Yesterday, the sports world was greeted with the sobering news of Cortez Kennedy’s passing at the age of 48. For true football fans, it was a tough pill to swallow, especially for those who watched his unique brand of brute strength, instincts and quickness within the cauldron of interior line play during the prime of his NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks.
Picked third overall in the 1990 Draft, Kennedy wrecked shop from day one. He was the rarest breed of a mammoth defensive lineman that could sack QB’s as ferociously as he shut down an opponent’s rushing attack. Despite consistent double and triple teams, he routinely ranked among the leading tacklers on every team he played for.
By his second NFL season, he was a Pro Bowler. In 1992, he set the single-season sack record for an interior lineman with 14, and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, despite Seattle finishing with an abysmal 2-14 record. He was First or Second-team All-Pro five times and and eight-time Pro Bowler over his 11-year career.
Appearing in 167 games with the Seahawks, he racked up 668 tackles, 58 sacks, and three interceptions en route to becoming a Hall of Fame inductee in 2012. With his dominance and versatility as a pass rusher and run stopper, he changed the thought process of how such a massive man with his talents could be utilized.
But for me, when my thoughts reflect back to Cortez Kennedy, his amazing NFL exploits don’t immediately come to mind. As a person that has a much higher affinity for the college game over the National Football League, I think of the dude from Wilson, Arkansas who walked into the the University of Miami’s outstanding program from Northwest Mississippi Community College and proceeded to leave an indelible mark on a defensive legacy that is unparalleled.
He joined the Hurricanes in 1988, a year after the school, coached by Jimmy Johnson and featuring talents such as Steve Walsh, The Blades Brothers, Melvin Bratton, Daniel Stubbs and Michael Irvin, went 12-0 to capture the national championship.
During Kennedy’s first season on Coral Gables, which was Johnson’s last as the program’s head coach, the ‘Canes went 11-1 and slapped Nebraska 23-3 to finish as the country’s No. 2 team. But the young man who would go on to become one of the greatest lineman in NFL history wasn’t a nationally known commodity back then, but rather still a work in progress.
Randy Shannon, who would later go on to become the program’s first African-American head coach, was Kennedy’s roommate at one point and assigned to specifically help the newcomer resist his hunger cravings. Johnson had had enough of the new defensive lineman’s ballooning weight, telling him that if he kept packing on the pounds, he’d be moved to the offensive line. From there, Kennedy was in danger of eating himself off the team and out of a scholarship.
Shannon took it upon himself to help guide his new teammate by sleeping in front of the refrigerator. It was one small gesture of love and friendship, two words that many outside of the program rarely considered when thinking about the supposed renegade nature of the Hurricanes football team.
Kennedy got the message, lost weight and got in supreme shape for his senior year in 1989. It was supposed to be a transition year for the program with Jimmy Johnson leaving to coach the Dallas Cowboys, while taking a slew of assistants and key support personnel with him. Most of the offensive firepower was gone, Dennis Erickson had been named head coach, and no one knew what kind of future lay ahead for the Hurricanes.
The flash that was normally associated with the team was gone, but Cortez Kennedy was just coming of age. Along with his fellow defensive line standout Russell Maryland, Miami surrendered only 9.3 points per game and didn’t allow a touchdown in a stretch of the season lasting ten quarters.
Kennedy became so dominant that the coaching staff instructed him to sit out during some practices so that the offense could work on their plays without getting suffocated. “Tez, go get some water,” they’d say through laughter, in awe of his ability.
During games, when opponent’s tried to run up the middle, only to be destroyed by the combination of Maryland and Kennedy, the Hurricanes sideline was a cacophony of cackling. He went on to post an All-American campaign, surprisingly leading the program to an 11-1 season and another national championship.
His goal when arriving at Miami was to one day be a state trooper back in his home state of Arkansas. With Randy Shannon guarding the fridge during overnight duty, Cortez Kennedy took his first steps toward becoming one of the greatest talents to ever line up on the defensive line of scrimmage.
By all accounts, he was a large man with an even larger personality, a figure that was cherished and loved at every stop along the way. He is one of the most beloved players in Seattle Seahawks history.
And despite the fact that he was only at Miami for two seasons, and a transcendent player for just one, he was great enough to deliver a national title, along with fond memories that his teammates, coaches and Hurricane fans will cherish for a lifetime.