Hall of Famer Cortez Kennedy’s heart is at home

Cortez Kennedy’s improbable journey to Canton, Ohio, started outside a small Arkansas town called Osceola, where he carved out a name for himself by eventually earning a football scholarship to play for the mighty University of Miami program and following that up with an 11-year NFL career.

His entire professional career was spent in Seattle, which he still considers his second home.

And after that, Kennedy took his money and did what any reasonable 30-something millionaire would do. He went back to the small town outside of Osceola.

Now living in Orlando, Florida, after spending the past decade in rural Arkansas, the 43-year-old Kennedy isn’t exactly a rambling man.

“I like my comfort zone,” the Seahawks’ longtime defensive tackle said last week. “There’s nothing wrong with it. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

This afternoon, Kennedy will become the first known professional athlete to be enshrined in a major Hall of Fame with full Seattle ties. That is, he was drafted by a Seattle team and spent his entire career in the same city. Edgar Martinez and Walter Jones may one day share that distinction, but for now it’s Kennedy who will serve as Seattle’s lone wire-to-wire representative.

And that seems pretty appropriate, considering how rarely Kennedy likes to pick up and change addresses.

The increasingly rare Hall of Famer to have played an entire career in one city, Kennedy is happy to represent Seattle this afternoon in Canton, Ohio.

“I loved playing for the Seahawks,” he said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Of course, Seattle never will quite rank up there with Wilson, Ark., in Kennedy’s mind. That’s the small town outside of Osceola where Kennedy spent his first 18 years — and another decade after retirement. In 2001, following a subpar 2000 season that exposed his declining production, Kennedy announced his career was over and headed back home.

It has to rank among the most modest retirement destinations of any Hall of Famer. Kennedy himself once described his hometown as being so starved for entertainment that “we used to throw rocks at each other for fun.”

His reason for returning to the rural area outside Osceola, where he purchased a doctor’s large home on a 1.5-acre lot and added a weight room and pool, could be summed up in a single word: Courtney.

Cortez Kennedy’s daughter, who was 8 at the time, was the center of his life. He gained full custody of her and moved back to Wilson to raise her, with help from his mother and father, through the most important years of her young life.

What was that experience like? “Perfect,” Kennedy said.

One might argue that the perfect life might have been spent in New York City or Miami or maybe on the coast of France, but Kennedy was all too happy to go back to Osceola.

And his hometown was certainly happy to have him. Osceola mayor Dickie Kennemore, who considers Kennedy a close friend, said the former NFL star fits in nicely back home but shines bright because of his accomplishments.

“We have pride in the fact that he’s from our town,” said Kennemore, whose town lists a population of fewer than 8,000 people.

Kennemore described his town as “a close-knit, small community; if you’re from here, you’re family.” He added that the town makeup is split evenly between blacks and whites and that his city is more progressive than many Southern towns in terms of race relations.

He’s quick to tell the story of the recent time when Kennedy’s private plane was flying into Osceola Municipal Airport. Kennemore got a late-night call from the airborne former NFL player asking him to get up and go turn on the runway lights.

The mayor has borrowed Kennedy on more than one occasion while hosting a prospective industry for breakfast at The Hog Pen, hoping that the name recognition would help bring commerce into the county.

Kennedy might be the town’s biggest celebrity, but Kennemore said that, other than a street that’s named after the former Seahawk, the big man rarely gets star treatment in his hometown. He’s a member of the town’s hunting club and wild-game club and prefers spending time in the woods to making public appearances or standing in front of a television camera.

“He’s just one of the guys,” Kennemore said. “… All the locals look up to him, but they leave him alone and let him go about his business.”

That’s just the way Kennedy likes it.

“I don’t need to be honored in my hometown,” he said. “I got a street named after me. Everybody knows me in my hometown.”

Kennedy offered that part of his speech today will deal with his upbringing in rural Arkansas and his journey to Canton. He also admitted he was getting more and more nervous about the prospect of standing behind the microphone; speaking has never been one of Kennedy’s favorite activities.

“When I talk from my heart, I’m better with that,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to try to do (at today’s induction ceremony): speak from the heart and roll with it.”

Dixie Fraley Keller, who is the widow of Kennedy’s longtime agent Robert Fraley, is scheduled to introduce him at today’s ceremony. She became an even more important part of Kennedy’s life after Robert Fraley was killed in a 1999 plane crash that also ended the life of golfer Payne Stewart.

The pain of that loss was all too familiar for Kennedy, who also lost good friends Jerome Brown (in a 1992 car accident) and Derrick Thomas (in 2000, to a heart attack suffered a few weeks after the former Kansas City linebacker was paralyzed in an automobile accident).

Kennedy has been touched by many during his 43-plus years on earth, and he has affected countless others with his guy-next-door personality and Hall of Fame ability. He expects to have about 350 guests on hand for today’s ceremony, and it’s a safe bet that one of them will shine brightest among all the faces.

Courtney Kennedy will be there to cheer on her dad, who passed up the fame and bright lights of a larger town to go home and help give her the kind of upbringing he had in small-town Arkansas.

“She can’t wait until I get into the Hall of Fame,” Cortez Kennedy said with pride in his voice. “Sometimes I think she’s getting into the Hall of Fame, the way she’s been acting.”

Kennedy’s hometown might be proud of his gridiron exploits and his Hall of Fame journey, but it’s apparent that those who know him best in Osceola look at him as more than that. He is, in some ways, the town’s most-recognized father.

“He’s as proud of her as he can be,” said Kennemore, the town’s mayor. “If you talk to him long enough, you’ll hear about Courtney.

“He’s a great father, a great son and a great family man. And, obviously, he’s one heck of a football player.”

Read more about Kennedy and other Seahawks legends in our “Game of My Life” series.

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