Horseback riding in Jamaica, sideline hot dogs, 2 a.m. pranks, unannounced visits in Northern Idaho—the people who knew Cortez Kennedy the best during his Hall of Fame career and in the years that followed all have so many fond memories of the Seahawks legend, and so often, those memories had little to do with football.
For as great as Kennedy was as a player—he was an eight-time Pro Bowler, the NFL's defensive player of the year in 1992, a member of the NFL's all-decade team of the 1990s, and in 2012, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame—his on-field dominance wasn't the first thing that came to mind for Kennedy's former teammates when they learned that their friend died Tuesday.
"He just had that magnetic personality," said former Seahawks running back Chris Warren, who arrived in Seattle as part of the 1990 draft class that was highlighted by Kennedy, the No. 3 overall pick. "If you were lucky enough to meet Cortez, then you can say you met a person who did everything the right way."
Well, almost everything. There was that time when Kennedy and Warren were in Jamaica and decided, on a whim, to go horseback riding at Warren's suggestion. Kennedy's horse, not surprisingly, was a little reluctant after sizing up its 6-foot-3, 305-pound passenger.
"The horse obviously didn't want to let him get on," Warren said. "It took like 15 or 20 minutes before the horse let him on. Then you stand back and look. When he's not on the horse, the horse looked huge, but when he got on it, the horse looked like a pony."
Through laughter, Warren recounted how Kennedy struggled with his balance atop the horse, shouting instructions such as, "Come on horse, let's go, right, right, left, left." Struggling or not, Kennedy was still Kennedy, "laughing and having a great time," Warren said.
Even in tragedy, laughter has been a common theme when it comes to discussing Kennedy this week. That's just the effect Kennedy had on people who were lucky enough to know him.
"He was like a big kid," said former Seahawks linebacker Dave Wyman, who now co-hosts the Danny, Dave and Moore Show on 710 ESPN Seattle. Wyman remembered the time during training camp when he left his room to use the bathroom at 2 a.m., giving Kennedy the chance to sneak into a closet in order to scare Wyman.
"He loved to tell that story," Wyman said. "There was a shared bathroom down the hallway. It's 2 a.m., I'm half asleep stumbling down the hall with my eyes closed, and he jumps out of my closet to scare the crap out of me."
Eugene Robinson and Kennedy were two of the best defensive players in the NFL while teammates in Seattle, but in addition to making plays on the field, they were known to have a good time off of it. Those laughs included a 1995 preseason game when first-year coach Dennis Erickson, who had also coached Kennedy at the University of Miami, fined his two defensive stars, as well as quarterback Rick Mirer, for eating hot dogs on the sideline during the game.
As Robinson tells it, Kennedy was the mastermind behind that Frankfurter fiasco.
"He and I got caught up in hot dog-gate," Robinson said. "It was Dennis Erickson's first game. It's funny now. I had had a concussion, it was a preseason game against the 49ers, and Tez had a poncho on, and in the poncho he had hot dogs at halftime, and he brought them on the field, because of course he's not playing, none of the starters are playing. I look over and see them eating hotdogs, and he says, 'G-Rob, I got hot dogs G-Rob, you want one?' So we're eating hot dogs out of his poncho, me and Rick Mirer. Afterward I was like, 'Tez, I have a concussion, how'd I get involved in this whole thing?' It's such a fond memory, because even in that, I don't know if Tez called us over because he didn't want to get in trouble by himself, or if he was just being compassionate because he knew we wanted something to eat."
Other than having to fine his star player for a rather silly incident, Erickson has nothing but fond memories of Kennedy, including the times that Kennedy would show up uninvited for a visit at Erickson's place in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
"He was like a kid all the time," Erickson said. "He smiled, he had fun all the time. He just enjoyed life and enjoyed people… Shoot, there would be times where he would just show up out of the blue, he'd come up here and fish in North Idaho. I don't know how many he caught, but he always had a good time."
It's one of the oldest clichés in sports writing to say a great athlete was an ever better human being than he was a player, but in the case of Kennedy, it feels like the only way to describe one of the most beloved figures in franchise history. Long before his death, Kennedy was the rare professional athlete about whom you would never hear an ill word spoken.
"Tez was a great guy," said Jeff Bryant, a defensive tackle who helped mentor Kennedy early in his career. "This is really hard to believe. He was not only a great player, but a great person. He had a great smile, and he was always great to everyone. You can't find anyone to say anything bad about Tez. He was just a great guy and a hell of a football player."
