Former Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kenny Easley wasn’t known as “The Enforcer” for nothing.
Easley took the NFL by storm and became one of Seahawks head coach Jack Patera’s stalwarts on defense from 1981 to 1982.
Easley, a former high school quarterback, was born to play safety in the NFL. His exemplary ball-hawking skills made quarterbacks think twice about throwing in his direction.
Kenny Easley was also a vicious tackler who laid out anybody who dared cross his path.
Easley’s ascension in the NFL ranks coincided with the Chuck Knox era. The former had a career-high 10 interceptions and two pick-sixes on his way to earning 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Easley, a five-time Pro Bowler, played a pivotal role in the Seahawks’ several post-season runs in the mid-1980s.
Easley eventually earned his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH in the summer of 2017.
This is Kenny Easley’s eye-opening and inspiring football story.
Kenneth Mason “Kenny” Easley, Jr. was born in Chesapeake, VA on January 15, 1959. He has three sisters: Patricia, Yvette, and Tracy. He also has a younger brother, Keith.
Kenny inherited his pursuit of excellence from his dad, Kenny Sr. The elder Easley had a rough upbringing. His dad abandoned him at an early age.
Consequently, his grandmother had to raise him by herself. Kenny Sr. eventually enlisted in the Marines and worked as a brick mason while raising his five children.
Since Kenny Sr. had no reliable father figure who could keep him on his toes, he played that role to the hilt when he became a dad.
According to The Virginian-Pilot‘s Harry Minium, Kenny Sr. pushed his younger namesake hard in football, baseball, and basketball.
As a coach, Kenny Sr. pushed his son harder than his other baseball players. He made Kenny Jr. pursue a fly ball to center field repeatedly at the end of their baseball drills,
The 10-year-old had no chance and began sobbing. His dad told him he would continue chasing the fly ball if he kept crying.
Kenny Jr. finally caught the fly ball several weeks later. His dad told him at the dinner table that night it was his way of boosting his confidence and lording it over the opposition.
The young Easley never forgot those words. That’s what he tried to do for the rest of his athletic career.
Kenny Easley, Jr. attended Oscar F. Smith High School in South Norfolk, VA. He was a two-sport star who excelled in basketball and football.
Easley played quarterback and defensive back for Oscar Smith Tigers head football coach Tommy Rhodes.
Kenny was the complete package at quarterback during his high school days. He had excellent field vision, a rifle of an arm, and nimble feet.
Those physical traits helped Easley become the first quarterback in Virginia high school football history to rack up 1,000 yards in the air and another 1,000 yards on the ground in the same season.
Rhodes was like a father figure to Kenny. He advised the young athlete to work hard in the classroom and on the high school gridiron so he could play big-time college football.
Easley took Rhodes’s words to heart and worked hard on his academics and his game.
Narrowing Down His College Choices
Before long, Rhodes’s premonition came true. More than 300 schools were knocking on Easley’s door.
While it was a daunting task to whittle down those college football programs, Easley dug his heels in and narrowed it down to the Michigan Wolverines and UCLA Bruins, per The Repository‘s Joe Scalzo.
Football coaches Bo Schembechler of Michigan and Terry Donahue of UCLA watched Easley’s high school basketball game from the stands in Kenny’s senior season.
Oscar Smith will honor its own recent Pro Football Hall of Famer Kenny Easley tonight vs. Vero Beach. We'll have pix/vids of the ceremony. pic.twitter.com/9TNzUdFgs0
— 757Teamz (@757teamz) August 25, 2017
Both Schembechler and Donahue went to the Easley residence after the game to try to lure Kenny into committing to their respective schools.
Schembechler did his sales pitch first. He told Kenny and his parents he had a chance to become an All-Big-Ten quarterback and win a Rose Bowl title if he played for the Wolverines.
Unfortunately, Easley had no desire to play quarterback in the college football ranks. He wanted to become a free safety.
When it was Donahue’s turn, he took a hint from Easley’s desire to become a free safety. Donahue told the Easleys the Bruins had a menacing strong safety, Oscar “Dr. Death” Edwards, Kenny could pattern his game after.
With that, Kenny’s mom asked Donahue if he had any plans of playing him at quarterback at UCLA.
