John Madden had no idea Ken Stabler was sick.
The legendary Raiders quarterback didn’t tell his former coach and friend, or anyone outside his inner circle, that he was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in February.
That’s why, as Madden puts it, Thursday’s announcement of Stabler’s death “was a real kick in the gut.”
In hindsight, Madden understood it was all part of Stabler’s personality. Show no weakness. Find a way to beat the odds. Celebrate an unlikely victory.
That didn’t happen this time. Stabler died Wednesday due to complications of colon cancer and, as always, went out on his terms.
“Not knowing he had cancer was a big part of the shock,” Madden said Friday in a conference call. “But, if you know Kenny Stabler, that was Kenny Stabler.”
Stabler got beat up pretty good in his playing days, but always found a way to suit up the next week. He wanted to seem like Superman to those around him, even when he was in tremendous pain.
“Kenny wouldn’t be seen getting treatment. He wouldn’t step foot in the training room,” Madden said. “I thought it was ridiculous because he would take a beat during this games. He needed treatment, so I we would do it at night, when everyone would leave.
“He didn’t want any of his teammates to see him getting treatment. I think that probably followed him through life.”
Never let ‘em see you sweat. That’s what made Stabler so good under pressure. It’s also why he and Madden worked so well together.
Madden was a passionate fellow on the sidelines, a blustery presence compared to Stabler’s ever-calm demeanor.
“The hotter the game, the hotter I got,” Madden said. “Kenny was truly the opposite. The hotter the game got, the cooler he became.”
Madden recalls the Super Bowl XI victory over Minnesota, which didn’t get off to a great start. The game was scoreless through a quarter, and the Raiders led just 3-0 into the second. Madden didn’t like settling for a 24-yard field goal instead of getting into the end zone.
“I was all upset about not being able to finish and not being able to score touchdowns,” Madden said. “He could see I was worked up. Kenny came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry about that, John. There’s going to be plenty more where that came from.’
“The funny thing is that it did affect me. I felt a heck of a lot better with his confidence. It wasn’t just me. That’s what he gave to the whole team.”
Stabler was right. The Raiders scored 13 unanswered points at that point and won Super Bowl XI 32-14.
Madden spent more than 20 minutes telling stories of Stabler at his best, providing insight on a period of glory where the Raiders went to five straight AFC championship games. Stabler and Madden guided the Silver and Black through that proud era.
His loss had a tremendous impact inside Raider Nation and out, and his death has left the football community in mourning.
“His death was a shock to all of us,” Madden said. “Kenny was one of those guys you just think that, whatever you throw in front of him, it’s not going to get him down. Then when you hear Kenny Stabler died, it’s a real kick in the gut. Then you think of the good times and good memories and all the games, practices and meetings. No matter you threw in front of him, Kenny enjoyed it with a twinkle in his eye and a smile. He was one of the greatest competitors ever.”