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From humble to the Hall
After his first game as a member of the Seahawks, Cortez Kennedy sat in the locker room at Soldier Field shaking his head.
The team’s first-round draft choice was disappointed, because the Seahawks had been shut out by the Bears 17-0. But the rookie defensive tackle also appeared distraught.
“What’s wrong with you?” a reporter asked.
“I’ve got to get me some technique,” Kennedy offered, sighing heavily and shaking his head again. “I was using my college moves on those guys and they were just slapping them back at me.”
It was a slow start – four tackles, but nary a QB pressure let alone a sack – exacerbated by Kennedy arriving only a few days earlier following a prolonged no-show before signing his first NFL contract.
It also was a scene that would be in stark contrast to what would transpire for the next 11 seasons as Kennedy fashioned a Hall of Fame-worthy career that finally got the recognition to match Saturday when the man they call simply “Tez” was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012.
Kennedy was a fourth-time finalist, but this was the first time he was able to split the metaphoric double-team and arrive at his seemingly predestined goal – a rightful place among the best to ever play the game. Kennedy will be introduced Sunday during the Super Bowl between the New York Giants and New England Patriots and then inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 4 along with the other players in this year’s six-man class – Jack Butler, Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman, Curtis Martin and Willie Roaf.
As difficult as this Saturday was to envision all those Sundays ago, Kennedy’s talents eventually won out – much like his play on the field for most of his career, when one would-be blocker after another was left in his wake as chased down quarterbacks and stuffed running backs.
Before he was done after the 2000 season, Kennedy had registered 668 tackles, 58 sacks, 13 forced fumbles and three interceptions – as a defensive tackle. He was voted to the Pro Bowl eight times, earned All-Pro honors five times, selected to the NFL’s Team of the Decade for the 1990s and named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1992. Closer to home, he won the Steve Largent Award in 1996 and was inducted into the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor in 2006.
But while watching all of this unfold – and all the blocking schemes he collapsed – did those around him realize they were watching a player who would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
“That’s a great question, because while you’re there you really don’t get that feeling much,” Dave Wyman, who played middle linebacker during Kennedy’s first three seasons, said Saturday shortly after hearing that Kennedy had been elected to the Hall. “But I would say with Tez, he was one of the rare guys where you did know that he was something special.
“It’s the cream of the cream of the crop. I always tell the story that you’re the state shot put champion and player of the year and all these things in high school. Then you’re an All-American in college. Then when you get to the pros, you’re just kind of one of the guys because everybody is so good.
“But then every once in awhile there’s one guy that even in the pros is just special and ahead of everybody else. That was Tez. He was that kind of player.”
Wyman refers to Kennedy as “a total defense changer,” rather than a “game changer” – and for obvious reasons for anyone else who watched Kennedy’s career. His greatest season (1992) came in a season where the Seahawks went 2-14. In Kennedy’s 11-seasons with the Seahawks, he appeared in one playoff game (1999) and played on only two teams with winning records (both 9-7 in 1990 and ’99).
But Kennedy was able to rise well above the average, and soar in the face of the mediocre.
“Tez not only changed our defense, he changed offenses and how they would handle him,” Wyman said. “And it was hard to understand how. You look at his body type, and there’s nothing really special. He never was real strong in the weight room.
“But he had a weird knack. And I don’t know what the science was, or what’s going on with his hips, or something in his body. Maybe it was in his heart. Because, man, he would move wherever he needed to move – and that usually meant going through two or three guys.”
Kennedy’s avenue to all those QB sacks was littered with the best blockers of his generation. It was the same for every running back who became engulfed his wrap-and-body-slam style of tackling.
How was he able to do all of this? Not even Kennedy could offer an explanation, even when asked right after he would make a game-altering play.
“Sometimes you want to know why a player does a certain thing, and he doesn’t even know why he does it. He just does it,” said Tom Flores, the second of the four head coaches Kennedy played for with the Seahawks. “I remember asking him once. I said, ‘Why did you do that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ He just did it.
“Especially playing that position, he was just a playmaker. One of the great playmakers of all time.”
But as much natural ability as Kennedy had, he did need some help to go from that befuddled rookie to the most-decorated defensive player in franchise history – and now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Tommy Brasher took Kennedy under his wing when he was hired to coach the defensive line in 1992 on Flores’ staff. Veteran defensive tackle Joe Nash taught Kennedy how to study film of opponents, rather than just watching it.
“Getting into the Hall of Fame is such a longevity thing,” Paul Moyer, whose career with the Seahawks ended after the 1989 season but who was member of the coaching staff from 1990-94, said on Saturday. “So you just never know until you see a guy play at the high level season after season.
“Cortez did have a frustrating season in 1990, but that just made him more determined to get better and he had the right people there to help him do that.”
It is ’92, of course, that stands out on Kennedy’s resume.
“It was one of the great performances of all time,” Moyer said. “He was literally unblockable, and it was something to watch and we were able to do things scheme-wise as a defense we just hadn’t been able to do before because we had Cortez and all the things he brought.”
Kennedy never matched those ’92 numbers again, but that could be said for just about every other defensive tackle who ever played in the league. But he had six-plus sacks five other times, and 50-plus tackles seven other times.
Wyman had a different view than most of the mayhem Kennedy would create and the disruptiveness he would unleash.
“I was on the backside of all the destruction,” he said. “Huge holes would open up, and they weren’t being supplied by the offensive blockers. Every once in a while you’d see a running back trying to cut back from the lane he was supposed to run in.
“So I’d get a nice clean hit in the hole with nobody blocking me, because nobody paid any attention to me when you’ve got Cortez in front of you.”
It is a defensive tackle’s job to create just such opportunities for the middle linebacker. But Kennedy’s efforts transcended the traditional and expanded the expected.
“Usually the only people that notice players like that are other players or coaches, or anybody in the NFL that looking at film. Those defensive tackles are in there doing all the dirty work that’s not really getting their names in the paper,” Wyman said.
“But Tez, he did all that, plus he had all the numbers. He has great statistics for an inside player. It’s just too crowded and there are just too many bodies in there, so it’s just not physically possible most of the time to make plays in there. But Tez did it.
“Some guys are just able to make that jump to become better pros than they were in college, and those are usually guys who are Hall of Famers.”
Like Cortez Kennedy.