One wish for Stabler

The game was over, about 75,000 fans were ignoring the frigid, single-digit temperatures while watching the Mile High Stadium goalposts come down, and the Denver Broncos were rejoicing along with Orange Nation in their first chance to play in the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, inside the crammed visitors dressing room, the Oakland Raiders dealt with the sting of this 20-17 defeat in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 1, 1978, and of not being able to win their second consecutive National Football League championship. They could hear the thunderous cheers and foot-stomping that continued outside, which only made it worse.

One cluster of writers made its way to a corner locker, where Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler slowly took off his mud-soiled uniform — and then pulled and tugged with all his remaining strength to remove a pair of pantyhose underneath.

Yes, women's pantyhose.

"Hell, when it's this cold, you do whatever you can to keep from freezing," Stabler said with a wry smile. And from there, the quarterback who had led Oakland to the Super Bowl title a year earlier proceeded to answer every question, never losing his cool, never blaming anyone, never showing the anguish of missing out on another title. He was classy enough, in fact, that some of us media-types actually felt sympathetic for him, far more than for anyone else in the Silver and Black.

From more than a quarter-century of covering the National Football League, that scene stands out more to me than any other postgame interview. Little did we know at the time, but that defeat might have cost Stabler far more than a title.

In those days, still in his early 30s, many felt Stabler had more championships in his future. But for various reasons, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, the guy nicknamed "The Snake" never won another Lombardi Trophy.

And yet when the news came last week of Stabler's death at 69 from colon cancer, my first thought was this: Wait, Stabler did make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, right? After all, he was the NFL's Most Valuable Player once (should've been twice) and was the AFC Player of the Year two times. During his prime of the 1970s, he ranked among the league's best in touchdown passes and other categories, year after year. He was known as one who liked to have a good time and drink beer, but his off-field exploits were tame by today's standards.

The answer is, no, Stabler didn't reach the Hall of Fame. And that's an injustice, as bad as my other decades-long pet peeve, that longtime Denver linebacker Randy Gradishar never was enshrined in Canton, Ohio. Stabler also slipped through the cracks, while other quarterbacks who never won a Super Bowl — Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon, Fran Tarkenton — were chosen.

When you are considered one of the best from a decade, not just a year or two, and have a Super Bowl ring, that should count for something.

"If you just look at how he played and what kind of quarterback he is, he's a Hall of Fame quarterback," his Oakland coach, John Madden, told the San Jose Mercury News after learning of Stabler's death. "We get too caught up today in [career] statistics."

After retirement, Stabler eventually returned to his native Alabama (he had played in college under Bear Bryant) and later spent 10 years (1998 through 2007) doing color (perhaps that should be colorful, which it was) commentary for the Crimson Tide radio broadcasts. More recently, Stabler would pop up occasionally on the ubiquitous sports talk shows, TV and radio, talking about issues of the day and remembering the good times, always with the same low-key, easygoing demeanor that made him so easy to like and respect.

One of his "looking back" quotes, from a book on the Raiders by Peter Richmond, stands out for me: "I've had third-and-15 my whole life. Everybody's had rocky moments from Day One. But sometimes you pick up third and long, and that's where you make your money. That's where the satisfaction comes, from the game and from life."

Ken Stabler couldn't stop Denver from making that Super Bowl, but he did turn a lot of third-and-15s into first downs and touchdowns, pantyhose and all.

Maybe now he can climb one more mountain — into the Hall of Fame.