Easley’s plan: safety first

UCLA let him play his pre­ferred po­si­tion, in­stead of quar­ter­back, and it helped launch a leg­endary ca­reer

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Sam Farmer

Kenny Easley played with an im­pec­ca­ble sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion. That’s what helped him make 32 in­ter­cep­tions as an NFL safety, and paved his path to the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame, where Satur­day his bronze bust will be un­veiled.

But what about the an­tic­i­pa­tion of UCLA? His alma mater de­serves some credit for al­low­ing him to pa­trol the back end of the de­fense, rather than di­rect­ing him to the other side of the ball, as so many schools hoped to do.

“The ma­jor­ity of the schools that came in were re­cruit­ing me as a quar­ter­back,” said Easley, 58. “I didn’t want to play quar­ter­back. I would have just been a good ath­lete play­ing quar­ter­back, but I was a re­ally good free safety be­cause I had good ball-hawk­ing skills, just like a 10-yearold, I didn’t mind throw­ing my body into the mix.”

So when Easley nar­rowed his choices down to Michi­gan and UCLA, leg­endary Wolver­ines coach Bo Schem­bech­ler talked to him

about play­ing quar­ter­back.

“He couldn’t un­der­stand why a guy who was of­fered the chance to play quar­ter­back at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan in front of 100,000 peo­ple, why would you want to play free safety,” Easley said. “He even told me, ‘Any­body can do that.’ ”

Easley didn’t hear the same pitch from UCLA’s Terry Don­ahue. He wanted Easley as a free safety.

“That sort of sealed the deal right there,” Easley said. “My dad even asked the ques­tion of Terry Don­ahue: ‘If my son de­cides to go to UCLA, you’re not go­ing to get him there and switch him to quar­ter­back?’ And Terry Don­ahue said, ‘Ab­so­lutely not. If your son wants to play free safety, we’re go­ing to play him there.’ ”

Re­called Don­ahue: “The rea­son he felt like that was at that par­tic­u­lar time there were not a lot of African Amer­i­can quar­ter­backs play­ing in the NFL. He didn’t feel his chances to get to the NFL — and that was his No. 1 pri­or­ity — would be as good at the quar­ter­back po­si­tion.

“He and his fa­ther had me prom­ise that I would never play him at quar­ter­back, and it was a hard prom­ise to keep. Be­cause he was such a dom­i­nant player and could have played any po­si­tion that touches the ball or plays in the de­fen­sive back­field.”

Easley was such a re­mark­able ath­lete, Don­ahue said, that he was out­stand­ing on the basketball court, and “you’d have thought you were watch­ing a young Arthur Ashe” in those in­fre­quent times he picked up a ten­nis racket.

As it hap­pened, safety was an ideal fit. Af­ter his col­lege ca­reer, Easley went on to be­come the No. 4 choice in the 1981 draft by Seat­tle, AFC de­fen­sive rookie of the year, and the league’s de­fen­sive player of the year in 1984. A dev­as­tat­ing hit­ter, he made five Pro Bowls and was All-Pro in four con­sec­u­tive sea­sons, from 1982 to ’85.

“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,” said safety Ron­nie Lott, who en­tered the NFL the same sea­son as Easley yet made it to the Hall of Fame 17 years sooner. “Kenny’s skills tran­scended the game.”

Easley is the sixth UCLA player to be en­shrined in the Can­ton, Ohio, institution, join­ing Troy Aikman, Tom Fears, Jimmy John­son, Jonathan Og­den and Bob Water­field.

The NFL ca­reer of Easley lasted just seven sea­sons, as he walked away from the game in 1987 in large part be­cause of a kid­ney ail­ment brought on, he be­lieves, by large doses of painkillers. He was traded to the thenPhoenix Car­di­nals but failed his phys­i­cal. He be­lieves the Sea­hawks knew of his kid­ney con­di­tion but didn’t in­form him.

That led to an im­passe between Easley and the Sea­hawks that lasted more than a decade. Easley said there were two rea­sons the ice even­tu­ally thawed. First, Mi­crosoft co-founder Paul Allen bought the team and pushed for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with one of its great­est play­ers.

“And sec­ond,” Easley said, “my chil­dren were com­ing of age, they had never seen me play foot­ball, and they didn’t know much about my ca­reer. I didn’t have any pic­tures around the house of my ath­letic ca­reer. So when I got the call from [Sea­hawks ex­ec­u­tive] Gary Wright in­di­cat­ing that Paul Allen had said to him that they shouldn’t put an­other player in the ring of honor be­fore putting Kenny Easley in there …

“I hadn’t spo­ken to any­body in the or­ga­ni­za­tion for 15 years. So Gary called me and told me what Paul had said. So think­ing about my chil­dren.… 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 how suc­cess­fully he had done it.”

Easley, added to that ring of honor in 2002, is the fourth Sea­hawks player to make it to Can­ton, join­ing Steve Lar­gent, Wal­ter Jones, and the late Cortez Kennedy.

Easley had mul­ti­ple in­ter­cep­tions in each of his seven sea­sons, lead­ing the league in that cat­e­gory in 1984. He also was used on oc­ca­sion as a punt re­turner, do­ing so most fre­quently in ’84.

To this day, just as he did when pick­ing a col­lege, Easley finds him­self de­fend­ing the po­si­tion. He’s just the 10th safety in the Hall of Fame, and at least three of those played cor­ner­back too. “When peo­ple look at de­fenses, they look at de­fen­sive line­men, out­side lineback­ers, mid­dle lineback­ers and the cor­ners,” he said.

Satur­day, the foot­ball world will be look­ing at a safety. De­spite what that Michi­gan coach­ing icon said, it isn’t a job for just any­body.

Jim Bryant As­so­ci­ated Press

KENNY EASLEY was an All-Pro four times with the Sea­hawks.

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