Kenny Easley got seriously ticked off when some guy had the nerve to question his heart.
Nobody, ever, had questioned Kenny Easley’s heart.
But this was not Easley’s metaphorical heart, the symbol of the tenacity and competitive courage with which he played for those seven seasons with the Seattle Seahawks in the 1980s.
And it wasn’t that high-revving motor that pumped blood at a rate that made him appear indefatigable on the football field, racing sideline-to-sideline to deliver punishment.
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No, this was the weary and malfunctioning organ in his 57-year-old chest that made it so hard for him to breathe last summer that he needed to be taken to the hospital.
This was the heart that was in need of immediate triple-bypass surgery.
“I was stunned,” Easley said. “Not my heart, maybe somebody else’s heart, but not this heart.”
As his wounds healed after surgery, Easley’s attitude remained sour on the entire episode, as he refused to get up and walk and do the exercises that his doctors prescribed, and about which his wife persistently hounded him.
But then he got a couple of phone calls that confirmed that he had been selected as a 2017 senior finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And because of that, he’ll be proud and ambulatory if his name gets called on Saturday in Houston.
“I got up and walked for the first time since I had my surgery — and I’ve been walking ever since,” Easley said on a conference call Thursday. “I walk every morning now. It was the pronouncement that I was a candidate for the Hall of Fame in 2017 that changed my entire disposition about what I had gone through.”
Easley’s credentials were never questioned, as his physical style of play contributed to the evolution of secondary play in the NFL. A five-time Pro Bowl selection and 1984 Defensive Player of the Year, the only factor that hindered his entry into the Hall of Fame was the way his career came to such an early halt.
After seven seasons as strong safety with the Seahawks, he was traded to Arizona, where a physical revealed kidney disease that was later attributed to the inappropriate use of painkillers.
Easley sued the Seahawks and the case was settled out of court. He eventually received a kidney transplant.
Hardened by the inglorious end of a brilliant career, Easley said he didn’t watch football at any level for 15 seasons. And thoughts of the Hall of Fame were the furthest from his mind.
But in 2002, his relations with the Seahawks thawed, and he was brought back and placed in the team’s Ring of Honor.
“I didn’t watch a football game until the night I was inducted into the Seahawks Ring of Honor,” he said. “I played football because I loved to play, and football loved me back.”
When he returned home to Virginia after that event, one of his golfing buddies told him that he had been doing some research, and noticed that every one of the players who was on the first-team defensive unit of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1980s was in the Hall of Fame — except for Easley.
That was the first time he started thinking about belonging with the others honored in the Canton, Ohio, facility. Until that time, he had given up on the possibility.
Easley had strong support, though, and he particularly cited the lobbying by Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, who for years has hailed Easley’s worthiness as a defender who changed the way the game was played.
Easley began hearing from Frank Cooney, a Hall of Fame selector and a member of the committee on senior candidates. And, as Cooney became more involved, he received research information on Easley from Bob Kaupang, a history teacher in Minnesota who had taken on Easley’s candidacy as a personal project.
Kaupang had conducted interviews with countless players and coaches who cited Easley as a dominating force and defensive icon of his era. The case they constructed for Easley was obviously convincing.
Easley said he now only watches football games when the Seahawks are playing. He likes the way Kam Chancellor plays (“he’s a warrior”), along with Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner.
When the NFL moved toward reducing or eliminating the kinds of thunderous hits that were Easley’s trademark, he thought the league had grown soft. But now he sees that it’s “more in-tune with the issues of head injuries.”
“I understand why the game had to be altered. … I understand how they had to change the game, and I applaud them for doing it,” he said.
He said he expects no nerves on Saturday as he waits in his hotel room for the notification, after all, he had long-ago dismissed the possibility.
But he’ll get in. He deserves it. He changed the game.
And few ever played it with greater heart.