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Cortez the conqueror
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While Cortez Kennedy was walking through Costco the other day, he was approached by a man who had been eying him from a distance.
It was a situation that prompted Kennedy to smile as he thought to himself, “This should be good. Who does this guy think I am?”
Imagine his amazement when the admirer offered, “Are you Cortez Kennedy?”
After an initial reaction of, “Wow,” Kennedy answered in the affirmative. The man then said, “Cortez, I’m one of your biggest fans. And you look great.”
Kennedy laughed as he continued with the moral of this story.
“In this business, it’s not what have you done for me lately, but now,” he said. “So that was surprising, and impressive.”
Kennedy, the eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the Seahawks, always has been a larger-than-life character – on the field, obviously; but off it, as well. Not to mention a dominating player who generated a body of work to match his stature.
|Blue and Green Dream Team|
The Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team, as selected by the readers of Seahawks.com:
So it is no surprise that Kennedy not only was selected to the Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team by the readers of Seahawks.com, but garnered more votes (4,172) than everyone except Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent (5,004).
“Cortez might’ve been as dominant a defensive tackle that’s ever played,” said Dennis Erickson, who coached Kennedy at the University of Miami and later with the Seahawks.
“He was dominant when I had him in Seattle in the four years I was there, and he was dominant before I got there. I don’t know if you can see a defensive tackle who dominated a game like he did when he was with the Seahawks.”
Kennedy was at his dominating best in 1992, when he was voted NFL defensive player of the year after collecting 14 sacks and 93 tackles – both career highs – on a 2-14 team.
Did someone say dominating? Eugene Robinson, the free safety on the 35th Anniversary team, had a unique view of the havoc Kennedy could wreak.
“From my vantage point, I would see Tez grabbing guys by the shoulders and throwing them out of the way like rag dolls,” Robinson said. “I would see the hole open and a running back ready to break through. Then, boom, the back gets slammed.”
All in a play’s work for Kennedy.
But the fact that Kennedy was so good has been lost on too many outside the Seattle area because he played on some teams that were not so good. He was with the team in that ’tweener period (1990-2000) – after the Seahawks’ first run that produced four playoff berths in a six-season span (1983-88), and before the stretch where they went to the playoffs for five consecutive seasons and won four division titles in a row (2003-07).
You will never hear Kennedy complain about what might have been if the Seahawks’ offense had been half as good as the defense early in his career. While the Seahawks were the only team in the league to rank among the Top 10 in defense from 1990-92 (ninth, eighth and tied for 10th), the offense checked in at 21, 21 and 28 – and the team’s combined record was 18-30.
“I look back at my career in Seattle and I had one of the best times of my life playing for the Seahawks,” Kennedy said. “Even though we didn’t win, we went out and fought hard, trained hard and played hard for the team.
“I really enjoyed the people I played with. Every last one of them.”
The strength of those early-90s defenses was the line. There was Kennedy, of course. But also end Jacob Green and tackle Joe Nash, who also were voted to the reader-selected 35th Anniversary team; as well as end Jeff Bryant, who finished third in the voting for the ends and is the only player in franchise history to start at all four spots on the line. As they retired, Kennedy was joined by Michael Sinclair, the other end on the 35th Anniversary team; and end Michael McCrary and tackle Sam Adams.
“Every Monday, we’d go to Cucina, Cucina and talk about the game,” Kennedy said. “I remember (defensive coordinator) Tom Catlin telling us, ‘Guys, you know we’re not going to win. But on defense, we’re not going to get embarrassed.’ ”
Kennedy was embarrassed – not to mention frustrated – after his first regular-season game in the NFL. The Seahawks opened against the Bears in Chicago in 1990, the year the team also traded up to the third spot in the NFL Draft to select Kennedy. The Seahawks didn’t score in that opener, but Kennedy got the point after his disappointing performance.
As he sat in his cubicle in the locker room at Soldier Field, all he could do was shake his head. Asked what the problem was, Kennedy offered, “Man, I’ve got to get me some technique. I was using all my college moves and those guys were just swatting it right back at me.”
Kennedy quickly became the swatter, rather than the swattee.
He was never better than in 1992 – and no defensive tackle in the history of the game was ever better than Kennedy was during his third NFL season. In addition to being voted NFL defensive player of the year, he went to the second of what would become six consecutive Pro Bowls. In loss after loss, Kennedy made big play after big play.
Before he was through, Kennedy was voted to two more Pro Bowls and named to the NFL team of the decade for the 1990s. His 58 career sacks rank fourth in club history and his 668 tackles are No. 8. He’s also in the Top 10 in games started (153, seventh) and played (167, eighth). But they simply didn’t have a category to chronicle what he did best: Plays Blown UP.
“His career was long, he stayed healthy and he was productive,” said Alex Gibbs, the Seahawks’ former offensive line coach who faced Kennedy twice a season from 1995-2000 while coaching for the Denver Broncos. “He was such a powerful guy who could play, in essence, two gaps.”
Off the field, Kennedy was – and remains – one of the most popular players in franchise history. With the fans. With his teammates. With his coaches. Even with opponents. In 1996, he was voted the Steve Largent Award, which is presented annually to the person who best exemplifies the spirit, dedication and integrity of the Seahawks. Kennedy was inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor in 2006. He has been a finalist the past two years for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 2007 and again this year, he was selected by Sports Illustrated as the best athlete – not just football player – to ever wear No. 96.
“When I first came into the league, I learned something very important from my buddy Jerome Brown,” Kennedy said of the former Pro Bowl defensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles. “He always said, ‘Tez, you want the people to respect you – not only on your team, but around the league.’
“So I always wanted to be respected, on and off the field.”
In the ultimate display of respect for his long-time friend, who died in an auto accident in 1992, Kennedy switched to Brown’s No. 99 for that season.
“It got to the point where it was like the only reason I was able to do all that stuff was because I was playing for Jerome,” Kennedy said after switching back to No. 96 for the ’93 season. “I was playing for the Seahawks. I was inspired by Jerome.”
The only omission on Kennedy’s on-a-mission resume was the fact that he never won a playoff game, and didn’t even play in one until his next-to-last season in 1999.
“Sure I wish we had won more games,” Kennedy said. “But I learned this a long time ago: I can’t control what the team does, I can only control what I do. The one thing I always did was put the team first and me second.”
When it came to the 35th Anniversary team, it was the fans who put Kennedy first.