Kenny Easley: Giving His All
September 10, 2011
By Scott M. Johnson
More than 20 years have passed since Kenny Easley made his last bone-jarring hit on a football field. And yet the game continues to assault him well after his premature 1987 retirement. It’s there every time he thinks about his 19-year-old kidney and wonders when it will inevitably give out. It’s there on the rare occasion that he watches a football game and feels the pain of every bone-crushing hit that unfolds before his eyes.
There, hovering like a blindside blocker, is a question that just won’t go away.
Does Kenny Easley regret giving it all on the football field?
Easley, who sacrificed the quality of his later life for a few successful years in the NFL, answers with an emphatic no.
“Hey, this is what I wanted to do,” Easley said in the summer of 2007. “It was my passion. I did what I wanted to do. If you took a poll of folks in this country, and you asked them: Did you ultimately get to do what you wanted to do in your life? I would venture to guess that well over a large majority of them would say no. And I got a chance to do what I really wanted to do with my life. I think that’s special.”
From the time he was a young child, Kenny Easley had a single goal: to play professional football. He achieved that dream, and paid back the favor by giving his all every time he took the field.
In the end, Easley even gave his kidney, having lost that in a 1990 transplant because of damage the organ sustained over the years.
But regrets? No, Easley has no regrets.
He’s got memories, plenty of highlights, and a place in the Seattle Seahawks’ Ring of Honor.
But he promises that he’s got no regrets.
The love of Kenny Easley’s life was only a click away. The year was 1965, he was a 6-year-old child without any future plans, and his chosen profession came rushing at him when he turned on the television.
There, on the small screen of the Easley family’s Virginia home, was all the color and pageantry and drama that Kenny could ever want. People were screaming. Grown men were slamming their bodies against each other. Legends were being born. And so was Kenny Easley’s dream.
The Washington Redskins and Baltimore Colts were doing battle in the first football game Easley had ever seen. Legendary players like Sonny Jurgenson and Charley Taylor were on one side, while Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and John Mackey were on the other. It was the most beautiful thing young Kenny could imagine.
“Looking at all those people in the stands, and listening to the announcers, and all that excitement, I was hooked right there on the spot,” Easley recalled years later, after a storied NFL career that saw him become one of the best players to ever put on a Seattle Seahawks uniform.
Kenny Easley was willing to do anything to make the same living as guys like Jurgenson, Unitas and Mackey. He would sacrifice it all to make it to the NFL.
“I said that day,” he recalled, “‘This is what I want to do. I want to be a pro football player.'”
While Easley was already blessed with athletic ability and a passion for lifting weights, he had a lot to learn about the game of football. And many of those lessons came from his demanding father. A former sergeant in the Marines, Kenneth Easley Sr. pushed his son to become the very best he could be.
“He always drove me harder than he did the other kids on the team,” Kenny Easley said.
As an example, Easley recalled a baseball drill that involved Kenneth Easley Sr. hitting fly balls to the players on the Little League team he was coaching. Kenneth Easley Sr. would hit the ball directly at everyone on the team, except his son. When Kenny Easley was in centerfield, Easley Sr. would hit the ball to left. If Kenny didn’t catch it, he would make him do it over again. Then Kenneth Sr. would hit the ball to right.
“And it would keep going until I caught it,” Kenny Easley Jr. recalled. “That’s how he was with me. And the same way in football. If we had a tackling drill, I never did it well enough. In a throwing drill, I never did it well enough. In basketball, if I made five shots in a row, that wasn’t good enough; I had to make eight in a row.
“So I learned very early on that I had to be different than everybody else, that I had to work harder than everybody else.”
Through it all, football was always Kenny Easley’s favorite sport. By the time he got to Oscar F. Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va., he was the starting quarterback as a sophomore and an almost immediate star. As a junior, he started playing safety, and that was only because his coach needed more athleticism on defense.
But quarterback was the position that interested college recruiters the most. UCLA and Michigan were among the hundreds of schools offering football scholarships, and both wanted him to play offense. But Easley preferred to play on defense — not because he loved to hit people or knock down passes or outsmart opposing quarterbacks. Easley wanted to play defense simply because he knew it would provide the easiest path to his long-time goal.
“I knew that, at that age, black quarterbacks were a rarity in NFL,” explained Easley, who is African-American. “I thought if I played safety, I had a much better chance of playing in the NFL than if I played quarterback.”
He ended up traveling across the country to play safety at UCLA, where he intercepted a school-record 19 passes and became an All-American. He was such an impressive safety that Easley finished ninth in the balloting for the 1980 Heisman Trophy, which went to South Carolina running back George Rogers.
Rogers went on to become the first overall selection in the 1981 NFL draft, followed by linebacker Lawrence Taylor at No. 2, and Easley’s teammate, UCLA running back Freeman McNeil, at No. 3. The Seahawks, who were coming off a forgettable 4-12 campaign and had a defense that allowed an average of more than 30 points per game during a season-ending, nine-game losing streak, were up next. In desperate need of defensive help, the Seahawks chose Easley with the fourth overall pick. It marked the earliest a safety had been drafted since the 1960 NFL expansion. And the Seahawks immediately threw Easley into the fray. He started as a rookie and quickly emerged as a leader on Seattle’s up-and-coming defense.
