Selma friends remember life of Alabama great

Published 7:24 pm Saturday, July 11, 2015

Selma attorney Henry Pitts, former Oakland Raiders head coach John Madden and NFL legend Kenny Stabler pose for a picture during the 1970s.

Selma attorney Henry Pitts, former Oakland Raiders head coach John Madden and NFL legend Kenny Stabler pose for a picture during the 1970s.

Alabama football star Kenny Stabler died after a short battle with colon cancer last week, but the legend leaves behind countless memories for those who knew him.

Many of those memories hang in the form of pictures on the wall in Henry Pitts’ living room. Pitts, a Selma attorney, was Stabler’s agent during his NFL career and he has so many stories to tell of “The Snake” that his wife, Sister, told him he needs to write a book.

Pitts stands next to Stabler on the sideline during a Raiders’ game. Stabler, 69, lost his battle with colon cancer last week.

Pitts stands next to Stabler on the sideline during a Raiders’ game. Stabler, 69, lost his battle with colon cancer last week.

“There are a lot of stories about Kenny,” Pitts said. “I could go on and on and on … We lost a good man, and I lost a very good friend.”

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Pitts started representing Stabler after he’d been drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the 1968 NFL Draft. By that time, the quarterback had already become a star in Alabama. Stabler led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated season in 1966 and beat rival Auburn in 1967 on a 53-yard run through sloggy conditions. The play later became known as “The Run in the Mud” and is still one of the most famous plays in Iron Bowl history.

When Pitts met Stabler, he was trying to find his footing in the NFL. The two crossed paths when Stabler was visiting his first wife’s grandmother in Selma and the two quickly created a bond that would last for life.

Pitts said at the time he had always wanted to try his hand at representing professional athletes and Stabler was one of his first and biggest clients.

Early on his career — the exact year escapes Pitts — Stabler left the Raiders in the middle of the season, moved to Tuscaloosa and ended up in Selma. Pitts said to this day he isn’t sure why Stabler quit the team.

“He walked to the beat of a different drummer,” Pitts said with a laugh.

Out of football for the time being, Stabler started a sports talk show on WAMA, a local Selma radio station at the time. Although the show only lasted for only a brief period, it made a lasting impression on Mike Reynolds, who was a young boy at the time.

“One of the reasons I got into public broadcasting is because Kenny worked at a radio station,” said Reynolds, who is now the president of BroadSouth Communications in Selma. “My father took me down to the radio station to see Kenny do his show. I was obviously enamored by all that. I’m not saying that’s the reason I got into communications or broadcasting, but it had a lot to do with it.”

Meanwhile, Pitts was tasked with getting Stabler back on the Raiders, which he was able to before the next NFL season. One of the pictures on Pitts’ wall is a photo of he and Stabler boarding a plane to Oakland to sign a new contract to get him back on the team. The photo is signed by Stabler.

“I took him back to Oakland the next year for football and got him back on the team, and I think it was a year later when he started starting,” Pitts said.

Stabler served as the backup to Daryle Lamonica during the early stages of his career, but that all changed in 1972. Stabler was subbed in for an ineffective Lamonica in a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and led a late rally to give the Raiders the lead in the fourth quarter, only to be defeated by Franco Harris and the “Immaculate Reception” — one of the most famous plays in NFL history.

Although Lamonica still opened the 1973 season as Oakland’s starter, he was benched for Stabler after the team got off to a slow start. The next year, Stabler’s first full season as a starting quarterback, he was named the NFL’s MVP after throwing for 2,496 yards, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

By that time, he had become of the NFL’s biggest stars. His colorful personality and laid back playstyle resonated with fans and made him one of the most popular players in the league. Of course, it also got him into trouble occasionally.

“A lot of times, he wouldn’t want to practice,” Pitts said. “The Raiders would be calling me wanting to know where he was. He’d be out on a boat in the gulf down in Gulf Shores, and he’d finally report to practice like he never missed a day. He was such a natural athlete.”

Stabler, who was a star during his high school days in Foley and became a University of Alabama football legend, almost got to return home to play professional ball in 1974. The World Football League, a new startup league, formed that year. The Birmingham Americans were one of the 13 teams in the league and wanted Stabler.

“Back then we had a new league starting and they were looking for superstars and at that point Kenny had achieved what I would call superstar stardom,” Pitts said.

The interest was mutual, as Stabler also wanted to return to his home state and to play games at Legion Field, where he had starred as the quarterback for the Crimson Tide. Stabler likely would’ve been one of, if not the biggest, headliner in the league.

The Americans and Stabler eventually agreed to a contract, but Stabler never even got to throw a pass for his new team as the WFL folded after the 1975 season due to financial difficulties.

“He was looking forward to coming back and playing in Legion Field but the league folded the next year,” Pitts said.

Stabler never missed a beat in the NFL. He led the Raiders to three straight AFC Championship games from 1974-1976 and eventually to Super Bowl XI, where Oakland dominated the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 to give legendary coach John Madden his first and only NFL title.

The game was played in Pasadena, Calif. and Pitts said he and Sister got to spend the entire week on the west coast. He watched the Raiders practice, went to the team’s Super Bowl party and went with Stabler as he did the Bob Hope Show following the team’s victory.

“It was a tremendous feeling to be representing somebody that was the quarterback, and I thought he should’ve been the Most Valuable Player of the Game but Freddie Biletnikoff got it instead of Kenny,” Pitts said.

After the Raiders missed the playoffs in 1978 and 1979, Stabler was traded to the Houston Oilers for Dan Pastorini. He’d play two years in Houston before finishing his NFL career with three years with the New Orleans Saints.

All in all, he threw for 27,938 yards and 194 touchdowns during his NFL days. Pitts said those numbers should be good enough to put Stabler in the hall of fame.

“If you look at his stats and compare them to the other quarterbacks that are in there, his stats stack up against anybody,” Pitts said.

Pitts knew Stabler as more than just a NFL or college star though. He’s got photos of them standing on the sidelines in Oakland, posing with cars at Talladega Superspeedway and even ones of Stabler sitting on the couch with kids from the neighborhood.

“Kenny liked to put on that persona that he was rough and gruff but really he had a heart as big as anybody I’d ever seen,” Pitts said. “He was a very compassionate individual and he cared for other people.”

Pitts said he and his wife plan to attend the Stabler funeral. Funeral arrangements had not been announced publicly as of Saturday.