Ken Stabler, the Swashbuckling Quarterback of the Badass 1970s Raiders, Had a Degenerative Brain Disease

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Los Angeles Raiders
Ken Stabler, who died in July, was found to have CTE.Photo: Focus On Sport/1975 Focus On Sports

Ken Stabler, one of the best quarterbacks of the 1970s and a finalist this year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died in July from colon cancer at age 69. In his final years, family members began to notice a decline in his cognitive function, and as Stabler had wished, his brain was removed following his death and studied by scientists. And as described in a New York Times report today, they discovered that he had high Stage 3 (out of 4) CTE, the degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated head trauma.

Ann McKee, the chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University School of Medicine, conducted the examination of Stabler’s brain and told the Times that he had “moderately severe” CTE. “It may be surprising since he was a quarterback, but certainly the lesions were widespread, and they were quite severe, affecting many regions of the brain.”

Quarterbacks are given more protection than most other players on the football field, between linemen charged with keeping them from being hit and rules designed to keep them safe. Stabler is the seventh quarterback to be found to have CTE by Boston University, which has found the disease in 90 of the 94 NFL players it has examined. CTE can only be discovered in the brain after a person has died.

In August, Stabler was announced as a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2016 class. He was one of two finalists chosen by the Hall’s Seniors Committee, which considers players who have not played for at least 25 years. The Hall’s induction class will be announced on Saturday, the day before Super Bowl 50. It’s Stabler’s fourth time as a finalist. At least seven current members of the Hall have been found to have CTE, including Junior Seau and Frank Gifford.

Nicknamed the Snake, the left-handed Stabler was known as a free spirit during his playing days, fitting right in on the badass Oakland Raiders of the 1970s. (His junior-high-school coach once told Sports Illustrated that “He’d run 200 yards to score from 20 yards out.”) Stabler was named to four Pro Bowls and won the Associated Press MVP in 1974. Two years after that, he quarterbacked the Raiders to their first Super Bowl title, throwing for 180 yards and a touchdown in Oakland’s win over Minnesota.

Stabler played 15 years in the NFL, including ten with Oakland, two with Houston, and three with New Orleans. And though there’s a lot researchers don’t understand about CTE, it’s possible his long career might have made him more susceptible to the disease. “The very severity of the disease, at least that we’re seeing in American football players, seems to correlate with the duration of play,” McKee said. “The longer they play, the more severe we see it. But it’s also the years since retirement, to the age of death — not only the longer you play, but the longer you live after you stop playing.”