While his reckless playing style and highlight-worthy hits were apparent early on, Easley was also known for his toughness. He showed that he could play through pain, no matter how bad the injury. By throwing back some aspirin, sometimes by the handful, Easley would fend off the sprains and pulls that were known to sideline other players.
Easley’s leadership and passion helped paved the way for a gradual defensive turnaround. By 1983, the Seahawks were no longer considered simply an offensive team that couldn’t stop anybody. Seattle was getting it done on both sides of the ball, and the wins were piling up.
After a 9-7 regular season, the Seahawks made their first-ever postseason appearance that year. They opened the playoffs with an impressive 31-7 home win over the Denver Broncos in a wild-card game, then had to travel to Miami to face a Dolphins team that featured one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL. Led by rookie quarterback and future Hall of Famer Dan Marino, along with a receiving corps that included the so-called Marks Brothers – Mark Duper and Mark Clayton – Miami stormed into the playoffs on a five-game winning streak. Marino and company scored 30 or more points in four of their final five regular-season games, and were in such a groove that just about everyone outside of Seattle had already started thinking about the inevitable Miami-Los Angeles Raiders matchup in the following weekend’s AFC Championship game.
But before the Dolphins could host the Raiders for a right to go to Super Bowl XVIII, Miami had to go through the motions of knocking off that young, unproven team from Seattle on New Year’s Eve.
It was a game that wasn’t soon forgotten – not by the fans, the Dolphins or the Seahawks.
And certainly not by a young, hard-hitting safety who still looks back on that New Year’s Eve as the night the Seattle Seahawks truly arrived.
Seahawks vs. Miami Dolphins
Dec. 31, 1983
As told by Kenny Easley
It wasn’t a memorable game in that I did anything particularly special in it. In fact, looking at film, I didn’t play particularly well. But the win over the Miami Dolphins in an AFC divisional playoff game was the most memorable game of my career. It was a great game. The ebb and flow of the game was there all the way to the end. That was just a dynamite game.
All the odds were against us. I’m not sure what they were in Las Vegas, but I’m sure everybody had us losing that game. The Dolphins had a potent offensive set in Dan Marino, Mark Duper, Mark Clayton. They had a terrific offensive football team as well as a pretty good defensive team.
We heard all of that stuff. Certainly, all the reporters were talking up Dan Marino and Mark Clayton and Mark Duper. So the feeling was that this would be a nice opportunity for us to knock off these guys and introduce Seahawk football to the rest of the world. We felt like we were going on to a different stage in terms of the limelight and big-time football.
The mood heading into the game was kind of a quiet confidence. It seemed that everybody was sufficiently confident and eager to get it on, and to show the Dolphins that we could play at that level. I wasn’t so much surprised that we won the game, because I felt that confidence going into the game that we were prepared. But what made it a great game to me, and the most exciting game of my career, is that we were significant underdogs and came out on top.
One thing I remember from before the game is that it was hot. I mean, it was excruciatingly hot. I grew up in the South, in Virginia, so as a kid I was used to the heat and humidity of the South. But it was one of those unusual winter/fall/Indian summer days where it was just hot and humid. It was terribly hot out there. Because I had been on the West Coast for as long as I had at that time, it just seemed like the heat was unbearable. I remember Jimmy Whitesel, who was the trainer at that time, coming out during one of the timeouts and dousing cold towels of water over my head and the rest of the defensive players’ heads. That was the only thing that revived us and kept us out there on that field because it was so hot.
The Dolphins scored first, early in the second quarter, but we quickly responded and showed them we were not going to go away. A few minutes later, John Harris recovered a fumble early in the second half, and we marched down the field and scored on a Curt Warner touchdown to take a 14-13 lead. Pretty soon we extended that lead to four, at 17-13. Warner had a great game that day, running for 112 yards and two touchdowns.
His second touchdown gave us a 24-20 lead late in the fourth quarter, but what I really remember was what happened on the ensuing kickoff. Sam Merriman recovered a fumble at the Dolphins’ 27-yard line, and I knew right then that it was our game. We added another field goal. And at that point, I knew that we were going to win the game. All we had to do was go out on defense and stop their offense. And we had played them pretty well all day. If we went out and played solid defense, the way that we had been playing most of the day, I knew that game was ours.
Dan Marino had really gotten into a groove at the end of the regular season, yet we held him to 193 yards, with two interceptions. Our defense knew what the Dolphins were going to do before they did it. The reason was simple: Tom Catlin.
Tom Catlin was the most brilliant defensive coordinator that I have ever played for, and probably the most brilliant coordinator in the National Football League at that time. The one thing I could say with certainty was that, in the six years I played with Tom Catlin, we never went into a football game or lined up against an offense that we did not know what they were going to do. And that’s a fact. So going into that Miami game, Tom was his usual brilliant self, covering every detail and making sure that we knew every possible thing that the Miami Dolphins could possibly throw at us. He always told us, ‘If you go out and execute the defensive plan, 50 percent of the strategy is done. The other 50 percent is going to be the mental and physical part of the game.’
