Kenny Easley: Giving his all
Kenny Easley says "I got a chance to do what I really wanted to do with my life. I think that's special." Herald file photo
MMore 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.
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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 plays in a game for the Seahawks. Herald file photo
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.
Kenny Easley was known for his toughness. Herald file photo
TThe 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."
Kenny Easley says he has many memories of his years on the football field, but no regrets. Herald file photo
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