Cortez Kennedy was a big man with an even bigger heart.
Always quick to make a joke, and even quicker to offer a smile and one of his trademark rumbling belly laughs, his death creates a huge hole in the hearts and minds of those who knew the Seahawks' Hall of Fame defensive tackle.
And, as former teammate and longtime friend Terry Wooden once said, just meeting Cortez was a prelude to not only knowing him, but becoming an instant friend. "And Tez met a lot of people — a lot," is the way Wooden, the Seahawks' former linebacker, put it. "So you can imagine how many friends he has, because everybody knows him and he knows everybody."
Kennedy, 48, was found dead at his home in Orlando, Florida on Tuesday morning. The Orlando Police Department is investigating the cause, but a spokesman told The Associated Press that there is "nothing suspicious" about his death.
In covering the Seahawks for 36 years, at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seahawks' website, I developed a rapport with several individuals that went beyond the player-reporter relationships — from Steve Largent, Jim Zorn and Sherman Smith in the franchise's infancy seasons; to Chad Brown, Dave Wyman and Eugene Robinson as the Seahawks soared and then slumped in the 80s and 90s; to Matt Hasselbeck, Walter Jones, Lofa Tatupu and Jordan Babineaux on the Mike Holmgren-coached teams that had so much success in the 2000s; to Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin on the teams that finally became Super under coach Pete Carroll.
But there was something truly special about the connection with Cortez.
We actually discussed the roots of our relationship after his days as Hall of Fame player ended following the 2000 season, and he shifted seamlessly into the post-career role of Hall of Fame person. I suggested that it was Cortez's knack of making everyone seem special. He countered that it was my ability to accept people as they are, and see past the obvious to the inner-being.
Whatever the reason, we remained friends until the sad ending. Maybe it's because we had been through so much together.
On draft day in 1990, when the Seahawks used the third overall pick to select the rotund tackle from the University of Miami, the fat jokes started flying the way Cortez would use his explosive get-off and uncanny quickness to dominate offensive linemen for the next 11 seasons — when he was voted All-Pro three times and to the Pro Bowl eight times; named to the NFL's All Decade team for the 1990s; and selected NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1992, because his 14.0 sacks and 92 tackles were just too much to overlook even though the Seahawks finished 2-14.
Who had the best line? Who else. "I might be the fattest player in the draft," Cortez cajoled after his selection, "but I'm a helluva football player."
Not so much in his rookie season, however, when a contract dispute delayed his arrival until the Wednesday before the Seahawks' regular-season opener.
Following that 17-0 loss to the Bears in Chicago, Cortez sat in front of his cubicle in the locker room at Solider Field shaking his head.
"What's wrong?" I asked him. "I got to get me some technique," Cortez explained. "I was using my college stuff out there and they were batting it back in my face."
Things obviously got better, but it was later rather than sooner. As Cortez was registering one sack among his 48 rookie-season tackles, many in the media began labeling him a bust of Mount Rushmore proportions.
Now, if they were to create a Mount Rushmore for the Seahawks, Cortez would be up there with fellow Hall of Famers Largent, Jones and Kenny Easley.
Cortez told me once the fact that I was not among those calling him a waste-of-a-Top-3 draft choice meant a lot to him. Call it a cornerstone of what became a friendly relationship that morphed into a friendship.
Despite his dominance on the field, Cortez would not shed the realities of life as easily as he did blockers. There were the deaths of his best friend, former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jerome Brown; and his agent, Robert Fraley. There was the attempted move of the franchise to Southern California in 1996, when Cortez refused to take part in the offseason program in Anaheim because he had signed his contract with the Seattle Seahawks. There was the fact that in his 11-year career, he played in only one postseason game — a loss to the Miami Dolphins at the Kingdome following the 1999 season. And then there was his final game, a 42-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the 2000 season finale.
Cortez and I discussed — mostly off the record — each of these situations that could have become problems. That I was there for him, Cortez once told me, was important to him. Cortez having the faith in me to talk about these issues and situations was important to me — memories I still cherish, especially on this day.
When Cortez became eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I presented him on election day as a member of the Selection Committee. Twice. He didn't make it either time. But he recognized the attempts by sending me and my wife to Hawaii when he finally was elected in 2012 — a needed gesture, he said, "For getting him into the Hall of Fame."
That, of course, was not the case. What Cortez did on the field landed him his rightful, and overdue, place in the Hall.
Before the selection committee met on that Super Bowl-eve Saturday in 2012, Cortez called to make sure I had his home number, rather than his cell, so we would be able to connect — with him at home in Orlando and me in Kirkland awaiting what had to be the inevitable, this time. It was. Finally. Fantastically.
That call, which was supposed to be for an interview, began with Cortez and I exchanging a lengthy series of "Unbelievables," and included two grown men sharing tears of joy before we finally got down to business.
His induction weekend in Canton, Ohio, turned into a family reunion. And, not surprisingly, Cortez made me feel like part of the family as I covered his three-day bask in the Hall of Fame sun.
And that was just the middle leg of Cortez's Triple Crown, as he already had been added to the Seahawks' Ring of Honor (2006) and later would have his No. 96 retired (2012).
I enjoyed each of those events as much as, and maybe even more than, Cortez because we had been through so much together already. That made the recognition all the sweeter.
It goes without saying that Cortez was a great football player. What needs to be said on the day of his passing is that I loved the Big Guy and already miss him.
The Seahawks paid tribute to Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy on Tuesday night at CenturyLink Field, turning the stadium dark and illuminating his No. 96 jersey on the day of his passing.