Kenny Easley’s “Hallelujah!” on Making the Pro Football Hall of Fame

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Kenny Easley was watching TV in his Chesapeake, Virginia, home six months ago when he suddenly began gasping for breath. He thought the sensation would pass, but when it didn’t, his wife insisted that he go to the hospital.

Hours later, specialists did a routine cardiac catheterization to diagnose if there was a blockage. “We’re going to fix whatever we find,” Easley recalled a doctor telling him confidently.

But minutes after starting, doctors stopped and delivered unexpected news for a 57-year-old lifelong athlete: He needed triple bypass surgery right away.

“I was stunned,” said Easley, now 58 . “Not my heart. Maybe somebody else’s heart, but not this heart.”

After successful surgery and a month at Sentara Heart Hospital in Norfolk, Easley quickly fell into a funk. He has battled kidney disease for three decades, but said this was a crushing blow.

“After that surgery, for the first time in my life, I lost my will,” said Easley. “My doctors, my wife (Gail) and sister, were egging me to get off the couch and go walk so that I could make my heart strong, but I had lost my will.

A telephone call a week later, however, did what the others couldn’t.

“I’ll tell you how good God is: I was in the hospital for a month, and a week after I got out of the hospital I got a phone call from the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Easley recalled.

The former UCLA and Seahawks star was told the Seniors Committee nominated him for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“That changed my whole trajectory. I got off the couch and started walking, and have been walking ever since,” said Easley. “That was the first time I had ever lost my will to do anything after that surgery, because I just could not believe it had happened to me. My heart had always been the same, that had taken me to the pinnacle of my sport. It had always done what I had asked it to do. If I needed extra in the fourth quarter of a football game, it always gave me that extra. It was really devastating for me.”

Easley was in Houston for Super Bowl LI and was told to be in his hotel room from 3 to 5 p.m. If there was a knock at the door, he was in the Hall of Fame. A phone call meant bad news.

At 5:10, Easley hadn’t heard anything and had all but given up hope. Then, Hall of Fame President David Baker knocked.

“My soul cried out, ‘Hallelujah!’ ” Easley said. “The big build up, and then the knock on the door and all the anxiety, and the wait and the angst sort of just fall off of you. You know that you finally made it to the pinnacle of your sport. It was really exhilarating. Twenty years of waiting for this to happen just rolled off of me, and man, it’s like I was in Disneyland.”

Health issues have dogged Easley for decades. He had a kidney transplant in 1989, but that kidney failed in 2000 and he went back on dialysis. In 2004, he received another transplant, but that kidney failed even before he left the hospital. He had a third transplant later that year.

“It won’t last me the rest of my life,” he said of the transplanted kidney from 2004. “I know eventually I’ll need to go back on dialysis.”

He said he’ll deal with that when the time comes. For now, Easley is occupied with a flag football league he organized in Chesapeake, which starts its spring season in two months. Then there’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction on August 5 in Canton, Ohio. And at some point during the season, the presentation of his Hall of Fame ring at a Seahawks home game.

High School All-Star

Easley graduated from Oscar F. Smith High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, where he became the first player in the history of Virginian high school football to rush and pass for over 1,000 yards in a single season. He has selected his high school football coach, Tommy Rhodes, to present him at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

“He’s already so nervous about the idea that I’d be surprised if he can even get a word out of his mouth,” Easley said with a laugh. “Back in high school, I was the quarterback, I was the free safety, I kicked off, I returned kicks, I punted, and I returned punts. So he would have a lot to say about me.”

“I’m so glad it happened now because I appreciate it so much more now than I would have years ago,” he said. “It means so much to me now.”

Hall of Fame President David Baker told him that he was the 306th player voted into the Hall of Fame.

“The number 306 will go on my tombstone,” said Easley. “I’ll take that number with me for the rest of my life.”