Photo courtesy of Seattle Seahawks
by Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
Kenny Easley may be the best defensive player in NFL history not to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If one can forget his rare talent, which is impossible if you ever watched him play strong safety for the Seattle Seahawks, it is easy to understand why. Few players ever had the Hall of Fame deck more stacked against them.
First, he played the wrong position. Only 10 safeties are enshrined in Canton. Of those, only seven were pure safeties. The other three, Ronnie Lott, Mel Renfro and Rod Woodson, began their careers at cornerback and were Pro Bowl players there before shifting to the back line.
No safety has been enshrined since Paul Krause in 1998, 19 years after he was first eligible and he was the NFL’s all-time leading pass interceptor with 81. In fact, the last game played by a Hal- of-Fame safety occurred 34 years ago (Ken Houston, 1980).
Second, 73 percent of Hall-of-Fame inductees played on either an NFL championship team or a Super Bowl champion. Easley played on neither.
Third, his career was cut short after only seven seasons due to kidney disease. Although he made the Pro Bowl five times (including in his final year), was named first team All-Pro three times and was the 1981 AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year and the 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, longevity is greatly valued by the Hall. And it should be, but not to the exclusion of someone as dominant as Easley.
Playing his career in what some once called “southern Alaska” also worked against Easley. In his day, the Seahawks were seldom seen on national television. In the East, he was a legend seldom seen.
Taken in concert, that has left Easley the only defensive member of the 1980s All-Decade first team not enshrined in Canton. That remains baffling to many, including the other safety on that team.
“Kam Chancellor right now is as good as any safety that’s played the game of football,” Lott said of the Seahawks’ present safety before last year’s Super Bowl. “It’s hard for me to say this, but there was only one guy that I know that’s better and that’s Kenny Easley. He was defensive player of the year and the best player to play the safety position, ever.
“Kenny could do what Jack Tatum could do, but he also could do what corners could do — he could do what Mike Haynes could do. He was not only a great hitter and great intimidator on the field, but he was a great athlete. In that day, what made him so special — him, Lawrence Taylor — those guys changed the game of football on the defensive side because they were not just guys that were big hitters. Now, all of sudden, you were seeing guys who were big hitters but also as athletic as anyone on offense.”
Perhaps no safety was ever paid the kind of respect Hall-of-Fame coach Joe Gibbs showed Easley when his Redskins’ faced the Seahawks in a 1983 game at the Kingdome. To avoid Easley, Gibbs repeatedly sent his tight end in motion not to get him into the passing game but to force Easley to follow him to the sideline in hopes of taking him out of the play.
At 6-3, 206 pounds, Easley was a big hitter with ball skills, the prototype for what Ed Reed would later become, and a player so athletic he was not only the fourth player selected in the NFL draft but was also taken in the 10th round of the NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls despite having not played varsity basketball since high school.
Easley became an immediate starter and in 1984 led the NFL with 10 interceptions, returning three for touchdowns. He also took over as the team’s punt returner after an injury sidelined Paul Johns, averaging 12.1 yards per return. He made his fifth and final Pro Bowl three years later despite playing with what was later diagnosed as kidney disease resulting from excessive use of ibuprofen to mask pain from a chronically painful ankle that cost him much of the 1986 season.
That condition was not discovered until he was traded to the then-Phoenix Cardinals for the rights to quarterback Kelly Stouffer. Easley had been the Seahawks’ player representative and was a central figure in the ill-fated 1987 NFL strike. When Seahawks’ quarterback Jim Zorn chose to cross the picket line to join a rag-tag assortment of “replacement players” Easley accused Zorn of “turning his back on us.” When he was traded after that strike-shortened season, many believed the two were connected.
Easley’s condition was discovered by the Cardinals’ doctors, and he sued the Seahawks and its medical staff. The case was eventually settled. Three years later, he underwent a successful kidney transplant but there was a long period of estrangement that did not end until Paul Allen bought the Seahawks and inducted Easley into the team’s Ring of Honor in 2002.
Years later, Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh would say, “He’d be a Hall-of-Fame player (had he played longer). Maybe he still is. He was that good.”
Yes, he was.