Donahue explicitly said no. If Easley’s dream was to become a free safety in the college football ranks, he was all for it.
Easley hung out at his school’s teacher’s lounge the following day. He ran into Rhodes, who asked him what his plans were.
Right there and then, he told Rhodes he was going to commit to the UCLA Bruins.
For Kenny Easley, playing safety in the college football ranks was one of the reasons he chose UCLA.
However, racial discrimination also motivated him to move as far from his home state of Virginia as possible.
Easley recalled how he and his fellow African Americans could not play at Cascade Park when he was a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. They had to play at Black Cascade Park.
Many white fans of the Oscar Smith Tigers football team cheered for him on Friday nights. However, they would chase him after practice and hurl rocks and insults at him on the other days of the week.
“I wanted to get as far away from here as possible,” Easley told The Virginian-Pilot in the summer of 2017.
After Easley had made up his mind about going to UCLA, many naysayers tried to dissuade him. They felt he wouldn’t succeed with the Bruins. They thought he was better off strutting his wares in-state.
Easley had other ideas.
Kenny Easley was about to embark on a four-year journey in which he would evolve into one of the best ball-hawking safeties in UCLA Bruins college football program history.
College Days with the UCLA Bruins
Kenny Easley attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) from 1977 to 1980. He played free safety for Bruins head football coach Terry Donahue.
According to The Repository, Virginia native and former UCLA football player Gerald Johns tipped off Donahue on Easley.
Donahue eventually pursued Easley and narrowly edged out Michigan’s Bo Schembechler for his services.
The coach told Scalzo that Easley—who also suited up for UCLA’s junior varsity basketball team—was easily one of the most incredible athletes he had ever coached.
Donahue also admitted keeping his promise of not playing Kenny at quarterback was hard because he had the potential to excel at that position.
However, Easley settled in at free safety for the Bruins, and the rest was history.
Shining as a Bruin
Easley, the former high school quarterback turned college safety, admitted he played as if somebody just unshackled him during his four-year tenure at UCLA. He went all out on defense for the Bruins right off the bat.
“I just worked my way into an animalistic frenzy,” Easley told Sports Illustrated in 1984. “I played like a wild man.”
Kenny Easley was the perfect fit at free safety for UCLA. He started ten of the Bruins’ eleven games and recorded six interceptions as a true freshman in the 1977 NCAA season.
Kenny continued playing at a high level for the remainder of his tenure with the Bruins. He had a combined 13 interceptions from 1978 to 1980.
5️⃣ Kenny Easley
🐻 3x Consensus All-American
🐻 College Football Hall of Famer
🐻 4x First Team All-Conference
🐻 Retired #5 Jersey at UCLA
🐻 #4 Overall Pick in NFL Draft
🐻 AFC Defensive ROTY (1981)
🐻 NFL Defensive POTY (1984)
🐻 NFL 1980s All-Decade Team
🐻 NFL Hall of Fame https://t.co/LwPqzZm11Z pic.twitter.com/3fGNyfke04
— UCLA Football (@UCLAFootball) May 5, 2022
Easley eventually became just the second player in UCLA football program history to earn Consensus All-American honors three times, per the Bruins’ official athletics website.
As of 2017, Easley’s 19 career interceptions were the most among all-time Bruins defensive players. His 374 career tackles are also the fifth-most in program history.
UCLA eventually retired his No. 5 jersey several years after he played his final down on the college gridiron.
The Bruins averaged seven wins per season during Easley’s time at UCLA from 1977 to 1980. They made just one bowl appearance during those four seasons—a 10-10 tie with the Arkansas Razorbacks in the 1978 Fiesta Bowl.
As Easley’s college football career wound down, he remembered Donahue doing everything he said he would do when he made his sales pitch as his house in 1976, per Scalzo.
With that in mind, Kenny Easley successfully laid the foundation for a legendary seven-year pro football career with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks in the early-to-late 1980s.
Pro Football Career
The Seattle Seahawks made Kenny Easley the fourth overall selection of the 1981 NFL Draft.
Ironically, Easley had never considered joining the Seahawks. According to FOX13 News’ Matt Lorch, he never worked out for the team prior to the draft festivities.