Tom was always so thorough. His genius was his sterility. In our Saturday practices, leading up to the game, he would actually have a walk-through session where, when the ball was snapped, everybody would walk through their pursuit angles on certain plays that the Dolphins ran — just to make sure that if the runner cut back, the pursuit angle was ready for a cutback. That’s how thorough this guy was in his planning for the Dolphins. You would think that would be something silly for a professional athlete at that stage to be rehearsing — cutback angles and pursuit angles — after a 16-game season and playoff game. But that was Tom Catlin. Those types of things were important to him. And it could have been the deciding thing in that playoff game. Who knows? Someone could have made the play of the game because of practicing the pursuit angles.
We went into that Miami game knowing that we were going to have to play at the top of our game. So we were extra sharp, just because it was a divisional playoff game. And we knew that if we won that game, we would be in the AFC Championship Game. So that heightened all of our senses. With Tom doing his usual thing on the game plan, and our heightened senses because of what was on the line, it was all there for the taking. And we took it.
I really do believe that’s when Seahawk football came of age in the National Football League. We went to the AFC Championship game and lost to Raiders ultimately, but that’s when the Seahawks made our announcement as a contender on that stage.
It was a pretty great win, the most memorable for me.
The win catapulted Seahawks football to the forefront of Seattle sports. They went 12-4 the following year, at one point winning eight consecutive games. After years of struggling for legitimacy, the Seahawks found themselves among the NFL’s elite. They were rolling along at such a pace that it almost seemed natural.
“You have to be in that moment, with the players on the team, to understand the feeling,” Easley recalled of the 1984 season. “I remember John Harris telling me, this is about the 12th game of the season, he says, ‘You know, we’ve won eight in a row.’ We were sitting there in a team meeting, waiting for Chuck Knox to come in, and until that moment I honestly didn’t know that we had won eight games in a row. And that was the feeling amongst the team. Most guys did not know that we had won eight games in a row. We were just playing football and having fun and looking forward to the next week.”
Through it all, Easley was his usual self. He played through pain, intimidated opponents, and led the Seahawks’ defense to heights it had never before seen. Easley played so well that he was named the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 1984. He attended the Super Bowl as a guest of the league to accept the award, and the moment signified the pinnacle of his career.
But that would be the last time Easley would attend a Super Bowl – or even watch one on television. To this day, he still hasn’t watched a Super Bowl game in its entirety, mostly because it’s too difficult for him to witness the violence of the game.
“It’s just hard for me to watch the game now,” Easley said 20 years after his 1987 retirement from a game that caused him to have four separate knee surgeries. “I know what the players are going through physically, and I can’t stand to see the players get hurt. … It’s hard to watch. I feel every hit, every pain. I feel it myself.”
The pain that Easley ignored for most of his career eventually caught up with him. Kidney problems forced him out of the game after the 1987 season, when he was only 28 years old. He later blamed the kidney failure on his overdependence on aspirin, and the subject became an impetus for a long rift he had with the Seahawks organization. Not until 2002 – 15 years after his final game and 12 after his kidney transplant – did Easley finally patch things up with the only NFL team for which he played. After years of pestering, Easley finally accepted an invitation to attend a Seahawks game and be put into the team’s Ring of Honor.
Yet Easley still didn’t get any closure.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to be closed because of the predicament I’m in for the rest of my life,” he said in 2007, referring to his ongoing kidney problems. “But I’m certainly not going to hold it against the folks that are in the organization now, because they had nothing to do with it.”
Easley’s transplanted kidney affects him every day of his life, and he still doesn’t know when the new kidney might give out.
“It can reject any day,” he said in 2007, when the 48-year old wondered about the likely possibility of another transplant. “That’s always the prospectus. You’re never out from under that possibility. Sometimes it works better than other times.”
Easley was smart with his money during his playing days, so he didn’t have to worry about taking a full-time job after his 1987 retirement. As of 2007, his post-NFL career included buying and selling property, investing in businesses, and spending time with friends and family. He also helped create a fund for less fortunate players of his generation, raising money for those who weren’t covered by the league’s disability plan.
One thing Easley doesn’t do is look back.
“Seven years in Seattle came and went, and I laid it out there on the field,” he said. “And when it was all over with, it was unfortunate it happened the way it did. But in hindsight, looking at plights of some other players and what they had to deal with, it was almost like a normal circumstance in regards to players leaving the National Football League.”
When asked if he has any regrets, Easley did what always came natural: he played defense.
“It really doesn’t behoove one to reflect back on that stuff,” he said. “If you look at the life and times and trials and tribulations of well over 1,000 former NFL players, they can almost tell you the same story. It happens with every team in the National Football League. That’s just the plight of the NFL football player.
“If you walk away from this game, and you don’t have a debilitating injury, or you don’t have an injury that would render you — in other professions – permanently and partially disabled, it would be a miracle. It would be, literally, a miracle to walk away without permanent, partial disability in this game.”
Kenny Easley walked away earlier than he would have liked. And he gave more than he probably should have given.
No, Kenny Easley doesn’t have any regrets.