Cortez Kennedy’s home resembles a museum devoted to his football career.
His last Seattle Seahawks helmet is perched on a shelf, and his Miami degree – the one he went back to finish at his own expense after leaving school early for the NFL – is on the wall, not far from photos of him posing with two U.S. Presidents. There’s a street sign bearing his name from his hometown, framed letters from giants of sport, palm trees around the pool, unbelievable golf-course views and just about anything else he would want.
Some days, his biggest dilemma is deciding whether to catch the afternoon flight from Florida back home to Arkansas for a quick deer hunting trip.
His life is happy, full, complete. Well, almost complete.
“People always ask me, ‘Do you think you should be in the Hall of Fame?’” Kennedy said, sitting in the office of his home near Orlando. “I always say yes.”
On Saturday, he’ll find out if others agree.
For the fourth time, Kennedy is a finalist for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This year’s class will be decided Saturday, on the eve of the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. He would be the 14th defensive tackle to be chosen, and his numbers – eight Pro Bowls, three All-Pro nods – compare with others who have gotten the Hall’s call.
“I can honestly tell you, if getting in the Hall of Fame is my biggest worry, then I’m doing OK,” Kennedy said. “So I guess I’m doing OK.”
He was the league’s defensive player of the year in 1992 – for a team that won two games. He made 58 sacks, went through his first seven seasons without missing a single game, played in at least 15 games 10 times in his 11 seasons, and turned down some fairly lucrative contracts at the end of his career so he could retire saying he only played for one NFL team.
“I say this all the time,” said his former Miami Hurricanes teammate and longtime friend, Randy Shannon. “People, fans, people around him, they always liked him because he’s a likable guy, but they will never know how good a player Cortez Kennedy was. Never. But in that locker room, we knew. He’d do anything it took on the field to win and be an example, did it in high school that way, college, Seattle. That was Cortez. No doubt, one of the best. Ever.”
Today, Kennedy is enjoying the spoils that came with what he did on the field.
He’s still a fan favorite in Seattle, and spends a good chunk of time during the season around the New Orleans Saints, for whom some of his closest friends and confidants work. His home is in a well-to-do community, with neighbors including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, golfer Ian Poulter and famed football coach Lou Holtz – someone who Kennedy tormented during the height of the Miami-Notre Dame rivalry.
Holtz got over it, apparently: He wrote the letter suggesting that Kennedy should be approved to move into the gated community he now calls home.
On one recent afternoon, Kennedy got into his golf cart – he rarely golfs – and zipped around the development. A bowl of soup at the clubhouse. Chatting with some neighbors after they putted out on the first green. Saw a young girl near the tennis courts and asked her why he hadn’t seen her parents around in a couple days. He couldn’t drive 100 feet, it seemed, without someone taking notice.
“People are so nice,” Kennedy said. “Always have been. You be nice to them, they’re nice to you.”
He chose to live in Orlando for two reasons: His past, and his daughter’s future.
First, the past. Kennedy became smitten with the Orlando area while training there during his playing days. His agent, Robert Fraley – who died in a 1999 plane crash that also killed golfer Payne Stewart – lived there, and Kennedy thought the place was perfect. To this day, Kennedy speaks with reverence about Fraley. Months after Fraley died, Kennedy played his first NFL playoff game and gave his bonus to charity in memory of Fraley and Jerome Brown, another close friend from their time together with the Hurricanes.
“I always wanted to be like Robert,” Kennedy said. “Robert taught me things I still use today in my life.”
Next, the future. Kennedy has custody of his 16-year-old daughter Courtney, a high school junior and a standout athlete in track and basketball. Even when one or the other is traveling, they usually talk several times a day. She asked for a car when she got her license, so a Cadillac Escalade with personalized plates arrived in the driveway.
The way Kennedy saw it, the gift was far from exuberant.
“It was safe,” he said.
He is still a mountain of a man, though in very good shape. Weight almost ended his football career at Miami, before Shannon – his former roommate – would literally guard the refrigerator to keep him out of it at night, then would wake him up early the next day for training runs while wearing a black garbage bag to create even more sweat and heat. A 90-minute walk is part of his regular regimen. He is quiet, soft-spoken, thoughtful. He’s saved his money, envisions a return to the NFL in some capacity someday, probably after Courtney starts college.
“I wouldn’t trade this for the world,” Kennedy said.
If this Saturday is going to go like the past three pre-Super Bowl-Saturdays have, here’s a peek at how things will be around Kennedy this time while waiting for the Hall’s deciders to make their choices: His daughter will be nervous and pacing all day. His friends will be waiting in the nearby Lake Nona clubhouse, most watching television for the announcement. Kennedy will not stray too far from the phone, just in case.
He wants to hear it ring. Badly.
“I do want to get in, one day,” Kennedy said. “Once you get the call, then you work on your speech. So I won’t worry about the speech until I get the call.”