If Tom Hanks had a ballot, the Pro Football Hall of Fame wouldn't be missing a key piece of NFL history.
Unfortunately, Hanks isn't one of the 46 people who'll be voting when the Class of 2016 is decided on Saturday. That means Ken Stabler might lose in his last shot, though the real loser would be the Hall of Fame.
The Snake was an all-time football charmer. Millions of people were saddened when he died of colon cancer last July. Sentimentality kicked in and the Senior Committee submitted him as one of two nominees this voting cycle.
Stabler has been viewed as a borderline candidate since he retired in 1984. Voters are slaves to statistics, and Stabler supposedly didn't measure up in the numbers game.
He had too many interceptions. His excellence was erratic. And did his heart really beat hard enough for football?
After doing some research, the only response to those knocks is, "Huh?"
Stabler went to five straight AFC championship games. Isn't that sustained brilliance?
Even in his twilight, Stabler guided the New Orleans Saints and the Houston Oilers to their best records ever. He won a Super Bowl, was an NFL MVP, won 100 games faster than any QB in history.
Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw and Stabler were the three quarterbacks voted to the 1970s All-Decade Team. Every all-decade quarterback from 1940s to the 1990s is in the Hall except Stabler.
Yes, he threw 222 interceptions and 194 touchdowns. Most came when he had to carry struggling teams later in his career. And there are nine quarterbacks in Canton who threw more interceptions than touchdowns.
But forget numbers. No spreadsheet could measure Stabler's style and impact.
He got his nickname as kid quarterback in Foley, Ala., when he kept slithering out of trouble. Miami Dolphins fans are still haunted by the "Sea of Hands" play in the 1974 AFC title game. A staggering Stabler lobbed the ball into a thicket of defenders and found running back Clarence Davis for the winning score for the Oakland Raiders.
Stabler had creaky knees, a hint of a pot belly and sweat-drenched hair flowed from the back of his helmet. His lefty passes were far more precise than powerful, but nobody was cooler under pressure.
He was like the Old West poker player who sat there grinning, knowing he'd draw an inside straight on the last card. Stabler was once asked about a line from Jack London:
"I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet."
What did that mean?
"Throw deep," Stabler cracked.
It was his life philosophy. The term "studying the playbook by the light of a jukebox" was invented for The Snake.
It helped forge the Raiders' aura. Even today, the woebegone franchise is No. 3 in NFL jersey sales. Stabler's family should get a cut of every merchandising dollar.
Beneath the party boy image was a serious leader. Stabler never let teammates see him hurt. He'd meet the trainer after hours to get treatment for injuries.
That stoicism remained till the end. Stabler told only his closest family he was sick. Among those shocked by the news was a future movie icon.
Hanks grew up in Oakland during Stabler's reign. He even signs off emails with "Throw Deep, Baby." Hanks sent a letter to Stabler's daughters.
"Your father, with his left-handedness and those two bad knees, displayed a permanent smile of bemusement that said — win or lose — 'ain't this fun?' I really did see in him the honor to be found in playing the game, of using one's God-given talent, of taking pleasure in the effort."
Stabler wouldn't want to get in on a sentimental vote. He deserves to get in on his play.
But if it helps, somebody should read Hanks' letter to the voters on Saturday. Maybe they'll finally get the message.
Throw deep, baby.
— Orlando Sentinel (TNS)