Seattle Seahawks fans, more popularly known as the “12th Man,” will never forget their legendary pass rusher known as “Tez.”
That was none other than Hall of Fame defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy.
Kennedy struggled with his weight throughout practically his entire football career dating back to his high school days in Arkansas.
Whenever his coaches told him to lose weight, he put in the work and showed why he was one of the best pass rushers in the country.
Kennedy relied on his speed and agility to overpower offensive linemen during his illustrious 11-year NFL career.
He was so good and so consistent that he racked up eight Pro Bowl, three First-Team All-Pro, and two Second-Team All-Pro selections from 1990 to 2000.
There’s little wonder why Cortez Kennedy is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
Cortez Kennedy was born to parents Joe and Ruby in Osceola, AR on August 23, 1968. He grew up in Wilson, AR—a town 11 miles south of his birthplace.
Kennedy’s stepdad Joe Harris Jr. was the owner of a dirt-hauling business. His mom Ruby was a junior high school teacher, per Sports Illustrated’s Jill Lieber.
Harris taught him how to do things right at an early age. Whenever Cortez failed to do his chores correctly, Harris made him do them again.
In Kennedy’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2012, he mentioned that there were times when he didn’t cut the lawn the right way. His infuriated stepfather made him do it at dawn the following morning when it was still pitch black outside.
Harris got his message across to his stepson and he learned to do things right the first time around.
Cortez Kennedy attended Rivercrest High School in Wilson, AR. He suited up for Rivercrest Colts head football coach Danny Graham.
His mother made him quit the Colts football team because his grades were falling. Coincidentally, the Colts reached the state title game without Cortez.
His mom was at the game and sent him a postcard saying that she wished he was there. Cortez considered that a critical turning point in his life. Although he loved football, he realized his mom cared for him more as a son than as a football player, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Cortez got his act together during his junior season. He improved his grades and returned to Rivercrest’s starting lineup. He binged on hot dogs, ice cream, and various snacks on top of his regular meals. Before long, he weighed 275 pounds as a junior defensive lineman, per Lieber.
A massive Cortez Kennedy helped the Colts win the state title in his senior year. After missing the big game two years earlier, he felt vindicated.
Despite Kennedy’s academic improvement, it still wasn’t enough to improve his below-average 1.98 GPA. Consequently, many major college football programs removed him from their shortlists.
Fortunately, Northwest Mississippi Community College—a short 40-mile drive from Memphis, TN— expressed interest in Kennedy.
Cortez Kennedy promptly went to Mississippi before embarking on a memorable college football career with the Miami Hurricanes at the end of the 1980s.
College Days With the Miami Hurricanes
Cortez Kennedy attended Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, MS after he graduated from high school. He received a scholarship to play for Bobby Ray Franklin’s NWCC Rangers football team.
During Kennedy’s time in Senatobia, MS, he stayed with his cousin Lee English. Kennedy mentioned in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech that he looked up to English, a former Rivercrest Colts quarterback, while he was growing up in his home state of Arkansas.
Lee helped Cortez get a job delivering pizzas while he attended Northwest Mississippi Community College. That didn’t sit well with Coach Franklin at all.
One day, Franklin asked Kennedy where he was working. The latter told him he got a job delivering pizzas.
An incensed Franklin, who always had issues with Kennedy’s weight, lowered the boom. He sent Cortez letters for the next five weeks saying he would cut him if he ate more pizzas.
Cortez took Franklin’s messages to heart and put in the work. He returned to Rangers training camp looking better than ever.
As soon as Kennedy stepped out of the car, Franklin told him he looked great, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Franklin wasn’t the only one who noticed. Before long, the Miami Hurricanes offered a scholarship to Kennedy, who accepted without hesitation.
Cortez Kennedy promptly moved to South Florida, where he suited up for the Hurricanes from 1988 to 1989.
When Kennedy set foot in Miami, FL, his coaches told him he would be another Jerome Brown, a 1986 Consensus All-American Hurricanes defensive lineman who was playing for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles at the time.
Brown barged through the Hurricanes’ weight room in the spring of 1989. He was looking for the kid who resembled his game and appearance.
