It has been a long journey, 29 years to be exact, since former Seattle Seahawks safety Kenny Easley played his last game in the NFL.
He had given up hope long ago he would be recognized for possible enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But that’s what happened Aug. 15, when the Seniors Committee nominated him as their candidate for the Class of 2017.
It was quite a statement by the committee, considering he was never a finalist in the 20 years he was eligible as a modern-day player from 1993-2012. Perhaps it was fitting Denver Broncos running back Floyd Little, who was enshrined in 2010, 35 years after his final game and also never a finalist, was a consultant when the committee met last week in Canton, Ohio.
A still-shocked Easley, who had triple bypass surgery three weeks ago, said, “This brings a lot of life into a nomination that has been out there for 23 years. I don’t recall or remember if there was even voting interest for my nomination when I became eligible. It shows that perhaps the system does work on some things, in some ways. There are a lot of very good ballplayers out there that are still sitting in that time warp.”
How is it that one of the great safeties of all time received little consideration during his 20 years of eligibility, but then suddenly is on the precipice of enshrinement?
That is a question not quickly answered, but it begins with a history lesson.
The year was 1987, and the NFL was in the throes of unrest. The players were on strike, and the owners responded with replacement games, an affront to pro football, but a way to try and break the union.
The move might not have shattered the union, but it sure splintered it. Eager low-level players crossing picket lines was just what the league wanted as well as seeing marquee veterans walk in to play. That forced the NFLPA to end the strike after three games.
For Easley, the Seahawks player rep, it was a difficult time. Little did he know while chaos was engulfing the league, it would turn out to be his final season in the NFL. Easley confided in teammates he believed his support of the strike would mean a ticket out of Seattle. He also knew a year earlier problems were developing with his kidney; he just never realized how serious.
Easley found out in April, 1988, when he was traded to the Phoenix Cardinals. A physical revealed he was suffering from idiopathic nephrotic syndrome, a serious kidney disease. The trade voided, he retired, and two years later received a new kidney.
In the interim, he sued the Seahawks, claiming the team had told him to take as many as 15 to 20 ibuprofen a day to reduce the swelling resulting from a 1986 ankle injury. Easley was convinced the ibuprofen had led to his kidney issues. The Seahawks denied the claims, and the suit was eventually settled out of court.
Was Easley’s advocacy during the strike and subsequent lawsuit held against him? Was it the fact he played only seven seasons? Or was it also at a time when it was difficult to elect defensive players?
Whatever the reason, Easley said, “I thought about those things to be honest, particularly when I was first eligible. After it got out there a few years and there didn’t seem to be any heat coming from the nomination, I honestly just sort of gave up on the prospect of it happening.”
It didn’t help that in the first 15 years of Easley’s eligibility (1993-2007), there were 120 offensive finalists and only 73 on defense.
However, those defensive finalists were represented by only 29 different players. After cornerback Mike Haynes was enshrined in 1997, there wasn’t another cornerback added until Roger Wehrli was elected 10 years later. From 1998-2007, there were 45 offensive players enshrined to only 14 on defense.
Since Wehrli’s enshrinement, there has been a significant shift. In fact, in the nine years since 2008, there have been 27 offensive and defensive players elected.
Still, that begs the question of how Easley got on the committee’s radar. Especially considering there have been only nine players that were predominantly safeties that have their busts in Canton.
Enter Hall of Fame selector and Seniors Committee member Frank Cooney of The Sports Xchange, a voter for 26 years, and Redwood Falls, Minn., American history teacher Bob Kaupang.
Easley was discussed for the first time last year when quarterback Ken Stabler got the nod from the Seniors Committee. At the overall selection committee meeting the day before Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco, safety John Lynch was a third-time finalist and Steve Atwater a finalist for the first time.
But Cooney remembers thinking, “I was haunted by the feeling that something was amiss because I felt strongly that better safeties were being overlooked, especially Easley and probably Jack Tatum and Johnny Robinson.”
He told Easley in March he planned to advocate for him. To which Easley said, “Why and why now? I appreciate it, but I understand what happened and although I would be honored to be in the Hall, I have reconciled my life and I am at peace.”
Said Cooney, “But I wasn’t. We had just inducted Stabler into the Hall, but only after he died in 2015. Easley’s life is in constant jeopardy because of his borrowed kidney (and now heart surgery). So that is ‘why now?'”