Kenny thought Seattle would pass on him. He was wrong.
Easley, a phenomenal high school quarterback, never aspired to become a signal caller in the National Football League.
Instead, he told Scalzo in the summer of 2017 that he had always wanted to break into the pro football ranks as a safety.
Kenny knew the chances of becoming an African American quarterback in the NFL were slim to none as early as his high school days in Virginia.
His premonition was correct. Only a handful of black quarterbacks including Warren Moon, James Harris, and Doug Williams excelled in the NFL in the early 1980s.
Easley’s incredible athleticism knew no bounds. He could have excelled in basketball considering the Chicago Bulls selected him in the 10th round of the 1981 NBA Draft, but football was his true calling.
— Kenny Easley (@Easleyforce5) April 27, 2017
Easley joined the Seahawks in their sixth year of existence. He became part of an up-and-coming roster that included quarterback Jim Zorn, wide receiver Steve Largent, and free safety John Harris.
Although Easley never played quarterback in the NFL, his college football coach, Terry Donahue, thought he could have excelled under center in the pro football ranks.
“My own personal opinion is he would have been a phenomenal quarterback,” Donahue told The Repository in 2017.
A Great Start
It didn’t take long for Easley to make an impact in the Seahawks’ navy blue, green, and gray. He knew it as soon as he took the NFL gridiron for the first time.
“I came into this league as the best free safety in college football, Bar none,” Easley told FOX13 News in October 2017.
Easley had three interceptions and four fumble recoveries in his rookie season in Seattle. He also had an 82-yard pick-six for good measure.
Before long, Kenny earned the moniker “The Enforcer” for his relentless ball-hawking style of play. He capped off his sensational season by winning AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Despite Easley’s emergence, the Seahawks struggled with a 6-10 win-loss record and missed the postseason for the sixth straight year.
Easley continued playing at a high level in his final six pro football seasons. He had a combined 28 interceptions, two pick-sixes, two forced fumbles, and seven fumble recoveries from 1982 to 1987.
Consequently, Easley earned five Pro Bowl and four First-Team All-Pro selections during that memorable six-year time frame. He also became a Second-Team All-Pro selection in his final NFL season in 1987.
After the Seahawks finished 4-5 in the 1982 lockout-shortened season, they parted ways with head coach Jack Patera.
A New Era in Seattle
Seattle ushered in a new era with former Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo Bills head coach Chuck Knox in 1983.
Easley felt right at home in Knox’s system. He had seven interceptions and a career-best 3.0 sacks that year. He went on to win the 1983 AFC Defensive Player of the Year award.
With Knox leading the charge, the Seahawks became postseason contenders. They won nine games and reached the AFC Championship Game in his first season as Seahawks head coach.
Unfortunately, Tom Flores’s Los Angeles Raiders prevailed, 30-14.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, the Seahawks regrouped and won a then-franchise record twelve games in 1984.
Kenny Easley was one of the main reasons behind that resurgence. He had a career-high 10 interceptions and two pick-sixes for Seattle in 1984.
Three of Easley’s interceptions came at the expense of San Diego Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts. Easley picked him off three times and set a new single-game franchise record in October 1984.
“He’s just the best strong safety in football,” Seahawks defensive backfield coach Ralph Hawkins told Sports Illustrated two weeks later. “I coached Ken Houston for seven years at Washington, and he’s going to go into the Hall of Fame. But in a lot of respects, Easley is better than Houston was.”
To nobody’s surprise, Easley earned 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Paced by NFL Defensive Player of the Year and future-PFHOF safety Kenny Easley, the 1984 Seattle #Seahawks defense recorded an astounding 63 takeaways — the most of any team in the Super Bowl era. pic.twitter.com/alev2qQ5UJ
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) February 27, 2022
The Dave Krieg–Steve Largent connection was another reason the Seahawks became Super Bowl contenders in 1984.
Krieg had an impressive 3,671 passing yards while Largent had 1,164 receiving yards that year.
Despite their best efforts, the Seahawks lost to Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Divisional Round in blowout fashion, 31-10.