When Kennedy met Brown, the latter hugged him and told Kennedy to follow him. Kennedy obliged and began learning valuable pass-rushing techniques from the Eagles’ defensive lineman.
Although Kennedy lost weight as his time with the NWCC Rangers wound down, his conditioning didn’t meet the standards of Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes.
When Kennedy first reported for Hurricanes practice, they made him run a 20-minute conditioning test. He thought he’d ace it without breaking a sweat.
He was dead wrong.
Cortez Kennedy, a future eight-time Pro Bowler in the National Football League, couldn’t make it past the five-minute mark.
“I was tired,” Kennedy said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech some 25 years later. “I thought I was seeing cowboys and Indians.”
Kennedy was on the verge of quitting. Fortunately, one of the Miami assistant coaches urged him not to —it was never an option at the University of Miami.
Kennedy told him he wouldn’t quit and somehow finished the conditioning test.
Cortez Kennedy gave credit to his college teammate and future Miami Hurricanes head football coach Randy Shannon for improving his work ethic on the gridiron.
Kennedy admitted that his work ethic left much to be desired when he first played for the Hurricanes. Shannon took it upon himself to help Kennedy—he slept on Kennedy’s apartment floor and trained him during the summer months.
When Kennedy would wake up at 7:00 a.m., he would try to eat a big breakfast but Shannon told him to go to the football field and put in work instead. A dumbfounded Kennedy wondered if Shannon ever slept, per ProFootballHOF.com.
At that point in Cortez Kennedy’s college football career, he and some of his other Hurricanes teammates were trying to lose weight. He ran up hills with Shannon so he could achieve this goal.
Not only did Cortez make the required weight, but he also became the Hurricanes’ starting defensive tackle in 1989. The first thing he did was call Randy Shannon and tell him about his promotion.
Shannon told Kennedy it was his job to lose. The latter assured him he would never lose it. One of Kennedy’s teammates on that 1989 Miami Hurricanes squad was future Cleveland Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski, who played tight end.
With Cortez Kennedy anchoring the Hurricanes’ defensive line, Miami had an impressive 11-1 win-loss record during the 1989 NCAA season.
The second-ranked Miami Hurricanes went on to defeat the seventh-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in the 1990 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, 33-25. As a result, Miami won its third national title.
Kennedy also won team MVP and earned Consensus All-American honors following the 1989 NCAA campaign.
Cortez Kennedy was just getting started. When he turned pro in 1990, he strutted his wares in the Pacific Northwest and became a Hall of Fame defensive lineman for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.
Pro Football Career
The Seattle Seahawks made Cortez Kennedy the third overall selection of the 1990 NFL Draft. Seattle traded two draft choices—number eight and number 10 overall—to the New England Patriots to move up five spots and snag Kennedy.
The Seahawks signed Kennedy to a lucrative five-year, $6.75 million deal that made him the highest-paid player in franchise history at the time, per Sports Illustrated.
Kennedy got off to a decent start in his pro football career. He made the All-Rookie Team after playing in all 16 games for Seattle, starting two, and recording 48 combined tackles, 1.0 sack, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.
Although the Seahawks won nine games during head coach Chuck Knox’s eighth year at the helm, they missed the postseason for the second straight season.
While Kennedy spent his first offseason in his home state of Arkansas, his pro player personnel director called him and informed him that one sports magazine had labeled him a bust, per ProFootballHOF.com.
That fired up an irate Kennedy, who became Knox’s starting nose tackle in 1991. The Seahawks’ big man went on a tear and promptly recorded 6.0 sacks in six games. After sustaining an injury during the 1991 NFL campaign, Cortez Kennedy missed four weeks of practice but suited up for those four games anyway.
Although Kennedy raised his gameplay several notches in his second pro football season, he still struggled with his weight.
Seahawks head coach Chuck Knox noticed that Kennedy looked heavy on the practice field. Knox promptly summoned him to his office. Kennedy tipped the scales at 323 pounds—20 pounds more than his ideal playing weight.
It was a throwback to Kennedy’s days at Northwest Mississippi Community College when his head coach Bobby Ray Franklin told him to stop eating too many pizzas.
Knox warned Kennedy that he’d fine him $10 for each pound over 303 pounds when he weighed him again five days later. Long story short, Cortez Kennedy had to lose 20 pounds within that short time frame.
