Kenny Easley defined strong safety with a relentless pursuit of greatness

The Pro Football Hall of Fame will welcome its Class of 2017 on Aug. 5. This week, Shutdown Corner is highlighting the greatest moment for each member of the seven-man class, leading up to Saturday’s induction ceremony.

Long before the Seattle Seahawks claimed Kam Chancellor as the hardest hitting safety in the NFL, they had Kenny Easley. 

Easley, a strong safety, didn’t so much tackle guys as he devoured them. The fourth overall pick in the 1981 draft out of UCLA, he was the Seahawks’ first true superstar, earning AFC defensive rookie of the year honors and eventually became a three-time first-team All-Pro. He made the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1980s.

A new generation of fans knows Chancellor as the enforcer of the Seahawks defense, but he’s just taking after the Seahawks’ newest Hall of Famer, known when he played as “The Enforcer.”

“He doesn’t back down from anything,” Chancellor told the Seahawks website about Easley last summer. “He always wants the contact, he’s going to make sure you feel him, make sure you know he’s there. He’s a ballhawk. I’ve seen him covering ground, go get the ball, and when he gets the ball he’s trying to score.” 

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Blessed with excellent speed and athleticism, what helped separate Easley were his rare football instincts. He felt the game in a way others simply do not. And he embraced contact, all forms of contact – stuffing the run, laying receivers out and clobbering the quarterback. His style was adopted while learning the game playing countless hours on the street of his hometown of Chesapeake, Virginia, terrorizing everyone he possibly could.

“Rough-and-tumble football,” Easley characterized it to The Seattle Times in 1985, during his fifth season in the league. “What you do, you get all the kids in the community, whoever wants to play, and no one chooses sides, anything like that. You just get the football, which is the pigskin, and whoever touches it, the rest of the guys just hit you, cream you.”

It didn’t take long for the league to take notice of Easley’s devastating style and ferocious appetite to make plays.

“He’s one of the most vicious tacklers ever,” Reggie McKenzie told Sports Illustrated in 1984. A contemporary of Easley’s and the current general manager of the Oakland Raiders, McKenzie added: “He comes up and shaves the man’s butt. I mean, he lathers the ballcarrier.”

At the same time though, it would be wrong to merely view Easley as a hitter. “The Enforcer” was a sound tackler, not just a hitting machine who gambled and took unnecessary risks. He was also good in coverage. At 6-foot-3, 206 pounds, he could cover big receivers or small, shifty ones. 

Easley’s greatest season was probably 1984. He led the NFL with 10 interceptions. There have been only 75 double-digit interception seasons in NFL history, and most of them were by cornerbacks. Not bad for a player best known for his physical play. Easley was named first-team All-Pro.

Led by Easley, the 1984 Seahawks set an NFL record with 63 takeaways (the Chargers had 66 takeaways in 1961, when they were in the American Football League). They peaked in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, when they set an NFL record with four interceptions returned for touchdowns. Easley got the record-setter on a 58-yard return in the fourth quarter. That team made just the second playoff appearance in Seahawks history.

Easley’s all-around play is why he’s headed to Canton. His length, range and sheer ability to close on plays – not merely as a tackler but in coverage as well – was rare in the 1980s. He was relentless during a seven-year career that ended prematurely due to a severe kidney disease.

Ronnie Lott, widely viewed as the standard for all safeties, said of his counterpart and close friend: “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 … Kenny’s skills transcended the game … He was as good as there ever was and I mean that right to this day.”

Easley, to be sure, will go down as one of the most dynamic safeties in league history, having rightfully earned his moniker of “The Enforcer.” And the craziest part might be that strong safety wasn’t even his natural position. He excelled at free safety during a brilliant college career before accepting the strong side once he became a pro. Doing what was necessary for the betterment of the team: That is also a big part of Easley’s lasting legacy.

“I’d have to think a long time before I could come up with the name of another starter who ever volunteered to run back punts,” former Seahawks coach Chuck Knox said. “But that’s the kind of guy Kenny is.”

Previous “Greatest Moments” from the 2017 Hall of Fame class:

Kenny Easley (45) will be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. (AP)

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