Seattle won an average of nine games in Kenny Easley’s final three pro football seasons from 1985 to 1987. They made just one postseason appearance during those three years: a 23-20 loss to Warren Moon’s Houston Oilers in the 1987 AFC Wild Card Game.
The Seahawks eventually traded Easley to the Phoenix Cardinals for quarterback Kelly Stouffer in the spring of 1988.
However, Easley would never play a single down in the Cardinals’ red and white.
Kenny Easley retired following the 1987 NFL season. In his seven-year pro football career, he had 32 interceptions, three pick-sixes, two forced fumbles, eleven fumble recoveries, and 8.0 sacks.
Easley also saw time on special teams as the Seahawks’ punt return specialist. He had 302 punt return yards on 26 punts from 1981 to 1987.
Forced to Retire
Easley was just 28 years old and in the prime of his NFL career when he hung up his cleats on the advice of his doctors. They told him his kidneys were deteriorating fast. He had no choice but to retire.
It was a massive gut punch for Kenny, who was halfway through his original goal of playing fifteen years in the NFL.
“I wanted to play fifteen years. I didn’t know if I would have gotten to fifteen years playing the way I played, but I certainly should have played more than seven years,” Easley told FOX13 News thirty years later.
Easley blamed the Seahawks for his health issues. He claimed they gave him the painkiller ibuprofen, a drug that ultimately took a serious toll on his kidneys.
One of the all-time greats, Kenny Easley. Played safety for the Seattle Seahawks 1981-1987. Forced into retirement due to kidney disease. Was a hard hitter who would be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017. pic.twitter.com/8SK2Ef3PRg
— Cool Old Sports (@CoolOldSports) January 14, 2023
Kenny told Lorch he was not in a good place when his physicians revealed the grim diagnosis. He was barely 30 years old when he retired. He felt he could have played longer.
Suit Against the Seahawks
Easley didn’t take the news sitting down. He eventually filed a lawsuit against the Seahawks alleging team physicians and the general manager knew about his kidney ailment but never told him at the appropriate time.
Worse, Easley claimed they never took him out of games although his kidneys were already deteriorating.
“The Seahawks, for whatever reason, made the decision to put me on the field,” Easley told Lorch in 2017.
Football pundits consider Easley and his contemporary, San Francisco 49ers defensive back Ronnie Lott, among the best of their era.
However, Easley thought there was no better defensive back than Lott in the past three decades.
“So, I’m going to settle it now, publicly and for good,” Easley said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2017. “In the last thirty years, there has been no better thumper, ball-hawking, fiercely competitive, or smarter defensive back in the NFL than Ronnie Lott. He was the best. There, it’s settled, because I said so.”
Kenny Easley and his wife Gail have a son, Kendrick. They also have two daughters: Gabrielle and Giordana.
The Easley family previously resided in the Seattle, WA area but relocated to his hometown of Chesapeake, VA in 2000 so Kenny could take care of his sick father.
Kenny had always wanted his father’s approval even well into adulthood. According to Minium, his dad never told him how proud he was of him until his golden wedding anniversary.
Those were the words Kenny Jr. wanted to hear much earlier in his life.
Shortly after Easley retired from the NFL, he served as the president and owner of the Easley-Osborn Sports Management Group.
In 1991, Easley bought an auto dealership he later renamed Ken Easley’s Alderwood Oldsmobile-Cadillac. He served as the dealership’s president and chief operating officer in subsequent years.
Kenny’s success in his new endeavor helped him become president of the African American Dealers Association in the 1990s.
While Easley’s career as an entrepreneur was taking off, the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame inducted him in 1991.
Easley assisted in securing property for Greater Trinity Academy in 1993. The school, which serves underprivileged two-to-twelve-year-old students, eventually opened in the Everett, WA area in 1999.
Easley has been giving regular motivational speeches and organized an annual celebrity golf tournament whose proceeds go to the school.
Fortunately, Easley reached a settlement with the Seahawks after he retired from pro football. However, the harrowing experience made him turn his back on football for the better part of fifteen years.
Easley told FOX13 News he never watched football—high school, college, or pro—from the time he retired in 1987 until 2002. It was the only way for him to put the past behind him.
Easley ended his disassociation from football when Seahawks owner Paul Allen reached out to him and told him the team was going to induct him into the Seattle Seahawks Ring of Honor in 2002.
