When the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced Kenny Easley had cleared the barrier that distinguishes the immortal players from those who were consistently competent, a former Seahawks teammate took the news personally.
“I was so giddy,” said Paul Johns, “I felt like I was going into the Hall, too.”
Easley and Johns began their NFL careers together in 1981. The similarities essentially end there.
Kenny Easley will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, Aug. 5.
Jack Dempsey Invision/AP
Easley graduated from UCLA among the most decorated athletes of a school where Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Arthur Ashe made history before making more history. A safety drafted fourth overall by the Seahawks – and a 10th-round selection of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls – Easley brought a seriously impressive résumé to Seattle.
Johns was an obscure wide receiver from the University of Tulsa, hoping to parlay his training-camp audition into a roster spot.
“Kenny was a phenomenally gifted talent, and I didn’t even get drafted,” said Johns, who for the past 16 years has served as director of the Seahawks youth football and alumni programs. “He could have had this big-time attitude around a guy like me, yet he always treated me as an equal. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Johns landed a roster spot as a backup receiver, and excelled as a punt returner before suffering a career-ending neck injury four games into the 1984 season. Next man up, any volunteers?
10 interceptions for Kenny Easley in 1984. That led the league, and helped earn him the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
“And Kenny volunteered,” recalled Johns. “Here was the Defensive Player of the Year putting his health at risk by returning punts, but he didn’t look at the role in terms of what kind of negative consequences it might have for an All-Pro like him. He looked at it as, ‘what can I do to help my team win?’ ”
Chuck Knox’s 1984 Seahawks finished 12-4, advancing to the second round of the playoffs. Despite losing star running back Curt Warner to a season-ending knee injury, Seattle thrived with a defense that feasted on turnovers. Easley led the league with 10 interceptions, while averaging 12.1 yards per punt return.
Such versatility surprised nobody familiar with the records he set as a dual-threat, high-school quarterback in Chesapeake, Virginia, where he became the state’s first player to both pass and rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Blitzing UCLA safety Kenny Easley blocks a punt attempt by Washington’s Aaron Wilson in the play some say broke the Huskies’ back in September 9, 1978. When UCLA pounced on the ball for a touchdown they would lead Washington by 10 points on a miserable rainy day at Husky Stadium.
Bruce Kellman Staff file, 1978
“UCLA went all the way to Virginia to get him, so that tells you what kind of athlete Kenny was,” said former Pro Bowl guard Reggie McKenzie, who spent the last two of his 13 NFL seasons with the 1983-84 Seahawks. “My first year in Seattle, early in the preseason, I realized the young man was amazing. He had the speed and quickness to play cornerback and, for that matter, any other sport. But he chose football, and was very knowledgeable about it.
“Most of all, he had the confidence of somebody who could walk it and talk it,” continued McKenzie, owner of a building supply company in the Detroit area. “Confidence is so important, because pro athletes – even the greatest of them – are at the top of their game for just a short period of time.”
Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell, a 245-pound load of unstoppable ferocity, was at the top of his game before a game against the Seahawks. Easley, at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, was renowned as a sure tackler capable of matching up against anybody.
UCLA WENT ALL THE WAY TO VIRGINIA TO GET HIM, SO THAT TELLS YOU WHAT KIND OF ATHLETE KENNY WAS.
Former Pro Bowl guard Reggie McKenzie.
But given the tale of the tape – advantage Campbell, by 40 pounds – Easley figured to be looking at a long and not particularly pleasant Sunday afternoon.
Easley relished the challenge.
“He was all business, focused and intense,” said Johns. “It was like he couldn’t wait to barrel into Earl Campbell, who in those days was punishing anybody in his way. Kenny promised me, ‘there’s gonna be some flesh flying and bones cracking.’ ”
As a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1980s, Easley’s enshrinement credentials are undeniable. But his election also addressed a need for a more balanced Hall of Fame that has long disregarded the safety, a hybrid job requiring the footwork and speed to shadow receivers, along with the strength and grit to initiate those full-tilt collisions cornerbacks typically avoid.
Seattle Seahawks safety Kenny Easley (45) drops back in coverage against the Denver Broncos.
John McDonough NFL Photos
Including Easley, only eight players exclusively identified as safeties have been extended pro football’s ultimate honor. The most recent safety to make the cut for Canton was the Vikings’ Paul Krause, who retired in 1979. Voters needed only 19 years to determine the league’s career interception leader was worthy.
