DK Note: This is a special guest-post by Bob Kaupang, who had the opportunity to interview Kenny Easley for a four-part series on the Seahawk great. Here's part I, and we'll be running parts II, III, and IV this week. Enjoy, and big thanks to Bob for sharing with Field Gulls readers.
Kenny Easley is one of the greatest players in the history of the Seattle Seahawks, and one of the best safeties to ever play in the National Football League. When fans who remember number forty-five see his name in the Ring of Honor, they are brought back to a time and place in the mid-1980s when the Seahawks became relevant and Easley was the heartbeat of the team.
If younger fans want to fully comprehend what Easley was like, all they have to do is think of a super-safety who possesses the physical intimidation skills of Kam Chancellor combined with the ability of Earl Thomas to roam the back end of a secondary.
This mythical being once played for the Seahawks and was the 1981 AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, 1983 AFC Defensive Player of the Year, 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 4-time All-Pro, and 5-time Pro Bowler. All of this was done in a career that ended prematurely after only seven seasons.
To put into proper context the unfortunate shortness of Easley's career, imagine that this upcoming season will be the last before both Chancellor and Thomas retire. Each are about to enter their seventh season in Seattle.
I became a Seahawks fan in 1983 and Easley immediately became my favorite player. It has been an honor to correspond with him to write this four-part series for fans to enjoy.
If you are a die-hard fan of the original Enforcer and have read all of the stories and interviews up until this point, I am proud to say that by communicating with Easley himself, that there are some things I never knew and haven't read before.
As a high school American History teacher, I have a high appreciation for learning about the past to appreciate or better understand the present and hope that younger fans will take this story to heart and older fans will take a fun stroll down memory lane.
Kenny Easley: Pre-Seahawks
Kenny Easley began playing football at six years of age and by the time he graduated high school in Chesapeake, Virginia, he not only became an All-State quarterback, but All-American signal caller, too.
In addition to over 200 schools recruiting him to play quarterback, Easley said, "I was the punter, punt returner, kicker and kick returner." Although less recognized as a safety, he did say, "I had nine interceptions my senior year and led the team in tackles."
However, he gained more fame offensively for being the first Virginian to both rush and throw for over 1,000 yards in a single season.
When asked how he chose UCLA, Easley said, "My final two choices came down to UCLA and Michigan. The night before the national letter of intent was to be announced and signed, we had a high school basketball game. Both Terry Donahue (UCLA) and Bo Schembechler (Michigan) were in attendance. After the game we all met at my house for final discussions. Neither coach knew that I wanted to play safety in college, but the question was asked of each coach by my mother, ‘Can you make my son a promise that if you signed him to your school as a safety, you won't switch him to quarterback once he's there?' Bo went first and said, ‘Ms. Easley, I cannot promise you that we will play him at safety because we believe he would be the best quarterback on our team.' Then, coach Donahue said, ‘Ms. Easley, if your son wants to play safety at our university, he will play safety. In fact, we believe he will be an All-American safety by his junior year.'"
There is more to the story, as Easley continued, "My Dad was a UCLA fan since the days of Red Sanders who ran the single wing offense back in the day. In fact, as youth league player, my Dad coached the team I played on and we ran the single wing offense and I was the quarterback. My Dad never came right out and said he wanted me to attend UCLA, but I sort of knew he was partial to the school."
Regardless of what Easley said up to this point, there was still no guarantee he would choose UCLA. He went on to say, "Bottom line on decision day, I was fairly certain I was going to Michigan, but when I was finally asked the question that morning before reporters, coaches and school administrators, I blurted out ‘UCLA.' It had to be some type of divine intervention because to this very day, I still don't truly know why I said UCLA but it all worked out fine."
Easley wasted no time making an impact as a true freshman at UCLA. He took over at free safety by the second game of the 1977 season and picked off a conference best six passes and recorded 93 tackles in his inaugural season in Los Angeles.
For his efforts, he was named Freshman Player of the Year, an award he remembers traveling to Texas to receive.
Myles Jack, the great UCLA linebacker who is expected to be an early first-round pick in the NFL draft next month is the closest anyone has gotten to Easley's freshman tackles record in school history. In 13 games in 2013, Jack recorded 75 tackles, almost 20 stops less than Easley had in only 11 games almost 40 years ago.
For his efforts, Easley was named Pac 8 All-Conference as a freshman and would later become the first player in conference history to receive this honor in four consecutive years.
Despite an impressive freshman campaign, Easley was named UCLA's "Most Improved" player as a sophomore in 1978. In addition to another All-Conference selection (this was the first year of the Pac 10 Conference), he was named a consensus All-American for the first of three consecutive seasons.
After another All-Conference and All-American junior season, I asked if he considered leaving school early for the NFL. He replied, "Nope. I absolutely enjoyed everything about the college life. The freedom of being on my own, my teammates from all parts of the country, the excitement of a game day, the ability to watch great college basketball, track and field and golf. On the UCLA golf team at that time were Corey Pavin, Duffy Waldorf and Tom Pernice Jr. On the track and field team were Jackie Joyner (before she married), Florence Griffith Joyner (Flo Jo) and Greg Foster (world class hurdler). I have often said if we could select a period in our lives to do-over again, I would re-do the four years I spent at UCLA."
Predictably, Easley had a fantastic senior season and even received five first-place, five second-place, and 19 third-place votes to finish ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
When asked what his career highlight was at UCLA, he stated, "Defeating USC my senior year was the greatest win after losing three straight years to them. Great rivalry, not unlike Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, or Florida-Florida State. These are the games you will remember for a lifetime."
After finishing his collegiate football career, it was time for Easley to begin his professional career. He never gave serious consideration to playing in the NBA, even though he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls. Unlike choosing where he went to college, an NFL team was about to determine his future.
"The day before the draft," Easley said, "Bill Walsh, the 49ers head coach and his entire defensive staff, met me on Spaulding Field at UCLA and worked me a good two hours doing various drills. Afterwards, Walsh says, ‘We have the eighth pick in tomorrow's draft and we would like to select you if you are available.'"
Little did Easley know, a team further up the West Coast from San Francisco, who had shown no interest in him up until that point, was about to make him the fourth overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft.
Stay tuned for parts II (Seahawks), III (Post-Seahawks), and IV (Hall of Fame Candidacy)...