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A reign of pain
Kenny Easley was one of the best – and most dominant – defensive players to ever don a Seahawks uniform.
But the hard-hitting, free-ranging strong safety, who was NFL defensive player of the year in 1984 and voted to the Pro Bowl five times and All-Pro four times in seven seasons, never expected to be drafted by the Seahawks and never really wanted to play the position he redefined.
Really. Just ask him, which we did Friday before Easley teed off at the Jacob Green Charity Golf Classic.
“When I got drafted, certainly it wasn’t what I wanted at the time,” said Easley, the fourth pick overall in the 1981 NFL Draft. “I had been assured by the 49ers that they were going to draft me with the eighth pick.
“They came down (to UCLA) the day before the draft to work me out with their entire defensive staff. And they said, ‘If you’re available tomorrow, we’re going to take you.’ I said, ‘Great.’ ”
It didn’t happen, of course, because the Seahawks grabbed Easley first – leaving the 49ers to take safety Ronnie Lott.
“I had never worked out for Seattle,” Easley said. “I had worked out for five other teams. Seattle? Never talked to them. Never worked out for them. So when I got drafted by them, I was as surprised as their fan base was. The fans thought Seattle should have drafted Hugh Green (a linebacker who went the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 7).
“So I was a little disappointed.”
That lasted until Easley talked to former NFL players, who told him, “This is your dream come true. You wanted to play in the NFL. So make the best out of it.”
Which Easley obviously did. “It took me about a week,” he said with a laugh. “After that, I decided, ‘Hey, I’m fortunate that I getting to do something a lot of folks only wish they could ever do in their lifetime.’ ”
Easley never wanted to play strong safety, either. A quarterback at Oscar F. Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va., he had played free safety at UCLA – leaving as the school’s all-time leader in interceptions (19) and a three-time All-American.
“As hard as I played, I wish I’d had an opportunity to play free safety,” Easley said. “That’s what I made my name doing in college. I was very surprised when I got here and they sort of turned me into a strong safety.
“I really feel Seattle could have gotten more out of me, and I could have given more, if I could have played the position that I was very familiar playing and that I’d made a name for myself. The fact that I never got to play free safety, and as hard as I played and as much as I did, I thought I could have done more.”
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The Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team, as selected by the readers of Seahawks.com:
But when it came time to select the franchise’s 35th Anniversary team, Easley was, well, easily the runaway choice at the position he never wanted to play. He received 2,365 votes from the readers of Seahawks.com – 2,262 more than runner-up Robert Blackmon (103), and more than 6½ times as many as the combined votes of the other six strong safeties on the ballot (359).
“It’s a great honor and I’m happy that the fans feel that, having gone through a number of strong safeties since I left, that old No. 45 was the best, so far,” said Easley, who had not heard about his selection to the team until Friday.
“That’s a nice thing, that the fans in Seattle thought my little seven-year career was worthy of this honor.”
Not that Easley, or anyone else, should be surprised. When the voting started, he was one of a handful of no-brainer candidates on the ballot – along with Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent, left tackle Walter Jones, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, defensive end Jacob Green and running back Shaun Alexander.
From the time the Seahawks selected Easley in the 1981 draft to the time he was forced to retire after the ’87 season, he not only played at an unprecedented level, Easley made big plays. Impactful plays. Game-altering plays. Ooh-that-must-have-hurt plays.
“From the time Kenny came into the league, he was one of the top one or two safeties in the league,” said Nolan Cromwell, an All-Pro and Pro Bowl safety for the Los Angeles Rams in ’81, a former Seahawks assistant coach and now receivers coach for the St. Louis Rams.
“He came in with a splash, and he brought the whole package.”
From the get-go. Easley was AFC defensive rookie of the year in ’81, when he had a career-high 107 tackles. During his NFL defensive player of the year season in ’84, he intercepted a still-club record 10 passes – as a strong safety. Despite playing only seven seasons, Easley ranks No. 4 on the team’s all-time list in interceptions (32), No. 3 in return yardage (528) and is tied for second with three scoring returns.
Easley was selected to the NFL’s team of the decade for the 1980s, as was Cromwell; and inducted into the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor in 2002.
“Kenny was a tremendous player from Day One,” said Jim Zorn, the Seahawks’ QB when Easley arrived who now coaches the position for the Kansas City Chiefs. “He was just dominant.”
So dominant that he would disrupt Cromwell’s preparation.
“We used to watch film of other teams that were playing the Seahawks,” Cromwell said. “I was supposed to be watching the other team’s offense, but a lot of times you found yourself going, ‘Wow, look at this. Run it back. Look at this hit.’ ”
Zorn has a similar Easley tale.
“I remember Kenny describing how he inflicted pain on people catching the ball in front of him,” said Zorn, now able to laugh about it. “To get the guy thinking about him the next time, he would hold his thumbs in his fists and jam his knuckles into the guy’s rib cage.
“I thought, ‘All right, nice technique.’ ”
As Cromwell put it, “Kenny would break you in half if he had the chance.”
But opponents started making sure Easley would have fewer opportunities to “announce (his) presence with authority,” as “Nuke” LaLoosh put it in “Bull Durham.” In a 1983 game against the Redskins at the Kingdome, Washington coach Joe Gibbs repeatedly sent his tight end in motion before the snap – not to get him involved in the pass play, but to force Easley to follow him to the sideline just to try and take Easley out of the play.
“And that happened a lot,” Easley said. “Particularly after my fourth year, after I’d become defensive player of the year, that happened a great deal. In fact, the last three seasons of the career, that’s basically how they took me out of the game – to make me a nonfactor. They would either motion the tight end to the sideline or put us in a formation where the tight end would be lined up way outside somewhere.
“So I had to run, basically, all the way across the field in order to try and make a play.”
Try as they might, however, opponents could not dilute his dominant presence. Somehow, Easley found ways to make his plays. And influence future generations of NFL safeties – like Marcus Robertson, who played for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans (1991-2000) and Seahawks (2001-02) and is now the Titans’ secondary coach.
“I had a poster of him and (former Cleveland Browns safety) Don Rogers on my door when I was growing up,” Robertson said. “Kenny and Ronnie Lott just brought a lot more recognition to the safety position and it was a position that I’ve always wanted to play since Pop Warner because of them.
“They’re the safeties I wish I would have had game just as good as.”
But Easley’s career did not have a good ending. After the strike-interrupted 1987 season, he was traded to the Arizona Cardinals as part of a package that brought quarterback Kelly Stouffer to the Seahawks. When a kidney ailment was detected in Easley’s physical with the Cardinals, the trade was momentarily voided until the Seahawks threw in an extra fifth-round draft choice – as “really, that’s it?” compensation for one of the greatest players in franchise history.
After Easley was forced to retire, he needed a kidney transplant in 1990. He’s now dealing with knee, hip and wrist problems – lingering memories of the way he played the game, and the surfaces he was forced to play on. As he once put it, “I like to hit. I dream about it.”
Now 52, Easley has moved back to the Virginia with his family – Gail, his wife, and their three children, Kendrick, Gabrielle and Giordanna. He is involved in commercial real estate leasing.
“Virginia is home,” said Easley, who returned to Virginia in 2000 because his father was ill. “He’s since passed away. But since the kids were still in school, I didn’t want to disrupt their lives anymore than I had when we moved away from (the Seattle area) in 2000.”
Besides, Easley already had dished out enough disruption during his dominating seven-season career with the Seahawks.