Cortez Kennedy was dominant and cool and legendary on a national level – way before the Seahawks were dominant and cool and noticed nationally.
Tez terrorized NFL offenses during the 1990s, yet he was known throughout our region as a fun-loving, gentle giant. At 6-feet-3 and 305 pounds with athleticism of a man 70 pounds lighter, he ripped through double- and triple-teams like they were blocking dummies. He became the NFL’s best defensive player and, in 2012, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, at the usually anonymous position of defensive tackle.
All that was when Seattle was still wearing bright-blue uniforms. Its fans – and its fortunes on the field – were even bluer.
The entire Pacific Northwest, plus just those who appreciate elite athletes and even more elite performance, were blue on Tuesday.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around what Orlando Police Department Public Information Officer Sgt. Wanda Miglio confirmed to me: One of the greatest players in the history of our region is dead at age 48, the result of an “unattended passing” at his home in a golf-course community in Orlando. He had moved there in 2015.
Sgt. Miglio said police don’t see it as suspicious but officers are conducting an investigation because it was so unexpected.
“Cortez Kennedy has been a pillar of the Seahawks franchise since joining the team as a rookie in 1990,” the Seahawks wrote in a statement. “Tez was the heart and soul of the Seahawks through the 1990s and endeared himself to 12s all across the Pacific Northwest as a player who played with a selfless and relentless approach to the game.
“Tez was an NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Pro Football Hall of Famer, and Seahawks ambassador, but more than his on-field accomplishments, he was a loyal son, father, teammate and friend to many, possessing a larger-than-life personality and an infectious laugh.
“We extend our warmest thoughts and prayers to his parents, Ruby and Joe Harris, daughter Courtney, and entire family on the unfortunate loss of a life-long Seahawk. We are proud to have been represented by such a special person.”
His legacy is one of the most impressive in Seahawks history. Especially considering his prime was so far ahead of Seattle’s, way before Mike Holmgren and Shaun Alexander, Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson, Super Bowls and the Lombardi Trophy.
Kennedy spent his entire, 11-year career with Seattle. He played on just two winning teams: his rookie one, 1990, and his next-to-last one, 1999. That was the season of his eighth consecutive Pro Bowl selection, and his one and only playoff game. Yes, the Seahawks lost that.
The truest indication of how awesome Kennedy was on the Seahawks’ defensive line? His best season was 1992. Wearing number 99 for the only time in his career – he was 96 every other season – he had 14 sacks, a mammoth total for a defensive tackle then and now. He earned the first of his three All-Pro selections. Heck, he was the NFL’s defensive player of the year.
And his Seahawks went 2-14.
“One of the best players I’ve ever seen,” Dennis Erickson, Kennedy’s coach at the University of Miami and then Seattle, told The News Tribune’s Larry LaRue in January 2000, on the eve of his lone NFL playoff game.
Kennedy grew up towering over his hometown of Wilson, Arkansas (population: 1,200, give or take a person). He ate so much his mother, Ruby Harris, once said Tez wore the varnish of her home’s kitchen cabinets climbing them to get food.
He was so big, he weighed 275 pounds by the time he was a junior in high school. He was so good, he didn’t have to work. Or lift weights.
“Tez was just naturally strong, but he didn’t like working – and no one in high school could ever block him, anyway,” his coach at Rivercrest High School in Wilson, Mike Smith said in 2000. “I always wondered how strong he really was. One of the few times we got him in our little weight room down here, we still couldn’t find out.
“When he started lifting with his legs, we ran out of weights before we found his limit.”
Yet no one recruited him. So Kennedy went to Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, Mississippi. After starring there for two seasons he went to Miami. He basically won the 1989 national championship for Erickson’s Hurricanes by dominating the second half of Miami’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
Again, defensive tackles don’t usually dominate to the point of winning titles nearly by himself.
The Seahawks picked him third overall in the spring of 1990. Back when Seattle was still the NFL’s Alaska Southeast outpost.
He became enamored with our region – and with his daughter, Courtney. She was born in 1995, midway through his Seahawks dominance, to his then-wife Nicole from a failed marriage.
And Seattle fell in love with him.
Today, that love hurts.
“God bless America,” Kennedy said to end his Hall of Fame speech in Canton, Ohio. “And God bless the Seattle Seahawks.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle