A meeting of Lions

Foley High School legend Ken Stabler and current quarterback Roosevelt Byrd meet for the first time

By Derek Belt
Mobile Press-Register
Oct. 3, 2006

FOLEY, ALA. — On this afternoon, it wasn’t about records or numbers. It was about Foley High School’s past and present—two No. 12s, meeting for the first time on their own home turf.

It was about camaraderie and togetherness. It was about football, then and now.

Current Foley quarterback Roosevelt Byrd and Ken “Snake” Stabler, who held that position from 1961 to 1963, tossed a few spirals back and forth on the freshly chalked field at Ivan Jones Stadium, then talked football in the very same locker room that Stabler once used.

“It all started right here,” Stabler said as Byrd cradled the old pro’s 1965 national championship ring and 1977 Super Bowl ring. A member of the University of Alabama’s title team in ’65, Stabler guided the Oakland Raiders to a resounding 32-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.

Byrd and Stabler both see football as a means to make it big, but each has traveled a remarkably different path.

Byrd, a senior, is a modest 18-year-old who endured a tough childhood that saw his father slain in a drug deal. Stabler, who was renowned for his flair on and off the field, grew up in the farm-town Foley of 50 years ago, a place of open fields and prevailing quiet.

Both quarterbacks, however, know what it means to be in the south Baldwin County spotlight.

“I just remember how much fun it was (playing for Foley) and how much everybody loved us because we were a good football team,” Stabler said. “You’d go downtown during the week and people would recognize you as a high school player. That really made you appreciate why it all happens. It made you appreciate the team.”

“Sometimes,” said Byrd, “I go through town and people come up and ask ‘Do you play for Foley?’ ‘Do you play quarterback?’ ‘Well, I just want to congratulate you.’ It’s been fun bringing the pride back into town and getting everybody excited about football again.”

Two years ago, the Lions finished 0-10 and Byrd, a backup quarterback and defensive end at the time, thought hard about giving up the game.

New era at Foley

That all changed with the February 2005 arrival of coach Todd Watson, who won four state championships in five years as an assistant coach at Hoover High School. Watson helped revive the down-and-out Lions and usher in a new era at Foley.

Watson was selected as the Class 6A state coach of the year after Foley posted an 8-2 turnaround season that included the school’s first playoff berth in five years. Byrd was named the Press-Register’s co-offensive player of the year and picked up MVP honors at the North-South All-Star game in Troy a few weeks after the season.

Success and a little celebrity brought welcome sunshine into Byrd’s life.

When Byrd was an 8-year-old growing up in the Daphne area, his father was shot and killed trying to buy drugs with counterfeit money. His mother was constantly down on her luck.

Six years ago, Byrd and his younger brother, Anthony, went to live at the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Boys Ranch in Summerdale, part of a statewide organization that cares for school-age kids from troubled backgrounds.

There, Byrd was exposed to a steady stream of positives. The experience, he said, helped shape and strengthen his character.

Although he’s played only 15 games under center, Byrd is the undeniable leader of the undefeated and fifth-ranked Lions. He is already Foley’s all-time leader in passing yards, having thrown for 2,313 yards last season and 1,087 yards through five games this year. That’s a record that Stabler, whose teams were better known for running the ball, never had a chance at.

Stabler did set a 1963 school record of 64.7 percent passing in a single season, a cherished mark that Byrd still has a chance to better. Midway through this season, Byrd is completing 60.7 percent of his passes.

Ken Stabler and Roosevelt Byrd playing catch at Foley’s Ivan Jones Stadium.

‘Wonderful blessing’

“Just stepping on that field Friday night is special,” said Byrd, who has a scholarship offer from Mississippi State University on the table. “You come out, and you see the stadium’s packed, and everybody’s standing and cheering for you. It’s just a wonderful blessing. There’s no feeling like it.”

A comfortable silence took hold of the tiny room behind the stadium as Stabler, Byrd and coach Watson danced with the idea of Friday nights in Foley. All three were glowing.