“There have not been enough safeties selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I don’t know why,” Easley said during a conference call last month, before taking a stab at an explanation. “When people look at defense, they look at the defensive linemen, the linebackers and the corners – particularly the corners, because a lot of them play man-to-man, and sometimes you get nice matchups between the cornerback and the wide receiver.
“Most of the time, the strong safety and free safety don’t match up with anyone. We provide help to the corners and the linebackers. Only about two or three percent of the time do we match up singularly against the tight end. Because of that, the strong safeties and free safeties have been underappreciated when it comes to selecting the Hall of Famers.”
Easley, 58, will be happy to open the door for the likes of Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu and John Lynch, as well as such active safeties as Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
4 players to spend their entire careers with the Seahawks and be inducted into the hall of fame. Easley joins Steve Largent, Walter Jones and Cortez Kennedy to accomplish the feat.
“You’ve got a host of very good safeties coming down the pike,” Easley said, “and you’re going to have to give due respect to them, because they had long and very prosperous careers.”
Easley’s career was prosperous but not very long: First-round draft pick in 1981, Defensive Player of the Year in 1984 and, finally, Hard Luck Story of the Year in 1988, when he failed a physical exam after the Seahawks traded him to the Phoenix Cardinals.
His kidneys were damaged beyond repair. With football permanently out of the picture, Easley devoted his focus to the somewhat more pressing issue of staying alive. He survived on dialysis treatment for several months while awaiting a kidney-replacement match.
FILE – In this Jan. 8, 1984, file photo, Los Angeles Raiders running back Frank Hawkins (27) pushes his way across the goal line for his second touchdown of the day despite the defensive efforts of Seattle Seahawks’ Kenny Easley during an NFL football game in Los Angeles.
Anonymous AP file, 1984
Easley traced his kidney ailment to ibuprofen tablets, liberally distributed by Seahawks trainers, after he sustained an ankle injury. He sued the organization and reached a settlement out of court, but when you’re awaiting an organ transplant, any monetary compensation is minimal.
Easley suspended communication with the Seahawks for 15 years, a stalemate that still might remain unresolved had Paul Allen not bought the embattled franchise from Ken Behring in 1996.
YOU’VE GOT A HOST OF VERY GOOD SAFETIES COMING DOWN THE PIKE AND YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO GIVE DUE RESPECT TO THEM, BECAUSE THEY HAD LONG AND VERY PROSPEROUS CAREERS.
Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Easley
Upon assuming control, Allen identified appeasement with Easley as a top priority. A Ring of Honor ceremony was in order, Easley was told, and he considered the request the way any father of grown children would.
The kids knew Easley had played pro football, but he wasn’t the type to flaunt trophies on bookcases designed to hold books.
“I’m glad my children got to be a part of it,” Easley said of his 2002 Ring of Honor induction. “They learned about their father and what he had done, and how successful he had done it.”
Kenny Easley raises the 12th Man flag before the Divisional Playoff game against the Panthers at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015.
Staff file, 2015
Throughout a childhood during which he competed on football, basketball and baseball teams coached by his tough-loving dad – a retired Marine, the antithesis of “Little League Father” – Easley wore No. 5. The exception was the season he lined up at left offensive guard in middle school and transformed into No. 55.
At UCLA, same thing: He was a ferocious Five.
Because of the NFL’s draconian policies regarding every aspect of apparel – uniform numbers must be, well, uniform, consistent with positions – Easley, as a defensive back, was prohibited from wearing No. 5 with the Seahawks. He ended up No. 45, keeping the five alive.
On the night before Easley learned of his election into the Hall of Fame, this past February, he woke up from a dream so vivid it induced a cold sweat. He’d envisioned his jersey hanging in the Seahawks Ring of Honor at CenturyLink Field, alongside the franchise’s four other retired numbers: No. 12, for the fans; No. 80, for wide receiver Steve Largent; No. 71, for offensive tackle Walter Jones, and No. 96, for defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy.
Largent, Jones and Kennedy are enshrined in Ohio. Easley interpreted the dream as nature’s way of telling him he was destined to join them. When Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker knocked on Easley’s hotel door a few hours later, “it was almost a formality,” he said. “Almost like it was meant to be.”
Almost like it was meant to be? For the five-time Pro Bowl participant, of course it was meant to be.
The induction ceremony is Aug. 5.