I remember the first time I saw Kenny Easley, on the first day of that 1978 season. A cold, rainy day at Husky Stadium, when I was 7 years old.
The Huskies were the defending Rose Bowl Champions, and the UCLA Bruins came to town for a Pac-10 showdown. Starting for the Bruins at free safety was future Woodinville resident Kenny Easley.
“That was my first time ever in the Northwest,” Easley said recently. “I had heard about Seattle being rainy, and sure enough it was a shock coming from the California coast. That was a great football game. I remember that both Washington and UCLA were ranked in the top 10 [nationally]. Good defensive game. On the defensive side for Washington, there was this other guy wearing number 5, which was my number. His name was Michael Jackson and he was a linebacker. So I took an interest in him. He certainly didn’t disappoint, he was all over the field that day.”
But it was a play made by Easley that lifted the Bruins to a 10-7 win over UW.
“I blocked a punt toward the east end zone,” Easley said. “And Brian Baggett recovered it for a touchdown. Basically it was the difference in the game. But just a great, great defensive football game, with a lot of nice hitting. It was a big win for us, and it set us on course to have a good year and we ended up in the Fiesta Bowl.”
Easley completed his collegiate career in 1980 as a three-time Consensus All-American – an extreme rarity. As he eyed the upcoming NFL Draft, the Seattle Seahawks were nowhere on his radar.
“I never talked with Seattle, I never worked out for Seattle,” Easley said. “Back then they didn’t have the NFL Combine, but teams would invite certain players to get measured and run 40s and all that stuff. I never talked to Seattle.
“The San Francisco 49ers came down the day before the draft,” he said. “Bill Walsh and his entire defensive staff worked me out on Spaulding Field for about two hours. Bill said to take a shower and meet them in Pauley Pavilion. I met them there, and Bill said they had the eighth pick in the draft and planned on taking me. He asked me if I had any problems with that. I said absolutely not! I knew San Francisco was coming on [strong]. They already had Joe Montana there, with Freddie Solomon and Roger Craig. I felt they just needed to build their defense to be great.”
Easley left that meeting thrilled and called 15 to 20 people letting them know the news. He was up early the next morning, as the NFL Draft back then started at 5 a.m. Pacific time. Easley sat in front of the TV fired up and ready to go.
The first pick of the draft was George Rogers to the New Orleans Saints. The second pick was Lawrence Taylor to the New York Giants. The third pick was Easley’s college teammate Freeman McNeil, to the New York Jets.
And then the next few minutes altered the course of Kenny Easley’s life forever.
“I’m watching on TV, and they are writing ‘Kenny Easley’ next to the Seahawks on the board,” Easley said. “Almost immediately, the phone rings, and this guy on the phone asks for Ken Easley. I told him, ‘I can’t keep the line busy because I’m expecting a call.’ He said, ‘This is the call you’re expecting.’”
A deep voice then spoke into the phone. It was Seattle coach Jack Patera.
“He was saying he wanted to be the first to congratulate me on being their selection,” Easley said. “I can’t tell you how terribly disappointed I was. Not only did I have my heart set on going to San Francisco, I had told so many people where I was going.
“But Seattle it was,” Easley said. “We jumped on a plane up to Seattle, and it was raining. I said, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe this is happening to me! I’m going to a team where the franchise is only five years old. Last year they only went 4-12.’
“I had a few folks talk to me and say, ‘Hey, just do what you do. Play football and let the rest take care of itself.’ By the time we landed I had gotten my head right. ‘Hey, this is what it is. Let’s make the best of it.’”
The Seahawks, on the other hand, were jazzed by their prized draft pick. Patera commented on Easley, saying, “He has a presence, an aura ... something that other teams will feel the minute they step on the field.”
Kenny Easley adapted to the Northwest and grew to love it. Along with Lawrence Taylor, he became the most feared defensive player in pro football. Easley possessed size and speed, and garnered a reputation as a hellacious hitter. He played a pivotal role in the Seahawks advancing to the 1983 AFC Championship game, and was named the 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
For those who saw the Seahawks play amid the concrete clamor of the old Kingdome, who can forget those days of beating the Raiders, booing John Elway and seeing the defense swarm to the ball?
Who can forget names like Steve Largent, Jacob Green, Curt Warner, Jeff Bryant, Dave Krieg and Michael Jackson (who once battled Easley’s Bruins at Husky Stadium)?
And who can forget days like Nov. 4, 1984, when during a 45–0 win against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Seahawks set an NFL record by returning four interceptions for touchdowns, including one by Easley?
But by 1987, Easley’s pro career came to a premature end when kidney problems derailed him. Two years later he received a transplant at the University of Washington Medical Center.
For several years after that, acrimony existed between Easley and the Seahawk organization. But over time and changing circumstances, good relations prevailed.
Those that saw him play football won’t ever forget. Just recently, Easley was named to the Pac-12’s All-Century team. And Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott summed it up when he said, “Kenny Easley is the greatest safety to ever play the game of football.”
“I did what I did and I have no qualms about it,” the 56-year-old Easley said. “I did it to the best of my ability. It was just unfortunate that my kidneys failed on me and I couldn’t go anymore. But I’m still here and still alive, and I thank God for that. And I thank God for the seven years he gave me in the NFL. It was a dream come true.”
These days, Easley lives in Virginia with his wife Gail. When asked about his former residence in Woodinville, he sounded nostalgic.
“Back then Woodinville seemed light years away from downtown Seattle,” he said. “It was pretty sparse, not many communities out there. Barns and roadhouses and large plots of land with cows and horses. We built our house from scratch, my wife designed it. I wish I had never sold that house. I owned it free and clear and didn’t have to sell it.”
When Kenny and Gail came out to Seattle last year for the Seahawks’ 40th anniversary, they drove out to Woodinville to see their old house.
“Talk about getting lost!” he said. “We didn’t even recognize it. That little area where the town used to be. It wasn’t much back when we lived there. Maybe a Dairy Queen and a few mom and pop stores. But now there are boutique stores and all kinds of stuff. The topography has changed so much, we literally could not find our way to our old house. We finally found it after driving for at least an hour.
“We found our house, it looked good,” he said. “The people who own it are taking good care of it. The trees and shrubs we had planted in the yard used to be a foot tall. Now the trees are 30 feet tall, the shrubs are 20 feet tall. But I loved that house, first house we ever built.
“Jacob Green was our neighbor,” he said. “And further down was Manu Tuiasosopo. Sherman Smith and Dave Brown were nearby. I loved Woodinville.”
Easley paused, then laughed.
“In 1983 we beat the Miami Dolphins [at Miami’s Orange Bowl] in the divisional playoff game which advanced us to the AFC Championship against the Raiders,” he said. “When I got home, the neighborhood had TP’d my house and all the trees. But that was the type of neighborhood it was. They were so happy for me and happy for the success the Seahawks were having. And I remember when kids came by for Halloween, I gave them Seahawk footballs for their candy bags.
“Tell the folks in Woodinville that the Easleys miss the warmth of the people and the friendships of the people that were in Woodinville,” he said. “They were very nice to us. I will never forget the neighbors we had.”