Kennedy wasn’t one to give up his hard-earned money by being fined, per his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2012.
When game day arrived, he weighed 305 pounds. Kennedy recalled that he played decently in a Seahawks victory.
Knox called him into his office the following day. At that point, Cortez Kennedy felt like it was becoming a regular ordeal—just like a trip to the principal’s office.
This time around, Chuck Knox told his prized nose tackle that he was proud of him for putting in the work and losing all that weight.
Kennedy, being the smart aleck that he was, told Knox he never paid him a compliment when he racked up 6.0 sacks in six games.
Chuck Knox turned red and told Kennedy to get out of his office.
Kennedy obeyed his coach’s order and left. Although their meeting ended awkwardly, Kennedy knew Knox wasn’t going to weigh him on game days anymore.
Cortez Kennedy also earned the first of his eight Pro Bowl selections in his second NFL season.
Kennedy and Jerome Brown, the Philadelphia Eagles pass rusher he had met almost three years earlier, formed a tight-knit relationship as their pro football careers progressed.
When Brown bought a BMW and a Corvette, Kennedy followed suit. The latter performed the “Tez Dance,” a celebratory dance he learned from Brown, whenever he recorded a quarterback sack.
Kennedy and Brown compared their stats on Monday evenings during the NFL season. They followed a nutritional plan a local nutritionist had designed during the spring of 1991.
According to Lieber, the two grew so close that Brown’s mom Annie considered Kennedy her son’s twin brother.
Kennedy, who made the NFC Pro Bowl roster as an alternate following the 1991 NFL campaign, called Brown as soon as he found out.
Brown, who made consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in 1990 and 1991, told Kennedy he didn’t earn it. A baffled Kennedy told Brown he would talk to him later and then hung up.
Kennedy and Brown struck up a conversation on the NFC team’s bench at the Pro Bowl the following week. Brown cleared the air and told Kennedy the reason why he said he didn’t earn his Pro Bowl selection was because he didn’t get voted in as a starter, per ProFootballHOF.com.
That was Cortez Kennedy’s last fond memory of Jerome Brown.
Cortez Kennedy usually wore No. 96.
But after his best friend Jerome Brown (bottom left) died in a car accident, Kennedy spent the 1992 season wearing No. 99 as a tribute to Brown. pic.twitter.com/Hu9ADWgWUl
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) May 30, 2019
Brown and his 12-year-old nephew Gus died in a fatal car crash in his hometown of Brooksville, FL on June 25, 1992. He was 27 years old.
Kennedy had spoken with Brown and his nephew just two hours before the accident.
“I cried all night,” Kennedy told Lieber in the fall of 1992. “I’ve never cried like that in my life.”
Cortez Kennedy changed his number from 96 to 99 in honor of his late friend.
Kennedy and his Seahawks teammates went through a turbulent time during Tom Flores’ first year as their head coach in the 1992 NFL season.
Seattle won just two games that year—its worst showing since its inaugural NFL season in 1976. Kennedy remembered the Seahawks having a strong defense in 1992. Unfortunately, they just couldn’t put any points on the board.
It got so bad for the Seahawks that defensive coordinator Rusty Tillman told his players they weren’t going to win games before they even began. That was one of Cortez Kennedy’s memories of Seattle’s forgettable 1992 NFL season, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Kennedy, who became a defensive menace known as “Tez,” had his best game that season against the New England Patriots on September 20, 1992.
Kennedy overpowered Patriots left guard Reggie Redding, sacked quarterback Hugh Millen thrice, and forced the New England signal caller to fumble twice—all in the first half.
Kennedy was so good that the Patriots never made it past midfield in Seattle’s 10-6 win. To nobody’s surprise, “Tez” earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
“It was the most impressive first half I’ve ever seen,” Flores, who earned his first victory as Seahawks head coach, told Sports Illustrated’s Jill Lieber in the fall of 1992. “He played like a man possessed.”
Redding acknowledged to Lieber that Kennedy’s quickness got the better of him—he just couldn’t contain the Seahawks Pro Bowl nose tackle.
Despite the Seahawks’ ineptitude, Kennedy earned his second straight Pro Bowl berth and first First-Team All-Pro selection in 1992. He also earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in his third season.
