Snake on a Plane
No, not the movie. And not a real snake.
I’ve flown a lot in my day, but perhaps my most memorable flight was the one I shared with the football legend.
Back in the eighties, Disney World held these junkets in which television reporters would travel to Orlando with local sports stars for what was called the “Goofy Games.” And since I was working in Mobile at the time, Kenny Stabler was one of the famous athletes on our team.
Disney actually sent a plane to pick us up. “The Mickey” had actually been Walt Disney’s favorite airplane. I arrived at the private airport an hour early and saw Stabler sitting in the waiting area. He looked up and smiled. “I know you from TV.”
I shook his hand. “Yeah, but everyone knows you.” I turned into a little kid as I was talking to the legend who was the inspiration for some legendary NFL plays. Ghost to the Post. The Holy Roller.
Turned out the Snake was a news junkie. He wanted to talk news, I wanted to talk football. “I saw you when the Raiders played the Jets at Shea Stadium. You had this incredible comeback in the fourth quarter.”
He nodded, then proceeded to recap every detail of that particular game. The guy had a mind like a steel trap.
I mentioned he was my father’s favorite player.
“You know your Dad’s phone number?”
Stabler pointed at the phone on the end table. “We’ve got some time to kill. Call him up, let me talk to him.”
So I picked up the phone and called my father. “Dad, someone here wants to talk to you.”
I handed Kenny the phone. “Hi Nick, Kenny Stabler.” He talked to my father for twenty minutes. Such an incredibly nice thing to do.
“The Mickey” arrived and we boarded the plane. It was one of those with seats facing each other, and I sat opposite the football legend. The flight attendant came by and took our drink orders.
“Club soda,” said Stabler.
I shook my head. “Oh, you gotta be kidding. You’re a legendary party guy and you drink club soda?”
He waved his hand like he was shooing a fly. “Pffft. That’s part of the image. Just a myth.”
The conversation was eye-opening. So the party guy really wasn’t and was more interested in news than anything else.
The junket was a sports fan’s dream. Legends were everywhere around the hotel. One Hall of Famer let me try on his Super Bowl ring. It was too big for my thumb.
Late one night I got thirsty and went to the vending machine, but it was out of order, so I headed to the hotel bar to get a soda. And what do I find but the Snake drinking beer out of a funnel. “Club soda, huh?”
He shrugged and just smiled.
The trip was a blast as was the flight home. I had talked to my Dad since that phone call, and told Kenny what a thrill it was for my father. Turned out he was going to do a regular segment at our station, so I’d see him again.
A week later I looked up from my desk and saw him heading in my direction. He handed me a copy of his autobiography. “Something for your Dad.” He’d autographed it. I mailed it to my father.
Kenny Stabler was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016. Of course, they should have done it when he was still alive. While he is remembered for all the great games he played for Alabama and the Oakland Raiders, I always think of the time he made my father’s day with a phone call.
Randy Tatano is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow, and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer.