Ken Stabler sat on a bar stool at the Longhorn, a steak restaurant at the intersection of Morehead Street and Euclid Avenue. Joe Miller sat two stools down. Miller was as big a fan of Stabler and Stabler’s Oakland Raiders as there was in Charlotte, as big a fan as there could be.
The quarterback was in town to serve as grand marshal of the 1988 Coca-Cola 600, and Joe waited quietly at the otherwise empty bar for Stabler and me to finish our interview so he could introduce himself.
Stabler, who grew up in Foley, Ala., about 10 miles north of the Gulf Coast, died Wednesday from colon cancer. He was 69.
Miller, who is known on sports talk WFNZ as Raider Joe, has been a friend since that May afternoon 27 years ago. When he becomes emotional, it’s usually because his Raiders did something right, or wrong. These days, it’s usually wrong.
We talked about Stabler Friday morning, and before he hung up, Miller’s voice broke. He tried not to cry. And then there was no reason to hold back.
“I guess it’s the frailty of life,” says Miller, 63. “You get older and things happen to the people you know and care about. The Snake reached out and touched so many people.”
The connection between an athlete and his (or her) fans can be powerful. For so long, you respect the man from afar. And then he’s there, all 6-4 of him, large and long-haired and two bar stools down.
Yet meeting an athletic hero is not without danger. You’ve spent so much time watching him and listening to him that you feel as if you know him.
But what if you don’t?
For those of you who don’t know Stabler, here’s a quick introduction. He was a leader. He was enormously respected by his teammates, and man could he throw the ball. His accuracy was uncanny, especially when it had to be. He played 15 NFL seasons, 10 with Oakland. He was a Raider from 1970 to ’79. He played in four Pro Bowls, was the 1974 NFL MVP, and twice led the league in touchdown passes.
His Raiders destroyed Minnesota 32-14 in Super Bowl XI.
But the legend of Stabler has as much to do with who he was as what he did. He was the ultimate renegade Raider at a time when the NFL allowed such things, and it is said that if he studied the playbook, he studied it by the jukebox light. Bear Bryant kicked him off the team at Alabama; Bear Bryant took him back. He had long hair, he loved to have a good time, and he had no idea why football had to get in the way.
Three things I learned about Stabler when he was in Charlotte:
1. He was as unpretentious and as accommodating as an interview subject could be.
2. He went to the Double Door every night.
3. No matter how late you think you can stay out, he could stay out later.
When I closed my notebook after our midafternoon interview in 1988, Miller shyly asked Stabler if he could buy him a beer.
“No,” said Stabler. “I’ll buy you a beer.”
“We’re sitting there in the afternoon drinking a beer at Longhorn, and it’s like talking to you,” Miller says Friday. “We talked about stuff, not football. He was gracious and humble, and he was funny.
“You can’t do what he did unless you’re a great quarterback. He was a great quarterback. But he was one of us. If you didn’t know who he was, you wouldn’t know who he was.”
When Stabler walked out, Miller knew who he was.
He was everything Miller had hoped he would be.
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tomsorensen