For 10 of his 11 seasons, Cortez Kennedy wore No. 96. But for one season, perhaps his best season, Kennedy wore No. 99, Jerome Brown’s number. He went on to have 14 sacks, 92 tackles and become the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 1992.
On the day that he died, Cortez Kennedy’s banner was the only thing illuminated at CenturyLink Field, a spectacular pin drop of light.
The arches, the seats, the field — all dark.
At the top of the banner: KENNEDY.
Below that: 96.
For 10 of his 11 seasons, that was the number Kennedy wore, the number still seen on retro Seahawks jerseys. But for one season, perhaps his best season, Kennedy wore No. 99.
He went on to have 14 sacks, 92 tackles and become the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 1992, all while playing on a team that finished tied for the worst record in franchise history. But in that one season Kennedy revealed the traits his teammates, coaches and fans celebrated when he died Tuesday at 48:
His singular dominance on the field, his heart away from it.
Dennis Erickson heard all about Kennedy when Erickson replaced Jimmy Johnson at Miami.
Size, potential — and weight.
That was Kennedy’s reputation after one season, mostly as a backup, at Miami. Somewhere lurked a game-wrecker; he just hadn’t revealed himself.
So before Erickson’s first season as coach and Kennedy’s final season as a player, the two met in the spring of 1989.
“People talked about how good he could be, he was heavy, all these different things,” Erickson says. “But when I talked to him, he wanted to be the best that’s ever played at Miami since Jerome Brown.”
Brown, the immensely talented defensive tackle, had left Miami as a first-round pick before Kennedy arrived, but the comparisons started right away. Kennedy wanted to be Brown, wanted to be better than him.
“That was his idol,” Erickson said. “There’s no question about it.”
In a famous story, Kennedy was working out at Miami when Brown burst into the weight room shouting, “Where’s that guy who’s supposed to be like me?”
They hit it off right away.
They lived together once, these 300-pounders who reminded the other how “fat” he was. It was the spring of 1991, and they rented a house in Orlando for motivation.
Brown was trying to lose weight after having one sack the year before; Kennedy, who the Seahawks drafted third overall, started only two games as a rookie.
“Our mothers thought it would be best for both of us to work out together,” Kennedy told the Philadelphia Daily News.
Most things Kennedy did at the time could be traced back, in some way, to Jerome Brown.
• His Corvette: He bought it because Brown had one first. Same with his BMW.
• His sack dance: He did it because of Brown.
• Pass-rush techniques: He picked them up while watching film of Brown.
• He listened to Brown’s advice about money (“Save your money, but if you like something, go out and get it. You aren’t going to live forever.”) and caution (“People will sue you for anything.”).
“That’s who he wanted to be like,” Erickson said. “And he talked about that a lot.”
Kennedy and Brown had talked on the phone not long before the tragic news, making future plans to hang out. It was June 25, 1992.
Brown and his 12-year-old nephew were driving in Brown’s Corvette when Brown lost control. The car slammed into a utility pole, killing Brown and his nephew. Kennedy was devastated and recalled how he’d never cried harder in his life. He sold his Corvette.
Before the 1992 season, he made an announcement that ran as just a few sentences in The Seattle Times. He was changing numbers, from 96 to 99: Jerome Brown’s number.
“When Jerome died,” Erickson says, “he was playing for him as well as for himself.”
He was utterly, entirely dominant.
First game that season, he had a sack. Second game, half a sack. In the third game, three more sacks and two forced fumbles. He also had 10 tackles, five behind the line, totaling more than 30 lost yards.
“He got me on a three-step drop once,” marvels Hugh Millen, the Patriots quarterback that day. “A three-step drop is one of the things you do schematically just to try and get the ball out. I turned to make a quick fake and turned around and he’s right in my windshield.”
Two days after that game, Kennedy told the Orlando Sentinel: “Normally after a game like that I’d call up Jerome and mess with him about how many sacks I had. Like today, this would be a day I’d call him.”
In December, the Seahawks played Brown’s former team, the Eagles. Kennedy flew Brown’s family to Seattle. He talked to reporters about his old friend the previous week because he knew it would be too hard otherwise.
“I have to play well because I know Jerome doesn’t want me to embarrass him,” he said.
He had two more sacks that day.
The Seahawks were terrible that season. They went 2-14 and had, quite literally, the worst offense in the history of the NFL. It’s still hard to fathom how good a defensive tackle has to be in order to get nationally recognized on a team that bad, playing a position that keeps most players anonymous.
“He was going to lose all ties,” Millen says. “He was going to lose every single tie for the defensive player of the year. He had to be resoundingly the best defensive lineman to win that award.”
Kennedy didn’t just win the award; he won it in a landslide. He received 33 votes. The guy who finished second, a linebacker named Junior Seau, received 12.
“When the award came around, I said, ‘Well, I’ll be damned,’” says Tom Flores, the Seahawks’ coach. “And one reason is because I know how politics are in the National Football League. Here’s a team that won two games, we’re stuck up in the Northwest, not making much of a print in that year’s history books. And yet they still awarded him with that award. Well, they couldn’t neglect him if you really think about it.”
And he did it on a team that knew it was screwed, a team whose players used to joke before games about awarding a game ball if they simply covered the spread.
“When you lose, it reveals your character, it reveals what you’ve got,” says Eugene Robinson, a safety that season. “What are you made of? Are you a cat that capitulates and gives in and waves the white flag? Or are you one of those cats that no matter what the optics look like, no matter what it smells like, tastes like, sounds like, you’re going to be a guy people can depend upon? Cortez Kennedy. That’s who that was. Cortez Kennedy.”
The next season, Kennedy changed his number back to 96, which he wore for the rest of his career.
Twenty years later, wearing a gold jacket at his Hall of Fame induction, Kennedy told the story about his number change. Then he said, “I will always miss you, Jerome.”
|By the numbers|
|Cortez Kennedy’s 1992 season was one of the best for a Seahawks defender. He was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.|