weakens the book is the source material. Freeman cites newspapers and his interviews as his main sources but he even admits that he relies heavily on material that has already been released. Stabler’s 1986 biography “Snake”, Peter Richmond’s “Badasses” and Bryan Burwell’s “Madden” serve as his main secondary sources.

Most Raider fans have already read these.

Another thing that bothered me is Mike Freeman doesn’t use the skills that I know that he possesses as a great writer. One of the things I was hoping for was for a great writer like Freeman to attempt to place Stabler in the NFL’s all-time quarterback rankings. Although he reminds us time and time again that Stabler’s greatness was most evident in the clutch, we don’t get much else in regards to where Freeman would place him among the NFL’s great quarterbacks.

Despite being easily available, Freeman doesn’t put any career statistics in the book although he does cite some of Snake’s single game statistics. Some might argue that Stabler’s career numbers might play a role in how long he took to get into the Hall of Fame. His all-time quarterback rating is only 75.3 and he has 28 more career interceptions than touchdown passes. Freeman cites a few of Stabler’s marvelous statistics, like he is still the Raiders all-time leading passer and his 1976 completion percentage of 66.7% was unheard of at that time. However, the lack of these important numbers leaves the reader wanting more.

The book offers fans a look at Snake that offers little depth and very little reflection. Its redeeming quality is in its open look at Stabler’s life. No Stabler fault or excess gets excused or unnoticed in the book. Freemen’s writing openly admits that he revels in nostalgia for the glory days of 1970’s football when players openly womanized and hit each other with a ferocity that we do not see in today’s game.

Freeman gives the reader Stabler’s triumphs too as a grandfather, father, quarterback, team leader and as a human being. Like most biographers, especially those that knew their subject personally (Freeman admits to talking to Stabler personally for decades) the author has the habit of appreciating (loving) his subject too much. Freeman deserves credit because he freely admits this infatuation in both his introduction to the book and in his final chapter.

Admitting that you love your subject too much can impair the quality of your biography though and even though Freeman gives us the bad side of Stabler (bad marriages, bad husband, womanizing, drinking) he struggles with bringing his subject to life for the reader. Freemans’s writing is sometime over-the-top because it is written by a man who is a big fan of Ken Stabler. He has the right to be a fan of Ken Stabler but the book is written as if Freemen doesn’t want to offend anyone and unfortunately that is what many biographies fall victim too. The best biographies ignore that. One of Snake’s daughters wrote the introduction to the book so that might have played a factor in how Freeman portrays his subject.

I am not saying that Freeman should attack Stabler for his lifestyle. That is one of the biggest things that make Stabler so appealing to fans. The ultimate problem with this book is that it doesn’t really tell the reader anything new unless they have not already read biographies on Stabler.

One of the areas that Freeman could have improved this book is by offering the reader more insight into the rift that developed between Stabler and Raider owner Al Davis. Freeman does an excellent job introducing the reader to the topic and describing it I feel he could have done more to include the meeting that occurred between Snake and Mr. Davis in 2009 where they resolved their differences. Freeman mentions it but he doesn’t go into enough detail. Since he worked so closely with the Stabler family it is sad that he didn’t include more information and quotations from Kim Bush, Stabler’s life partner, who sat in on the 2009 meeting. Perhaps Freeman was afraid to crack the façade about their toughness because the meeting appears to be a time in which both men bared their souls and forgave one another.

I was left with wanting more after I read it and I am sure most readers will too.

THE GOOD

That doesn’t make “Snake: The Legendary Life of Ken Stabler” a bad book. It just makes it a rehash of many of the tales that Raider fans already know or have heard about before. Although a few new stories do pop up which make the book a worthwhile purchase. In addition, Freeman did an excellent job research Stabler’s family history, tracing Stabler’s ancestry all the way back to the beginnings of America.

To be fair, Freeman covers the ground thoroughly, from Stabler’s troubles with his father, his college career at Alabama, to his sexual exploits, his most famous plays (Run in the Mud, the Sea of Hands), his post-career maturity, his struggles with ex-spouses and his postmortem diagnosis of having CTE.

Freeman used primary source accounts (newspapers and interviews) for a good portion of the book. Fans will find them very fun even though many have appeared elsewhere before. The one that I found especially appealing was a conversation that Al Davis and Ken Stabler had before an important game. “Young man, do you know what you’re doing this week?” Davis asked. Stabler responded “Well, if I don’t, we’re in a helluva shape, because I understand I am playing quarterback.”

Another line from Snake that I just thought hit the mark was an interview that he had with the author. Freeman asked Kenny about a famous practice session that a few days before Super Bowl XI. Stabler was hitting every single throw that day and Madden was so impressed that he called off practice because he feared that Kenny would get out of his zone. After practice, Stabler and a few of his teammates payed a visit to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles and Snake described to Freeman what happened next. We “just went there to share a few thoughts about football with some of the librarians there.” Only Ken Stabler could get away with something like that!

Also, included was a story about Stabler’s life at the University of Alabama. I don’t want to reveal all of the stories but I will share that Freemen cites a very interesting hazing incident involving Stabler, his penis and a string with a pen attached to it. I could not stop laughing when I read that portion of the book.

Fans will find that this book is bursting at the seams with worshipful pronouncements and praise for the grizzly, gray haired quarterback. That alone makes the book a good buy. Freeman supplements these with interviews with Stabler, his family, former coaches and teammates. Many of these are his own interviews and that information is released for the first time in the book.

I mentioned that Freeman relies heavily on Stabler’s autobiography and some other books that Raider fans have already read or seen. However, there is still enough new information to make reading this book worthwhile.

The book also discusses a few things that fans might not know about Kenny Stabler. Snake’s troubles with the IRS and his money problems are discussed openly by Freeman and I must give kudos to Freeman for contacting the FBI for information regarding Stabler’s supposed association with known gamblers and his possible involvement in placing drugs on a reporter’s car. The drug incident has often been cited as a reason why Stabler was not voted into the Hall of Fame until after his death. Freeman does an excellent job describing the incident to the reader and its eventual outcome. Many fans know little about these two sticky situations that even someone as crafty as the Snake struggled to get out of.

The book is 221 pages long with four pages dedicated to photos, some of which are from Snake’s personal archive. Overall I recommend the book but would personally suggest that you start off reading Snake’s autobiography first (it is very pricey on Amazon) or “Badasses”. Then pick up a copy of “Snake: The Legendary Life of Ken Stabler”.

Personally, I give this book thee out of 5 Raider shields

Happy reading.

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Raider Mike

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