On Saturday afternoon in Canton, OH., Kenny Easley becomes, according to official chroniclers, “Hall of Famer #306,” referring to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s numerical order of induction. Easley also becomes the fourth former career Seahawk to be enshrined, joining WR Steve Largent (1995), DT Cortez Kennedy (2012) and OT Walter Jones (2014).
“Enormously grateful for this opportunity,’’ Easley said in a recent conference call. “To be re-considered after 20 years, I’m glad it happened now, because I feel that if it happened in 1997 I wouldn’t be as grateful as I am right now at age 58 for this to happen. So that means a great deal to me that it happened right now.”
Seattle’s first-round pick in the 1981 draft, fourth overall, Easley seemed a cinch Hall of Famer in the making until 1987, when his career jumped the tracks due to failing kidneys. As has been often documented, Easley blamed the Seahawks for that condition, sued, and retired from pro football when he could no longer pass a physical. After his suit against the team was settled, Easley had no contact with his only NFL team until 2002.
A thaw in the relationship developed when Easley received a telephone call from Gary Wright, a franchise front office original who spoke to the former safety on behalf of owner Paul Allen regarding a reconciliation. That made a big impression on Easley.
“My children were coming of age,” said Easley. “You know, they had never seen me play football and didn’t know much about my career. I didn’t have any pictures around the house of my athletic career.
“Until I got the call from Gary Wright, I hadn’t spoken to anybody in the organization in 15 years. But, thinking about my kids, it was the proper time to do it. I’m glad my children got an opportunity to be a part of it, learn about their father and what he had done. And the fact that there were new people in the organization running it, well, that also made a difference.”
The reconciliation became complete in 2002 when Easley was enshrined in the team’s Ring of Honor. In the years that followed, Easley’s name was brought up frequently in connection with the Hall of Fame, but never seriously, two factors always conspiring against him: He had such an abbreviated career, only seven seasons, and the fact that he played safety, a position historically dismissed by Hall of Fame voters.
Only nine individuals who spent their entire career at safety are in the HOF, which has been inducting members since 1970. Before Easley’s election, the last future HOF safety to play was Ronnie Lott, who started his career as a corner in 1981 (he was drafted four spots behind Easley), moved to safety in 1985, and retired in 1995. Before Lott, the last career safety to play was Ken Houston, who retired in 1980.
Easley faced another obstacle.
For a variety of reasons, many great players slip through the cracks. LB Les Richter went to eight Pro Bowls in nine productive seasons with the Rams. But he waited 46 years before electors seriously debated his candidacy in 2011. He was belatedly given a thumbs up that year. LB Dave Robinson, All-Decade in the 1960s when he starred for Vince Lombardi’s Packers, waited 34 years before he walked through Canton’s portals. CB Dick Lebeau intercepted 62 passes, No. 3 all-time, for the Detroit Lions but waited 33 years for enshrinement.
Paul Krause was a nine-time All-Pro and an eight-time Pro Bowl safety between 1964-79. He picked off 45 quarterbacks a total of 81 times, the career interception record. But he had to wait 19 years, until 1998, before entering. Krause’s principal flaw seems to have been that he played on Minnesota teams that lost four Super Bowls.
Scan the lists of players who made all-decade teams, or multiple Pro Bowls, or were individual award winners or statistical champions. You can come up with dozens who failed to reach the Hall of Fame. The common thread: The majority were defensive players, such as Richter, Robinson, Lebeau and Krause, who didn’t play on championship teams. Among them was Easley, who could have been a quarterback.
“I started playing football when I was 10,” Easley said. “My dad was my first coach. The majority of schools that recruited me to college recruited me as a quarterback. But I thought I was a really good safety. I had good ball-hawking skills and didn’t mind throwing my body into the mix.
“When I narrowed my choices down, it was between Michigan and UCLA. Michigan wanted me to play quarterback, and Bo Schembechler couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to play quarterback in front of 100,000 people. When (UCLA coach) Terry Donahue came to talk to me, he talked about me playing free safety. So that sealed the deal.”
Easley made first-team All-Pac-10 four years in a row and was a consensus All-America three consecutive years. He made the NFL’s All-Rookie team in 1981 and piled up awards nearly every year he played: 1983-84 AFC Defensive Player of the Year, 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, four-time first-team All-Pro, five Pro Bowls, All-Decade (1980s) team.
Easley could hit, cover and support the run game. Sometimes, he returned punts.
Stat to consider: Easley intercepted 32 passes in 87 games. All-Pro corner Richard Sherman, in an era of far more passing, has 30 picks in 96 contests. Easley also leads Sherman in INT TDs, 3-2.
Easley’s HOF nomination came 29 years after his career ended. It would not have occurred without the 46-member Senior Committee, charged with re-examining careers of players who slipped through the cracks. Once the Seniors Committee turned its full attention to Easley, without having to compare him to dozens of modern-era nominees, his HOF worthiness became obvious. He easily received the required 80 percent of the vote.
When Easley arrived in Houston early last February for the announcement of the Class of 2017, he didn’t know that he was about to become Hall of Famer #306. But he admitted to having a dream in which he saw the four jerseys retired by the Seahawks: Largent’s No. 80, Kennedy’s No. 96, Jones’ No. 71 and No. 12 for the 12th Man.
“All of my life, I had a No. 5 on my jersey (No. 5 at UCLA, No. 45 with Seattle),” said Easley. “I woke up in a sweat and something was telling me I was going to be the fifth player to have his jersey up in the rafters.
“It was like 4:30 in the morning and the dream was so vivid it was like I was already in the Hall of Fame. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I just stayed up. When they (Hall of Fame officials) knocked on my door to give me the news it was almost like it was meant to be. I’m greatly honored.”