Kennedy, a Hall of Fame defensive tackle who was just 48 when he was found dead Tuesday in Orlando, filled up a room. But that embodied far more than just the reality of him being more than 300 pounds. “If you knew him, you were his friend,” a former Seahawks executive said.
In the wake of Tuesday’s stunning news that Cortez Kennedy had died, a gut punch that didn’t seem real at first — and still doesn’t — the first thought was not of the wondrous football player, though that is how he introduced himself to Seattle.
Over the years, Kennedy became one of those rare players who transcended his statistics and accomplishments, vast as they were. He wormed his way into the collective heart and endeared himself to his fans, doing so by dint of a likability that was unforced and a sincerity that was unquestioned.
Cortez Kennedy, who was just 48 when he was found dead Tuesday morning at his Orlando home of causes that are still unknown, filled up a room. But that embodied far more than just the reality of him being more than 300 pounds.
1990: Selected third overall in the NFL draft by the Seahawks out of the University of Miami. Plays in all 16 games, with two starts, as a rookie.
1991: Starts all 16 games and earns first Pro Bowl berth.
1992: Named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, piling up a career-high 92 tackles and 14 sacks, despite the Seahawks going 2-14.
1995: Dennis Erickson, Kennedy’s coach at Miami, is hired by the Seahawks. Kennedy would play for four different coaches during his time in Seattle.
1996: Kennedy earns his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl berth.
1997: Suffers season-ending broken ankle after playing in eight games.
1998: Starts 15 games and earns another Pro Bowl berth.
1999: Starts all 16 games and reaches the playoffs for the only time in his NFL career. The Seahawks lose to Miami in a wild-card game at the Kingdome.
2000: Plays his final season, starting all 16 games.
2006: Inducted into the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor.
2012: Inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has jersey retired by the Seahawks.
He filled it with laughter and joy, managing to make the phrase “larger than life” apply to his personality rather than his bulk. And people loved him for it, including people who never met him. Those who did, revered him.
Most Read Sports Stories
- Here’s what Baker Mayfield’s trade to Panthers means for Seahawks
- Here's UW's best bet — for now — in college football's shifting landscape
- Analysis: With Big Ten hopes waning, what's best for Washington — a Pac-12/ACC alliance or a Big 12 bolt?
- Analysis: Where will Washington land? Here are all of the Huskies' conference realignment options.
- The Pac-12 will never be the same again, and that's sad
“You wanted to be around him,” longtime Seahawks executive Gary Wright said. “Obviously, he was a great player, but he never carried himself with arrogance. He just treated everybody so good. It didn’t matter who you were; if you knew him, you were his friend.”
I certainly didn’t know Kennedy well, spending just one season as the Seahawks beat writer during the 1996 season, when he was 28. But it became instantly clear to me that everything in that locker room ran through Tez. And when I did my first extended interview with him during training camp, having to ask him about some uncomfortable things that were going on in his life at the time, Kennedy joked about how he was still sizing me up.
Apparently, I passed muster, because Kennedy treated me with respect, cooperation and, eventually, affection. He couldn’t help the affection, because that’s the way Kennedy looked at life, with a full and light heart. All athletes are two different personas to an extent, but I’ve rarely seen such a contrast between the fierce combativeness on the field and the teddy bear off it.
His former teammate, Dave Wyman, now a radio host on ESPN 710 AM, has talked about the change players go through after they leave the game. Wyman will run into them later in life and discover that they’ve mellowed, having dropped the edge they adopted to navigate through the pressures of NFL life.
“Tez was like that during the time he played,” Wyman said. “There really wasn’t an edge or anything like that. He was always just a sweetheart of a guy.”
And a behemoth of a player, especially in 1992, when he made a 2-14 Seahawks season not just tolerable, but memorable. In a way, that epic season, in which Kennedy had 14 sacks, 28 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, did a disservice to Kennedy. He chased that standard the rest of his career, at least in outsiders’ eyes, and when he didn’t match it statistically, they erroneously concluded he had slipped.
“I think after Cortez’s ’92 year, which is the best year I ever saw a defensive lineman have, every time the quarterback threw, if he didn’t sack the quarterback he was a failure; every time they ran the ball, if he didn’t make the tackle he was a failure,” Seahawks defensive-line coach Tommy Brasher told me in 1996. “Well, ever since he’s been here, he’s always played well. The expectations were a little unrealistic.”
Kennedy seemed oblivious to the pressure that greeted him from virtually his first day with the Seahawks, when he arrived from the University of Miami in 1990 as the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft. Seattle had executed one of the best trades in club history to get him, sending two first-round picks, Nos. 8 and 10 overall, to New England to move up five spots and ensure they’d get Kennedy.
According to a 1992 story in Sports Illustrated, Kennedy rode around the Miami campus in a white limousine after the draft, standing through the sun roof and shouting, “We’re going to be big in Seattle.”
He was speaking the truth, literally and figuratively. Kennedy’s weight always was an issue, but he made sure it was never the hindrance that others feared. As he told SI, “I consider myself a football player, not an athlete.”
Kennedy’s dear friend, Jerome Brown — an All-Pro tackle whose death in a car accident in 1992 both devastated and motivated Kennedy, and led him to change his uniform number to Brown’s 99 in tribute — used to call Kennedy “my fat little buddy.” He was unoffended, indeed amused, as he was by other nicknames such as Baby Cakes, Tons of Buns, Water Buffalo, Big Fella and Sofa.
Kennedy knew the truth, that his size (he was listed at 6 feet 3 and 305 pounds) was the asset that made him unique, because it was coupled with speed that belied his appearance and strength that allowed him to throw aside the double or triple teams that opponents employed, fruitlessly, to stop him.
“He did not look like He Man or anything,” Wyman said. “He just couldn’t be blocked.”
That essential trait landed Kennedy in the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor in 2006 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012. Wright recalls the party Kennedy threw before the ceremony in Canton, Ohio, as one of the biggest they had seen during Hall of Fame inductions.
“He embraced that (the induction) for his friends more than he did himself,” Wright said. “He wanted people there, wanted to give people a hug.”
After receiving the devastating news of Kennedy’s death Tuesday, Wright remembered a conversation related by Mike Allman, Seattle’s director of player personnel when Kennedy was drafted. In the course of gathering information about prospective draftees, Allman asked a Miami coach what kind of guy Kennedy was.
“I’ll tell you one thing: Some day, Cortez Kennedy is going to heaven,” the coach told Allman.
Said Wright: “Obviously, today’s the day. He was just a sweetheart of a person. If you knew him, you loved him.”