As Wyman put it: "If you had asked me who was my best teammate, I would say Tez, and 75 percent of that was stuff off the field. He was always joyful, he was always happy. He was like the kid playing football on the playground, and that just rubs off on you. And I'm telling you, I never heard an ill word from that guy. Ever. I never heard a criticism, I never heard him get mad about something someone wrote or said. He's a great example for every football player. As football player, you're supposed to be like a holy terror in between the lines, then off the field, you're supposed to be a nice, humble, gracious guy, and you strive to do that, but you don't always get it done. He always got it done."
Added Robinson: "When I first got the news, I called my wife up, I said, 'Cortez passed away.' She said, 'He was always a very good friend to you.' Beyond the levity of being in the locker room and how funny he was and how engaging he was and how well-liked by everyone he was, and besides the professionalism on the football field where he was just a beast, a monster—he was nightmare for offenses—but beyond all of that, he was a great friend."
There are also, of course, plenty of football-related memories for Kennedy's friends. He was, after all, one of the greatest players in franchise history and an agile big man who helped change the perception of what a defensive tackle could be in the NFL.
"To me, he was probably one of the best who's ever played in the NFL," Erickson said. "At his position to do what he did for as long as he did it, to be as dominant as he was, there's no question that he was one of the best defensive tackles that's ever played the game."
Added Robinson: "He was so dominant on the football field. Extremely dominant. Tez used to always say, 'G-Rob, G-Rob, they don't know about my quickness, they just think I'm a big fat dude. They don't know about my quickness, G-Rob, I'm gonna hit 'em with the one-two with the quickness.' And he was absolutely right. He was so fast, and he made our defense so much better. He became the focal point of our defense."
Few people can better appreciate the play of defensive tackles than the linebackers who line up behind them, and Wyman has never seen anyone do the things Kennedy did on the football field, especially in 1992 when he won NFL defensive player of the year honors despite playing for a 2-14 team.
"He was such an unselfish player too, but he made lots of plays," Wyman said. "There'd be times I'd just be sitting there watching him like, 'Wow!' But there were times where he couldn't make a play, so he was going to allow you to by either taking on a double team or grabbing a blocker and slowing him down. That '92 season, there were plenty of things to complain about, but you never heard a thing from him. And I think we all kind of adopted that attitude, it was like, 'Hey, we get to go back on the field and play.' That's what his mentality was.
"His body type was not that of Hercules, but he went wherever he wanted to go. And I don't ever remember him being tired. He was always joyful. You remember that feeling when you're a kid and it's recess time? He was like that on the field."
So good was Kennedy that Wyman was willing to change things up when making defensive play calls, choosing Kennedy's instincts over the instructions of his defensive coordinator.
"Being the middle linebacker, I was in charge of setting formations and making adjustments, slanting the D-linemen," Wyman said. "Tez liked going to his left, and there would be times where there was a formation that we're supposed to go right, so I'd say the code word, 'rip' or whatever word that starts with an R. And he'd go, 'Lenny, Lenny,' or 'left, left' or whatever. So I'd check it, 'All right, we'll go the way Cortez wants to go.' And sure enough, he'd go make a play. Then whenever the D-coordinator, Tom Catlin, would ask me, 'Why'd you do that.' I'd say, 'because Cortez wanted to,' and Tom would say, 'OK.'"
Robinson too was wowed by what he witnessed while playing behind Kennedy.
"Cortez was a beast, Cortez was disruptive," he said. "I would yell out, 'That trap's coming, that trap's coming. Tez, watch the trap.' And he would just take that tackle and destroy him, or that pulling guard, he would destroy him. He was ubiquitous, he was everywhere.
"That 1992 season, we went 2-14 that year, and from a 2-14 team, he was the defensive player of the year. You've got to be pretty dang special to do that. To be that prolific, to be that guy whose volume of work speaks so loudly that the entire nation of football takes notice and says you're the best player? What? That put him on the maps. Fourteen sacks at defensive tackle? Defensive ends get 14, 15 sacks, defensive tackles get 8 sacks, 9 sacks, that's a great season. You get double digits, you're something special."
Kennedy was indeed something special on the football field, but when his teammates and friends look back on a life that ended far too soon, they'll remember a lot more than just a dominant athlete.
"And as a person, he was very special," Erickson said. "He treated my kids and family extremely well. He was one of the best… He had such humility. He had no arrogance whatsoever. It's pretty special. When you look at professional athletes, a lot of times it's all about them, but with Cortez, it was never about him, ever."
"He loved life," Robinson said. "He loved his friends and loved life. He would always make it a point to keep up with you. He was just a dear friend."
A look back at some of the best photos of Seahawks Legend Cortez Kennedy.