Thankfully, Cooney wasn’t alone. Call it karma, but Kaupang had written stories about Easley in the past and contacted him at the same time as Cooney, saying he wanted to do a “where-are-they-now” story. Easley mentioned Cooney was supporting him for the Hall of Fame, and Cooney was able to incorporate much of Kaupang’s research, including numerous interviews with players from Easley’s era, into his presentation.
The fourth overall choice in 1981, UCLA’s Easley had visited the 49ers before the draft and was told if he was available at No. 8, he would be San Francisco’s pick. With Easley gone, the 49ers selected Southern Cal’s Ronnie Lott, who began as a cornerback and switched to safety early in his career.
Enshrined as a first-time eligible in 2000, Lott told Kaupang, “In my pursuit at trying to be the best, I always felt like I was shooting up to his level because he was the standard. Kenny’s skills transcended the game. There had been only a few great safeties, like Jack Tatum who could hit and cover at an elite level. He was as good as there ever was and I mean that right to this day.
“When he hit somebody, it was like they were shot by a cannon. He ended plays with an explosion.”
Haynes told SiriusXM on the Pro Football Hall of Fame radio show, “I don’t know who is or who was a better safety. When I think of the word safety in the dictionary, his picture should be there.”
In his seven seasons, Easley played 89 games, starting 87, which is the same total as Miami Dolphins center Dwight Stephenson in his eight seasons, and only seven fewer than San Diego Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow during his nine seasons. Those three players, including Easley, were voted to the 1980s All-Decade Team.
Easley was an All-Pro five times and had 32 interceptions in 89 games played, an average of .360 per game. Only five players on the NFL’s all-time interceptions list – Emlen Tunnell, .473; Bobby Boyd, .471; Dick (Night Train) Lane, .433; Lem Barney, .400; and Ed Reed, .368 – have a higher average per game, although Johnny Robinson would be higher if his first two seasons as an offensive player are removed from his record.
Aside from Lott, many of Easley’s contemporaries were effusive in their praise to Kaupang:
Linebacker Lawrence Taylor: “The Kenny Easley I knew was by far the best athlete I’ve ever seen on a football field.”
Then-Los Angeles Rams head coach John Robinson, who coached Lott and against Easley: “They were the greatest safeties ever. They were among the most physical to ever play the position and both were frightening. He (Easley) was one of the most dominant players I’ve ever seen. It’s like LeBron (James) has this presence in basketball. Kenny Easley had it as a football player.”
Former Seahawks quarterback Dave Krieg: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. He was the best football player and athlete I’ve ever played with or competed against. He had this uncanny ability like Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana to slow the game down and see things before they happened. He was a natural, but he out-worked everyone, too. That’s why he was the best. His intelligence and study habits are what people don’t get about him.”
Former NFL general manager Ron Wolf, who was elected to the Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2015, was a consultant at the Canton meeting with Little. Wolf stated simply to Cooney, “It is astounding that Easley was overlooked so long. He was an outstanding three-time All American player back in a time when college also had Ronnie Lott and Dennis Smith at USC. Ronnie was a corner, but Easley a pure safety. Big, fast, physical, athletic. When you saw him play for Seattle you knew you were watching a Hall-of-Fame player, without doubt.”
Told of Wolf’s comments, Easley said, “It’s very gracious the things Ron Wolf said about me at the committee meeting. I feel fortunate because I know how many other really fine football players there are out there that have been passed over and should be in the Hall of Fame for what they did.”
First speaking softly, Easley’s voice grew stronger during our 20-minute conversation this week. It was as if talking about this momentous event was giving him strength after his recent surgery, which he said, “knocked the socks off me.”
He said, “I have to focus on doing the things I have to do get myself back to whatever percent I was before. I’m now 188 pounds, and was 210. But I’m definitely excited about this and grateful to have a couple great guys working on this thing for me.”
Easley pinches himself to realize he talked to Cooney and Kaupang in March, and now only five months later he is a nominee for the Hall of Fame.
He said, “It stuns me after 29 years my name is thrust out there in the category of nominee. I certainly didn’t have any expectations of this happening. Once I had someone working on my behalf, I’m amazed at the quickness that the nomination was pulled together.”
Now, he is diligent to keep rehabbing so he can completely recover from the surgery. “I’m focusing right now working to get my health back where I can enjoy the festivities and be able to talk with some strength should I get selected,” he said. “Physical therapy, physical therapy, physical therapy, and get back to some form of shape.”
Asked if the possibility of being elected is motivation to continue working back from the surgery, he paused and solemnly said, “No doubt. That is the biggest motivator to receive that nomination. That’s why I say God is good.”