RT to wish Seahawks Ring of Honor member and Pro Football Hall of Famer Kenny Easley a Happy Birthday! 🎂 pic.twitter.com/XKQvaZkUZt
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) January 15, 2022
Although Kenny was still bitter and hesitant, he agreed to do it at the urging of his wife, Gail.
Easley credited his wife for helping him close the gap between himself and the team that drafted him fourth overall in 1987.
Kenny told Lorch that, had it not been for her, he “could have probably held out another fifteen years.” Thankfully, the infamous fallout between Easley and the Seahawks had officially ended.
Today, Easley schmoozes with Seahawks coaches, players, and fans alike. He has even waved Seattle’s “12 Flag” to pump up its rabid fan base, the 12th Man, over the years.
Easley became the sixth player inducted into the Seattle Seahawks Ring of Honor after Steve Largent, Jim Zorn, Dave Brown, Curt Warner, and Jacob Green, per the team’s official website.
Hall of Fame
Kenny Easley became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 2017. Tommy Rhodes, his high school football coach, was his presenter.
When Easley earned his first nomination for induction into Canton, OH twenty years earlier, many people thought he should’ve made it on his first try. Others thought he didn’t play long enough in the National Football League.
However, Kenny disagreed on both counts. His pastor, Tyrone Armstrong, told him all things in life have a season, and he was no different. That assurance put Easley at ease despite the long wait.
Part of Easley’s enshrinement speech reads:
“This Hall of Fame induction is like fire that’s been welled up in my bones, and I can hear the choir singing on this momentous occasion. I get joy when I think about what He’s done for me.”
Easley’s induction came just one year after he underwent triple bypass surgery in the summer of 2016.
The fateful moment occurred while Kenny was watching television in his Virginia residence. He was running short of breath when an ambulance took him to Sentara Norfolk Heart Hospital.
Doctors discovered one of the blood vessels connected to his heart was fully blocked. It was ironic for a former NFL player who never touched cigarettes and rarely consumed alcohol in his entire life.
“The doctors told him it’s a miracle he didn’t have a heart attack and drop dead,” Easley’s Oscar Smith Tigers teammate and close friend Don Morse told The Virginian-Pilot several months later.
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) August 6, 2017
Kenny grew despondent after his near-death episode. He just sat on the couch and ignored the doctor’s orders to go for daily walks.
During Easley’s recovery, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Senior Committee called him and informed him they had nominated him as a finalist.
Easley went out walking just several hours after the life-changing phone call.
A Quiet Life
According to Lorch, Easley also had several kidney transplants during his retirement.
The Seahawks retired Kenny Easley’s No. 45 jersey in the fall of 2017. He became just the fourth player in Seattle’s franchise history to earn that distinction, after Steve Largent, Cortez Kennedy, and Walter Jones, per Lorch.
Several months before Easley’s jersey retirement ceremony, he voiced his displeasure over the Pro Bowl becoming softer with each passing year.
“I thought I was watching flag football, to be very honest with you,” Easley, one of the most vicious tacklers and hitters of his era, told Seattle, WA media (via Seahawks.com) after watching the 2017 Pro Bowl. “It was pitiful.”
Easley was bothered to the point he penned a letter expressing his sentiments about today’s Pro Bowl to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
However, Easley realized the league had to make changes because the influx of stronger and faster players could pave the way for more catastrophic head injuries. For that, Kenny applauded the NFL’s efforts to curb the rising cases of violent head trauma injuries.
The fields I once played on as a kid are the same ones I now host my flag football league at. I’ll never forget where I came from. Dream Big. Thank you Mayor Rick West @AboutChesapeake #MotivationalMonday 📸: (my wife @geasley0601) pic.twitter.com/d6sU8FvzVU
— Kenny Easley (@Easleyforce5) October 8, 2018
Nowadays, Kenny Easley lives a quiet life in his home state of Virginia. He organizes a local NFL flag football league, attends various charity endeavors, and does motivational speaking for his church.
“When I go to sleep at night and have dreams about the NFL, I don’t have any bad dreams,” Easley told The Virginian-Pilot in 2017. “I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”