Remembering Cortez Kennedy. pic.twitter.com/kvX1g0seoM
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) May 24, 2017
According to Sports Illustrated, the 6’3″, 306-lb. Kennedy rarely spent time in the weight room during his illustrious 11-year pro football career. When he did, he could squat 600 pounds with ease. He also used a stair climber to help him meet Flores’ weekly 300-lb. weight requirement.
A broken ankle limited Cortez Kennedy to eight games in the 1997 NFL season. In his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, he made special mention of Seahawks general manager Randy Mueller and vice president Mickey Loomis—the first two people who visited him when he was injured.
“You don’t know how much that meant to me when I broke my ankle and I’m sitting at home crying like a baby because I can’t play football anymore,” Kennedy told the crowd in Canton, OH in the summer of 2012. “That meant a lot to me.”
Apparently, Kennedy’s weight issues weren’t over. When Mueller visited him, he told Kennedy—who weighed a whopping 330 pounds that offseason— that he had to lose weight. It was an all-too-familiar request that Cortez Kennedy had heard over the years.
When the Seahawks signed a free agent defensive lineman two days later, Mueller and Loomis invited Kennedy to have dinner with them. A perplexed Kennedy didn’t know whether the discussion would be about weight loss or business-related.
The Seahawks averaged seven wins per year during Cortez Kennedy’s 11 seasons in the Emerald City from 1990 to 2000. They made the postseason just once during that timeframe. Kennedy and his teammates lost to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card Game, 20-17, played on January 9, 2000.
Despite Seattle’s struggles, Kennedy continued playing at a high level. He earned eight Pro Bowl, two Second-Team All-Pro, and three First-Team All-Pro selections in his pro gridiron career.
Cortez Kennedy retired following the 2000 NFL season. He finished his NFL career with 58.0 sacks, 279 solo tackles, three interceptions, 11 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, and one fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Post-Football Life and Death
After Kennedy retired from the National Football League, he reached out to New Orleans Saints’ general manager Mickey Loomis, who was the Seattle Seahawks’ vice president during Kennedy’s tenure in the Emerald City.
Kennedy asked Loomis if he could help the Saints in some capacity. Loomis agreed and hired him as an advisor for three seasons.
After Kennedy’s tenure with the Saints, he moved back to his home state of Arkansas. He later settled in Orlando, FL.
The University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame inducted Cortez Kennedy in 2004. He became a member of the Seattle Seahawks Ring of Honor two years later.
In 2012, Cortez Kennedy became the FIFTH Miami Hurricane to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He would not be the last. pic.twitter.com/tZIPDoloEH
— GO ‘CANES! (@83_87_89_91_01) August 6, 2022
Cortez Kennedy became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 2012. Part of his induction speech reads:
“It is all about the players and friends I laughed with over the years. It is about all my teammates I cried with over the years, both in victory and defeat. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s so much bigger than that.”
Seahawks executive Gary Wright told The Seattle Times in 2017 that Kennedy threw one of the biggest pre-induction parties he had ever seen. Kennedy wanted people dear to him to share that once-in-a-lifetime moment with him.
The Seahawks retired Kennedy’s No. 96 jersey at halftime against the New England Patriots 2 1/2 months after his induction into Canton, OH. He’s also a member of the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team.
Sadly, Cortez Kennedy passed away on May 23, 2017. He was 48 years old.
An autopsy report, which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer obtained in June 2018, revealed that Kennedy succumbed to congestive heart failure with pneumonia and diabetes as contributory causes.
Kennedy visited Orlando Regional Medical Center two weeks prior to his death. Doctors discovered swelling in his lower extremities. Kennedy also had persistent coughing that lasted several weeks, per SeattlePI.com.
Boston University School of Medicine’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center obtained Kennedy’s intact brain shortly after his death.
“Cortez Kennedy, a much-loved Seahawk, died of heart disease. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have CTE,” Washington Medical Association president Dr. Nathan Schlicher told KOMO News’ Suzanne Phan almost four years after his death. “It may not have led to his proximal cause of death. But on the other hand, if it impacted his ability to think or his overall healthcare, maybe it impacted it.”
Kennedy left behind a daughter named Courtney.