Commentary: Kennedy was a grizzly on field, teddy bear off it

SEATTLE — The first time I met Cortez Kennedy, we were both in Cheney, which, in football terms, is about as far from Canton, Ohio, as Indonesia. It was 1999, and all I knew about the Seattle Seahawks’ star defensive tackle was that he was big, he looked menacing and he had made a career out of terrorizing men nearly twice my size.

It was one of those hot, August days on the eastern side of the state, and I was waiting outside an Eastern Washington University dormitory for Kennedy to appear. I had already committed to writing a story about the man many believed would be the Seahawks’ next Hall of Famer, and yet I was having no luck cornering the 300-pound man with my 160-pound frame.

Having been blown off after a morning practice and at lunch, I resorted to calling his dorm room every 15 minutes in hopes of catching him. The routine went on for an hour, then two and finally, at twilight, the door to the players’ dorm flew open so hard that it slammed against the frame. One of the largest men I had ever seen came storming through, pointing a meaty finger at my face while shouting in his grumbled drawl that I’d interrupted his afternoon nap.

Four months into my career as The Herald’s NFL beat writer, I was certain I had already burned my most important bridge and — worse — that I might not be alive much longer to smell the smoke.

As he stormed toward me, scowl on his face, Kennedy turned his pointing hand into an outreached palm, broke into his signature wheezing chuckle, and offered a greeting.

“I’m Tez,” he said, offering a handshake while sporting the kind of look that said I got you good.

It was then that I realized that one of the greatest, most menacing players in Seahawks history was really just an overgrown teddy bear.

And so when I first heard the news Saturday that Kennedy had finally been granted entrance to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I put aside my journalist suit and broke into a short celebration. Anyone who got to know Kennedy over the years, even a little bit, had to be ecstatic when the Seahawks great was honored as one of the greatest to ever play the game.

My short time covering Kennedy was mostly about watching the twilight years of a once-proud star. During those final seasons, the quick first step and unmatched power were waning, and his great career quietly petered out before my very eyes.

But upon looking back at his career, and hearing the stories from those who knew him best, I gained more and more respect for Kennedy as both a player and a man.

The last time I spoke to him, on a professional basis, was in doing a “Game of My Life” series that recently appeared online for The Herald. Kennedy talked of his humble beginnings, of the fervent friendships he formed on the gridiron and of how proud he was of his NFL career. We also talked of the heartache he experienced while good friends like Jerome Brown, Derrick Thomas and former agent Robert Fraley had their lives abruptly taken away while Kennedy was still playing in the NFL.

Mostly, he laughed and made me laugh. When recalling a 2007 conversation he’d had with former Seahawks front-office member Mickey Loomis about recently being named a semifinalist for that year’s Hall of Fame class, Kennedy remembered saying: “Hey, Mickey, was I really that good?”

Kennedy was never a Grade-A interview, nor was he a vocal team leader. He mostly mumbled when he talked, and you got the feeling that any conversation he had that didn’t involved laughter was less than satisfying to the oversized kid whom everyone called Tez.

His heyday as a player spoke volumes to anyone who remembers. He was named 1992 Defensive Player of the Year despite playing on a 2-14 team, and esteemed local scribes like Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle P-I and John Clayton of ESPN still call that one of the most dominating defensive seasons they have ever seen.

Farnsworth and Clayton, both Hall of Fame voters, have been spearheading the Tez for Hall campaign for a few years. Every training camp, I would pepper them with questions about Kennedy’s candidacy, and their answer always seemed to be that defensive tackles with big sack totals — guys like 2010 enshrinee John Randle — would need to break through the doors before Kennedy’s name would generate serious consideration.

On Saturday afternoon, Farnsworth’s and Clayton’s work finally paid off, and Kennedy became the second Seattle Seahawk to gain entrance into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Steve Largent is the other one.

It’s unlikely that Kennedy’s induction speech will be the most energetic, nor will it carry the robust vocabublary of some recent greats. But there almost certainly will be a few jokes, some hearty chuckling and a wealth of respect — both to Kennedy, and from Kennedy himself.

I will almost certainly be watching, not because I saw the best of Kennedy on the field but because I grew to respect the best of him off of it.

Cortez Kennedy didn’t kick open the door to the Hall of Fame. Rather, he sat back and let others do the talking, and in the end his play spoke loudest of all.

He’s come a long way since his days growing up in Wilson, Ark., his days preparing in Cheney, and even while quietly dominating on mediocre teams way up in the Northwest part of the country. And now he’ll stand on the highest perch professional football has to offer.

The grizzly-bear-on-the-field, teddy-bear-off-of-it is on his way to Canton.

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