If Cortez Kennedy was as “persuasive” with the members of the selection committee as he had been with would-be blockers, he’d already be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Kennedy is a fourth-time finalist for the honor and the fate of the Seahawks’ eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle again will be decided on Saturday morning, when the 44 voters that decide who’s in and who’s not hunker down in a room in Indianapolis the day before Super Bowl XLVI to select the Class of 2012.
“I feel good about the situation, and my chances, as long as I know the Seahawks are supporting me,” Kennedy said the other day from his home in Orlando, Fla. “I never thought about the Pro Football Hall of Fame when I was playing. When you’re playing you don’t think about it. You just think about trying to win games and hopefully getting to the Pro Bowl.
“It wasn’t until after I retired that I even thought about it. Then it’s like, ‘I can get one more accomplishment.’ ”
Not that Kennedy comes up short in that department. He’s already in three Halls – the Arkansas Hall of Fame, because that’s where he’s from and where Rivercrest High School in Wilson retired his jersey number in 1991; the Mississippi Junior College Hall of Fame, because he played at Northwest Mississippi JC; and the University of Miami Hall of Fame, because he was an All-American for the Hurricanes in 1989. Kennedy also was inducted into the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor in 2006.
“I still can’t believe I’m all of those,” he said. “Just thinking about it, it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ ”
To understand where Kennedy is trying to get next, it helps to understand where he has come from. And we’re not talking his 11-season career with the Seahawks, or even his shorter but almost-as-impactful stay at the University of Miami.
Uncovering the roots of the man who grew into a monster of a player requires going all the way back to his high school days in Wilson.
“In high school, we gave him the job of mowing the lawn,” Joe Harris, Kennedy’s stepfather, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on April 22, 1990 – just hours after the Seahawks had traded up to select Kennedy with the third pick overall in the NFL Draft.
“I didn’t think he did it right. So I woke him up at 2:30 in the morning. I told him, ‘Since you didn’t get it right in the daytime, let’s see if you can get it right at night.’ ”
Needless to say, lesson learned.
“I was just telling a friend that story yesterday, because his son doesn’t want to do anything,” Kennedy said through one of his rumbling laughs while recalling the incident.
“As far as that story, it still didn’t make any difference. I had to go back and cut it again, because I couldn’t see anything when I was out there at 5 o’clock in the morning.”
Kennedy laughed again before adding, “The positive thing that came out of that was that I learned if you do things right the first time then you don’t have to go back and do it again. That’s why I always loved my stepdad, because he was always fair to me.”
Guided by the firm hand of his stepfather, Kennedy grew into a player who manned the defensive tackle position as well as anyone in the history of the National Football League ever has.
There are the honors: Those eight Pro Bowls, the most by any defensive player in Seahawks history and sixth all-time among interior linemen behind five players who already are in the Hall of Fame; the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 1992, on a team that finished 2-14; five All-Pro berths; and a spot on the NFL’s Team of the Decade for the 1990s.
There are the even more obvious – and telling – statistics: 668 tackles, including a career-high 93 in ’92; 58 sacks, including a career-high 14 in ’92; and 13 forced fumbles, including four in ’92.
But Kennedy was the type of player whose impact went beyond statistics and transcended honors.
“There are a lot of things about the defensive tackle position that can’t be measured by statistics alone,” said Mickey Loomis, general manager of the New Orleans Saints who was a Seahawks executive when the club made the blockbuster trade with the New England Patriots to acquire Kennedy.
“When Cortez first joined the Seahawks, our defense made a significant improvement almost immediately.”
The Seahawks’ defense ranked among the Top 10 in the league from 1990-92, and was the only defense in the NFL to do so during that three-season span. To provide even more perspective, the Seahawks have ranked among the Top 10 in defense only three other times in their 36-season history.
“A sign that he impacted the team greatly,” as Loomis put it.
The scene on that Draft Day was almost comical – and definitely giddy – as coach Chuck Knox stopped just short of jumping and clicking his heels together while announcing that the team would switch from a 3-4 defensive alignment to 4-3 so that Kennedy could step in at right tackle and not take a starting spot from one of the players who had been starting for seven seasons on the three-man line – Jacob Green, Joe Nash and Jeff Bryant.
“You just don’t find guys in the draft with this size and this speed, this type of body control,” Knox said at the time.
Given time, Knox has since offered, “Cortez was an outstanding football player. He just did an outstanding job as a football player and as a person. He was fun to be around and I can just tell you he was a complete player and a fine person.
“I thought that (he should be in the Hall of Fame) from Day One. We put him in there at that right defensive tackle position and told him, ‘We’re gonna put the big dog down and let the big dog hunt.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”
Ah, the “Big Dawg” nickname. It was given to Kennedy early in his career by Bryant, and it stuck – along with the more obvious “Tez” moniker.
But by any name, or nickname, Kennedy – who was listed at 6 feet 3, 306 pounds – was a lightning-quick load to handle for the opposing blockers.
“Cortez was the most dominant interior lineman that we ever faced and certainly the very best against the run,” said Steve Wisniewski, also an eight-time Pro Bowl selection as an offensive guard for the Raiders from 1989-2001.
“Cortez had the ability to stop the run, to play with leverage and have the quickness to hit the edge of an offensive guard and split the seams to put pressure on the quarterback. Hands down, he was a much better player against the run than a John Randle, much better than a Warren Sapp.”