“It’s still a community school,” said Watson, a Mobile-area native who graduated from Baldwin County High in 1989. “The people here have pride in how the football team does and what’s going on. They’re all in the know, and that’s the fun part.”

“You’re right, it is a community school,” said Stabler, shifting in his seat. “It was that way 40 years ago, too.”

Stabler, a 1964 graduate, was an All-American at Alabama under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and was voted in 1992 as the Crimson Tide’s “Quarterback of the Century” along with Joe Namath. Oakland selected Stabler in the second round of the 1968 NFL draft, and he spent the next 15 years playing for the Raiders, Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints.

Stabler’s mark

In three years at Foley, two as a starter, Stabler’s teams compiled a 29-1 record and were voted as back-to-back state champions in 1961 and 1962 under Hall of Fame coach Ivan Jones, whose name the stadium now bears.

Before chain restaurants and outlet malls dotted the Alabama 59 stretch to nearby Gulf Shores, there wasn’t much to do around Foley, Stabler said, and that was nice. The town had about 4,000 people back then. His graduating class counted only 47 members.

Stabler’s father, Leroy “Slim” Stabler, was a hard-working auto mechanic who loved Foley athletics. He would take young Kenny, wife Sally and daughter Carolyn to the football games each Friday night and impress upon his son the splendors of sports.

Though Stabler was more into baseball at the time—the New York Yankees offered the left-handed pitcher $50,000 to turn pro in 1964—his father swayed him to football just before high school to the tune of a black 1954 Ford, according to Stabler’s 1989 autobiography “Snake.”

Enter the ‘Snake’

The book also recounts how Stabler made Foley’s junior varsity squad his first year as a defensive back and kick returner. As the story goes, one day at practice assistant coach Denzil Hollis said on the sideline after watching Stabler zigzag a punt 60 yards for a score, “Damn, that boy runs like a snake!”

The nickname stuck.

Today, “Snake” is 60, and with his gentle demeanor and magnetic personality, he seems more like the youthful lefty who put Foley High on the map than he does the bearded, long-haired carouser known for scoring touchdowns and raising Cain throughout his professional playing days.

Stabler currently works out of Mobile but keeps a place in Gulf Shores and serves as color commentator for Alabama football radio broadcasts. He has three times been named a finalist in the Pro Football Hall of Fame balloting, most recently in 2003. And though he hasn’t made it back to a Foley game in years, Stabler still keeps a watchful eye on his alma mater.

“Reading about the teams coach Watson has now rekindles the memories I have of Foley winning,” Stabler said, noting that he likes the Lions’ flashy new uniforms, which lack the traditional gold of past Foley teams. “It’s a different time and a different style. They’re creating their own tradition, their own legacy. I think it’s terrific.”

Stabler, right, was part of the Renegade Raiders and led Oakland to a Super Bowl championship in 1977.

The quarterback’s role

Stabler has never strayed too far from football, which has allowed him to stay abreast of the changes that continually alter the way the game is played. Tugging at his crimson polo shirt, Stabler said he “could have played in this outfit back then because (the offensive line) took great care of me.”

Now, he said, the game moves at a faster pace and quarterbacks are more vulnerable to big hits.

“Here at Foley, and we played the same way at Alabama, the offense was real simple. We didn’t have a bunch of plays, but we’d do a few things really well. Today’s game, there’s little receivers running around everywhere and athletic quarterbacks like this guy,” he said, motioning toward Byrd. The young quarterback took his cue.

“I’m just trying to get the ball in everybody’s hands,” he said. “We can keep them honest with the running backs, but mostly we just air the ball out and see if they can defend it.”

