Some situations allow you to gauge the strength of an athlete's competitive conscience. How hard do they keep playing when a game is out of reach? Do they still gut it out every game even when a season has gone irretrievably sour?
Coaches sometimes say that those are the times when an athlete is “playing for pride.”
For Cortez Kennedy, that describes the fortunes of the Seahawks during most of the 11 seasons he played in Seattle.
Kennedy is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the strength of his eight Pro Bowl appearances and his Defensive Player of the Year honor in 1992.
But whether he is announced as an inductee Saturday or in some subsequent year, he is deserving of inclusion if only for the uncompromising excellence with which he played when so few were watching and so little was at stake.
At times he might shrug off a double-team and then flatten a fullback before deflating a ballcarrier for a loss. Or he would hustle his 300-plus pounds 80 yards downfield chasing an opponent. That it was futile didn’t mean it wasn’t worth the effort to Kennedy.
He explained: “We might be getting beat late in a game, but like I used to tell (linebacker) Terry Wooden, ‘Let’s not let that other team put on this film and see anybody quitting over here.’ There was pride in that.”
Yet the Seahawks kept losing. He played for four coaches, on just two winning teams (both 9-7) and in a single postseason game (1999).
The Seahawks’ insignificance from a league perspective in those years works against Kennedy now as a committee of voters sorts through 15 finalists, most with higher national recognition.
“Here’s the way I put it at least I’m dancin’ with it,” Kennedy said of being a finalist for the third consecutive year. “I feel like it’s such a great honor to be associated with those guys.”
The defender of the year honor in ’92 was the definitive Kennedy effort. From the defensive tackle position, Kennedy had 14 sacks, 93 tackles and forced four fumbles. And the Seahawks went 2-14.
“We had a top-10 defense and we fought hard every week and did what we could,” he said. “And we never said a word about what the offense was doing. It’s a team game.”
Yes, a team game, but Kennedy – the third player taken in the 1990 draft out of Miami – was separated by his talent almost from the beginning.
“It was a feeling that you always knew you were in the presence of a great player,” Wooden said of Kennedy. “We looked up to him so much that you sometimes felt like a kid around him. Whenever we really had to have a big play, all eyes were on ’Tez. It was like we were all thinking, ‘Don’t worry, ’Tez will rescue us.’ ”
After a lengthy contract holdout, Kennedy did not have a great impact as a rookie, but Wooden said that all changed during a preseason scrimmage against Atlanta the next season.
“We had a goal-line period, where ’Tez made three or four consecutive stops and we all went, ‘Whoa, OK, that’s pretty special.’ ”
Like Wooden, linebacker Dave Wyman benefited from playing behind Kennedy.
“He was an unbelievable force on the field in that he just moved people,” Wyman said. “He just went wherever he needed to go, even if that meant going through a double- or triple-team.”
There were times, Wyman said, when Kennedy would “wipe out the A, B and C gap.” The translation: Kennedy had just dominoed an entire side of the offensive line.
While Kennedy was never what anybody would call a sculpted athlete, he had the athleticism to dunk a basketball and fire off the snap of the ball with a sprinter’s reflexes.
Wooden said that Kennedy could be so “unblockable” in practice, the coaches sometimes sent him to the sideline just so they could manage to execute some offensive plays.
His dedication to the game, Kennedy said, was the influence of former Miami Hurricanes player and coach Randy Shannon.
“If it wasn’t for him, I would have never gotten here,” Kennedy said. “He’s the one who let me know that I could go somewhere.”
The on-field domination was not the only appeal of Kennedy, who was considered a Hall of Fame-caliber teammate, too.
“He was the most popular and well-liked guy on the team,” Wooden said. “He’s so good-natured and fun-loving. The biggest thing is he never put himself above anybody else. He’s one of the kindest people with the biggest heart you can imagine.”
Especially when a team is losing, and frustrations compound in weekly increments, the value of having your best player be the best guy in the locker room is immeasurable.
“’Tez was always in a good mood; never engaged in any sort of pettiness or controversy, and he always kept everything light-hearted,” Wyman said. That went even to the point of his turning into a giant prankster who hid in Wyman’s tiny closet at 3 a.m. during training camp just for the joy of jumping out and yelling “Boo!”
“Cortez was a gem, one of the best teammates I ever had. He loved football and would do anything for someone he considered a friend,” Wyman said.
But there were several times when the genial Kennedy was so heart-sore from personal losses that he considered leaving the game. Close friends Jerome Brown and Derrick Thomas died as the result of car crashes, and his agent, Robert Fraley, was in the plane crash that also took the life of PGA golfer Payne Stewart in 1999.
“When Jerome died (1992), I didn’t know if I could ever play football again,” Kennedy said. “How could I? He was like my big brother. I still have his football card, and I look at it every other day and think about him.”
Fraley was instrumental in Kennedy’s foresighted financial planning for life after pro football. But he said the message hit him strongest early in his career, when he saw teammates down on their luck.
“Early, in my second or third year, some former players came back and they wanted to borrow money from me,” he said. “They were already out of money and couldn’t get any from the banks. I thought, whew, I didn’t ever want to be in a position to have to do that.”
Now, he spends most of his time taking care of his daughter, 15-year-old Courtney Kennedy (a promising shot-putter, he says) at their home in Orlando, Fla.
Although he once had to wrestle with his weight, Kennedy now says he’s 280, the result of “eating right – fish, sushi – getting enough sleep and raising my daughter to do all the right things.”
Kennedy acknowledged that the lack of team success and exposure during his career has not helped his Hall of Fame candidacy, but he claims it was entirely worth it.
“I’ll tell you I wouldn’t change a thing about playing in Seattle,” he said. “I loved playing in Seattle. I have so much respect for the Seahawk fans and feel so much gratitude to them for the way they’ve treated me. If I had to go back and do it over again, I’d want to be drafted by Seattle again.”
But a few more wins might be nice along the way.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org