Randle, and his 137½ career sacks, were voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. Asked about Kennedy at the time, Randle said, “I texted Cortez almost immediately and said, ‘You’re next.’ And I definitely want to be there when he’s inducted because he really deserves it. I look forward to seeing him get in.”
But Kennedy didn’t just weigh on opposing players. The coaches who had to prepare game plans to deal with all the problems that Kennedy presented also remember him, if not fondly, at least respectfully. Like Alex Gibbs, who had a short stint as the Seahawks’ offensive line coach in 2010 after spending 1995-2001 in Denver when the Broncos and Seahawks were in the AFC West.
“They were a nightmare because I knew I was going to get them twice a year, because it was going to boil down to making a decision – do I spend all my time with Cortez or do I deal with those other guys?” Gibbs said of the “other guys” group that included Pro Bowl end Michael Sinclair, who led the NFL with 16½ sacks in 1998; rush-end Michael McCrary, who led the AFC with 13½ sacks in 1996; and tackle Sam Adams, who had seven sacks in 1997.
“Cortez made it tough.”
Before the obvious “why” could be asked, Gibbs continued: “He was such a powerful guy who could play, in essence, two gaps. He forced you to get two people on him in order to get through the seams which gave the linebackers who played (with him) a tremendous advantage. Those guys were very fond of him, as you can imagine, because it was hard to get off of him no matter who you had. You couldn’t get the combinations to block him. You always tried to get one of them off and his body-frame was so wide and strong, it was unusual that we couldn’t get there so the linebackers made all the plays.
“Cortez had a unique ability to control one (blocker) and force another, to free up his teammates to make a lot of plays. He was always a guy you had to deal with.”
And those who played behind Kennedy did appreciate what his disruptive presence helped them accomplish.
“I tell people all the time that Cortez Kennedy was probably the best football player I ever played with,” said Shawn Springs, a cornerback who played with Kennedy from 1997-2000 – and, like Kennedy, is a member of the franchise’s 35th Anniversary team.
“And I’ve played with some great football players, but Tez was just incredible.”
As far as Springs was concerned, it wasn’t simply a matter of seeing is believing. You had to also hear Kennedy to truly appreciate what was going on before he unleashed his mayhem.
“Cortez was such a good football player,” Springs said. “You could hear Tez before the snap say, ‘Hey, they’re coming this way.’ He just recognized things well and quickly. He was also quick off the ball. He did everything right. He had great footwork. He was so disruptive.”
Sounds like the description of a coach’s dream, and that was Kennedy, too. He played for four coaches in his 11 seasons in Seattle: Knox, who we’ve already heard from; Tom Flores, the Seahawks’ coach from 1992-94; Dennis Erickson, the Seahawks’ coach from 1995-98; and Mike Holmgren, the coach for Kennedy’s his final two seasons.
Said Flores, who came to the Seahawks after coaching the Raiders to a pair of Super Bowl victories: “Cortez is one of my favorite guys of all time. As a player, I thought he was a complete player. He had speed, size, agility and he had the natural gift of making plays. And he doesn’t even know why he does it, he just does it. I remember asking him once, ‘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.”
Said Erickson, who also had coached Kennedy at the University of Miami: “Cortez might’ve been as dominant a defensive tackle that’s ever played. 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. … You knew he was going to make it in the Hall of Fame. Like I said, that position, to be dominant like he was just doesn’t happen very often. He was just dominant every time he played. There were never ups and downs with Cortez. What you saw is what you got, every week.”
Said Holmgren, who came to the Seahawks after leading the Green Bay Packers to back-to-back Super Bowls and being an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers: “Cortez was a great player. He absolutely deserves the recognition and the opportunity to potentially get in the Hall of Fame. … But I really remember him when I was playing against him. The 49ers played Seattle a lot in those days, and he was a load. He was a really good player, and if you talked to the offensive linemen on our team they knew he was great. He was just a big man. He was quick. He was strong. Built just right to play that position, you know?”
The fact that Kennedy had four coaches in 11 seasons tells you a lot about why he is not in the Hall of Fame already. He was an exceptional player on a lot of mediocre teams. The Seahawks posted winning records twice in his tenure – 9-7 in 1990, his rookie season; and 9-7 in 1999, his next-to-last season. He appeared in one playoff game, after that ’99 season.
Too many of the extraordinary things Kennedy was able to accomplish simply were not seen by enough people.
But should that preclude a player who changed the way his position was played, and the way opponents were forced to play because of him, from entering the Hall of Fame?
“Cortez was one of the more dominate players at his position in the game, and that’s what it takes to get into the Hall of Fame,” said Warren Moon, who entered the Hall in 2006 and now is the analyst for radio broadcasts of Seahawks games.
“And he did it for a long period of time. All those Pro Bowls and he was Defensive Player of the Year once. That’s huge for a nose tackle, because you’re just not in a position usually to make a lot of impactful plays. But he showed that he can make impact plays from that position. I don’t know how many nose guards are actually in the Hall of Fame, but he is one of the ones who should be among the first.
“Cortez was a game-changer at that position, an innovator at that position and, again, a dominant player at that position. For all those reasons, he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
But will it happen this year?
“I wouldn’t trade places with anybody for anything,” Kennedy said. “I played for the Seahawks, and played my heart out for them. I love the Seahawks. I love the organization. I love the people there, and especially the fans.
“If I ever get in the Hall of Fame, it’s for all of us.”