As the most unblockable defensive tackle of the 1990s in the NFL, Cortez Kennedy regularly saw double-teams, occasional triple-teams and once in a while a UPS truck parked in front of him by hapless offensive coordinators.
All of which, relatively, was a saunter through an alpine meadow compared to what it took to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he will be inducted today. The man’s sports career had Seattle disease – you know, invisibility.
Ask Ichiro Suzuki about it. He finally found an antidote by forcing a trade to the New York Yankees. At least he’ll get a good shot at the playoffs this fall.
Tez? The affable, notoriously bashful Southern kid from rural Arkansas via the University of Miami could not bring himself to leave Seattle, no matter the mediocrity, no matter the temptations.
“I never did want to go anywhere,” he said in a recent telephone interview with reporters. “I was in Seattle, and I couldn’t go anywhere and I didn’t want to go anywhere. I loved playing with my coaches and teammates. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but I just wanted to be in Seattle.”
Some things cannot be explained. Seahawks fans don’t care. They just know that one of their greats will be hailed with the NFL’s best in Canton, Ohio, when he joins fellow inductees Jack Butler, Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman, Curtis Martin, and Willie Roaf in receiving pro football’s most cherished honor.
Taken with the third overall pick in the 1990 draft, Kennedy played 11 seasons in football’s most remote location, for a team that had two winning seasons and one playoff appearance during his tenure. In one of the most championship-resistant zones in American sports, Kennedy couldn’t have hooked up with a more obscure outfit if he had been hired by a weight-loss clinic in North Korea.
What national attention came to the Seahawks in those days – apart from the reign of error from owner Ken Behring (1988-97) – was due to Kennedy, who helped the defense to top-10 rankings from 1990-92, the only time in club history the Seahawks have been rated so highly three years in row. But in 1992, the Seahawks were a franchise-worst 2-14, thanks to an offense ranked by FootballOutsiders.com as the worst in the modern history of the NFL, scoring 140 points in a 16-game season.
Kennedy, meanwhile, was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, an astonishing achievement for a team with such a poor record – only the third player in the history of the award to come from a two-win team. Kennedy had 14 sacks from the defensive tackle position, nearly unheard of, and 92 tackles overall. Despite an unchiseled, squatty body, Kennedy had remarkable gifts in quickness, strength and balance for a 305-pounder that allowed him to consume and discard blockers with uncommon swiftness.
But Kennedy’s personal and team profiles were so low that it took four years for Kennedy to amass the necessary 80 percent of the vote from 44 members of the pro football writers selection committee. Former Tacoma News Tribune writer Mike Sando of espn.com made the case for Kennedy at the vote during Super Bowl week in Indianapolis.
“I don’t see how Mike and the guys in the Hall of Fame process can choose five people,” Kennedy said. “That’s tough, but I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
Kennedy is the second player – after Steve Largent – to be elected after playing his entire career in Seattle. He’s the seventh player who spent time with the Seahawks to make the Hall, including Carl Eller, Franco Harris, Warren Moon, Jerry Rice and John Randle. Former Seahawks front office executive Mike McCormack is in the Hall for his playing days in Cleveland.
Tommy Brasher was an assistant coach at Tampa Bay when Kennedy was a Miami collegian. After scouting him, Brasher implored head coach Ray Perkins to take Kennedy with the draft’s No. 4 pick.
“Ray says, ‘What is it about this fat tackle that you think should make him the fourth pick in the draft?’ ” Brasher told seahawks.com. “I said, ‘Well, he just takes over games.’ Then Ray said, ‘I don’t think you spend that high a pick on a tackle.’ So I said, ‘You do for this guy. You spend whatever pick you’ve got to spend to get this guy.’ ”
The Seahawks, under coach Chuck Knox, agreed with Brasher, trading into the No. 3 spot ahead of Tampa Bay to get him. Eight Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro selections later, the Seahawks busted a fine move. They even hired Brasher to coach him through the 1998 season. He’ll be among the 350 guests Kennedy said he is inviting.
“Tommy was one of the greatest coaches I ever had,” Kennedy said. “He kept me from being complacent, because he was all on my butt. (If) I didn’t have a good game, Tommy was like my dad. He’d say, ‘’Tez, you know, you had a decent game, but not your game. What the hell was going on with you?’ I was like, ‘Coach, I don’t know.’
“Then if I had a bad practice, probably on Fridays, Coach Brasher would chew me out behind closed doors. I was like, ‘Coach, you don’t have to worry about that – I don’t want to get chewed out (again).’ I love Coach, I’m glad he’s (coming to Canton).”
Perhaps befitting his unconventional character, Kennedy made an unconventional choice to present him – Dixie Fraley Keller, widow of his longtime agent and friend Robert Fraley, who died in a plane accident in 1999 along with professional golfer Payne Stewart.
“One of the most important men in my life,” is how Kennedy described his friend. “It means a lot, because if Robert was alive, he would be there. I told her four years ago (when Kennedy was first nominated for the Hall) I always want her to present me because of Robert; that’s how much Robert meant to me.”
Much as Seattle meant to him, Kennedy, after his retirement in 2000, returned to his hometown of Osceola, Ark., primarily because, as a single father, he sought his parents’ help to raise his daughter, Courtney, now 18.
“It was perfect,” Kennedy said. “Matter of fact, my daughter and I were just talking about it. She can’t wait for the Hall of Fame. Sometimes I think she is getting in the Hall of Fame the way she is acting.”
Kennedy, who now lives in Orlando, Fla., doesn’t mind a good party, but small-time living suits him fine.
“I had to turn a lot of people down when they asked me to do stuff,” he said. “I just want to keep my life simple. A lot of people called me and wanted me to do speaking engagements, wanted to honor me. But you know, I’m not that type of person. I’ll do a couple, but I like to stay out of the limelight. I’ve always been that way and I always will.
“I’m just glad that a lot of people from my hometown will be there in Canton and from all over the country.”
For 11 years with the Seahawks, he shedded the limelight as easily he did blockers. The limelight found him again, and this time it’s forever.