“That’s the way we were,” Stabler said. “Not that type of thing, but distribution and distribution across the field is really important. I was taught from Day One that you need to make everybody better and get everybody involved. Coach Bryant always told me, ‘That’s your job, just make everybody better.’ ”

Byrd grinned, knowing he’d heard that one before. “Coach (Joel) Williams tells the receivers all the time that some nights you might get 10-15 catches and sometimes you might not get any. With Julio (Jones, the team’s star receiver) for instance, if you try to double coverage him you’ve got the other guys. What are you gonna do with them?”

“They can’t have their cake and eat it, too,” Stabler said. “They can take him out of the game, but then it’s your responsibility to get the ball to some other areas and get everybody else involved. If they want to take one guy away, if they want to take Julio away, they can do that. But they’ve got to give up something to get it.”

“That’s where Roosevelt does such a good job,” Watson said. “For a high school guy, he’s great at reading what the defense is doing and what they’re trying to take away. That allows him to get the ball out of the pocket quick.”

As they talked, Stabler grew more and more excited by the minute. “What kind of play selection do y’all do?” he asked Watson. “Do you do all the play calling or does he get some room for that?”

Stabler, who had called many of his own plays for 22 years, listened intently as Watson and Byrd spoke freely of the Lions’ audible system. He was obviously interested in what makes Foley’s offense so ruthlessly effective despite its complexity.

The game has evolved

“I think it’s harder to play now because of all the things the defense makes you prepare for,” Stabler said, adding that he would only see a few different formations each game. “Today you see quarterbacks like (former Daphne star) Pat White, Michael Vick and Roosevelt—guys that are terrific athletes and will move around and run and make things happen. I wasn’t that type of player. I didn’t have a real strong arm, but I was real accurate with the ball.

“The quarterback position has kind of evolved in that way,” he added. “You need an athlete back there now because you’re going to get some heat and you need a guy that can move around and make good decisions.”

Byrd, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound threat to run as well as pass, churned up 370 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns as a junior. So far this season, he has gained 174 yards and scored four touchdowns on the ground.

“I’ve gotten into the habit of when I feel pressure I’ll step up,” Byrd said. “You’ve got to step up and look around and see who’s open and who’s where. If the coverage is there, you’ve just got to know you’re running out of time.”

Stabler nodded. “You can practice that, but in a game it’s an instinctive thing to feel it coming at you,” he said. “You have to get underneath it and still have enough time maybe to make some kind of decision. Can I get the ball down field or do I take the ball and go with it?”

Stabler said leadership, like football, always came easily to him. And though Byrd is still in the early stages of his career, Stabler said he admires the young Lion’s ability to stand up and take the lead on and off the field.

“Do it by example is what I was always taught,” he said. “(Raiders coach) John Madden used to tell us that if you play football for a long time there’s going to be a lot of peaks and valleys. You’re gonna get hurt, you’re gonna lose. You’ll get criticized by the media, you’ll get MVP. You’ll complete some, you’ll have some intercepted.

“Everybody around you, as the quarterback, they’re looking at you to see how you handle all those things. If you’ve got a guy who’s hurt, I’d always go over to him and ask how he was doing. How’s that injury? How’s your family? Let him know that you care about him.”

Byrd graduated as Foley High School’s all-time leading passer.

Ultimate team game

Watson said Byrd has done an exceptional job of keeping the Lions together, and he praised the senior’s knack for understanding his role on a talented team.

“It really is the ultimate team game,” Watson said. “Being able to go out and sweat and bleed and enjoy and cry with a whole group of guys like that, I think that’s what makes the game of football so special. The bonds you make in football are unlike any other.”

Although Stabler and Byrd had just met, that bond was already evident. As they walked out of the locker room side by side, the two standouts shook hands and Stabler patted Byrd on the back, saying, “Good luck.”

Two generations of Foley quarterbacks. Together at last.

“Where he’s come from to where he’s at with this team, what (football) can offer down the road is absolutely endless,” Stabler said of Byrd. “But there are no shortcuts. It’s not an easy game, it’s not an easy life. But he already knows that. He’s getting what I got.

“He’s getting good advice and good coaching, and that’s what I got right here in this same room.”