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Hall-bound Kenny Easley set gold standard for Seahawks in secondary

Kenny Easley (45) ruled the safety position with the Seattle Seahawks from 1981-87. (John Froschauer / Associated Press)
Kenny Easley (45) ruled the safety position with the Seattle Seahawks from 1981-87. (John Froschauer / Associated Press)
By Bob Condotta Seattle Times

CANTON, Ohio – The request given to Kenny Easley – to compare his game with current Seattle Seahawks Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor – was countered with a laugh and a request of his own.

“They have to compare themselves to me,” he said.

Point taken.

Thomas and Chancellor make up what figures to go down as the best safety duo in team history, but it is Easley who set the gold standard at the position for the Seahawks during a career that ran from 1981-87.

It’s a career that on Saturday will be honored when Easley is enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he becomes the fourth player to spend his entire career with the Seahawks to earn a bust in Canton, Ohio.

So, how would Thomas and Chancellor compare themselves to Easley?

Thomas candidly admits he hasn’t done much studying of Easley but said he’s heard a lot about him from Chancellor, who like Easley is a native of Virginia.

“Kam says (Easley) is the best safety to ever come through the Seattle franchise,” Thomas said this week. “You know I am always going to have some type of feeling about that. But that’s something for me to strive for.”

Chancellor has actually known Easley for years – he briefly dated one of Easley’s two daughters, Gabrielle, while attending high school in Norfolk.

“It was just for a little bit of time,” Chancellor said. “I actually went to his house one time and met him and he told me who he was. But I wasn’t really familiar with him or familiar with the Seahawks.”

In fact, Chancellor said it wasn’t until one of the first times he walked through the halls of the VMAC after being drafted by the Seahawks in 2010 that he really put it all together.

Banners of each of the Seahawks players and coaches in the team’s Ring of Honor – of which Easley became a member in 2002 – hang over a hallway between the team’s locker room and indoor field, an area players typically walk through maybe dozens of times a day.

“When I first got here I saw his picture,” Chancellor said, pointing to the hallway. “And I was like, ‘Hold on, that’s the Kenny Easley I knew right there?’ So I started Googling him and YouTubing him and just seeing all the things he did in the game and how he changed the game as a big-hitting, fast, athletic safety. And from then on I’ve just been a fan.”

Chancellor said he sees elements of his game and that of Thomas when he watches how Easley played with the Seahawks.

“He had that combination of me and Earl’s game together, that’s the type of player he is, the similarities that I see,” Chancellor said. “From a physical standpoint and the field awareness I see that similarity (with his game). And I think his ballhawking skills are more like an Earl-type of thing.”

Which only makes sense when considering Easley’s history.

Listed at 6-foot-3, 198 pounds in the Seahawks media guide, Easley was almost as tall as Chancellor (listed at 6-3, 225) but about the same weight as Thomas (listed at 5-10, 202).

Easley also played free safety for much of his pre-Seahawks career, including during all of his time at UCLA – he was named along with now-fellow Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott as one of the two safeties on the Pac-12 All-Century team a few years ago.

In a story he has told often in the lead-up to his induction, Easley said he had a workout with the 49ers and then-coach Bill Walsh the day before the 1981 draft, with Walsh telling him the team planned to take him with the eighth overall pick, ostensibly to play free safety.

Easley said he was shocked when the next day he heard then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle say the Seahawks were taking him with the fourth overall pick.

“I had never talked to Seattle,” he said. “I had never worked out for them, never talked to anybody in the organization.”

(The 49ers, who indeed were looking for a safety, then took Lott at No. 8).

Easley was further surprised when he got to Seattle and, he says, before his first practice was told to play strong safety (the Seahawks’ free safety at the time was John Harris).

Easley said then-coach Jack Patera told him as he took the field for the first time: “Number 45 – that’s what he called me, just number 45 – he said you are going to line up at strong safety. And that was when I found out.

“I didn’t like it. I basically had to learn how to play the position because I had been used to playing (free safety).”

It didn’t take him long to adjust as Easley earned AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 1981 making a career-high 107 tackles.

The Seahawks officially listed Easley as right safety and Harris as left safety in 1981 and 1982 when Patera was coach then officially listed him as strong safety in 1983-87 under Chuck Knox.

But Chancellor said the type of strong safety Easley was isn’t the same as he is today.

“He was more of a deep middle-field safety, more like what Earl does back there instead of being up in the box and setting edges like I do,” Chancellor said. “What I do is a combination of like linebacker and strong and free, it’s like a slash-type player. He was more free-roaming back there.”

In Easley’s eyes, though, the difference in the position he was asked to play by Seattle from what he thought he’d do has left some wondering of what might have been.

Easley’s career was over before he turned 29 – the age at which Chancellor this week just signed a new three-year contract and a year older than Thomas is now – because of a kidney issue brought on from painkiller use necessitated by injuries during his Seahawks career.

Easley said he has “no doubt” he would have played longer had he played free safety and not strong safety. “I think I would have saved a little bit of wear and tear on my body,” he said.

He said he also thinks his 32 career interceptions “would have easily been 49 or 50 at the free safety position.”

In fact, when Easley is asked about Chancellor and Thomas he praises each for being “a premier player at their position” but then levies one piece of constructive criticism.

“The only thing I could say about both that could be slightly negative is that they are not premier ballhawkers,” he said. “What I mean by that is they are not making the number of interceptions that they should be making if they weren’t going after the receiver instead of the ball. What I notice is that they have a tendency to go after the receiver first and the ball second whereas when I played the game I went after the ball first and the receiver second.”

Easley tied a team record that had earlier been set by Harris in 1981 with 10 interceptions in 1984, the year he was named as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, also tying the record for most interceptions in a game (three) and consecutive games with an interception (four).

Chancellor has 12 interceptions in his career and Thomas 23, each having already played more career games (Chancellor 101 and Thomas 107) than Easley’s 89.

The game is a little different then than it is now as offenses have increasingly emphasized taking care of the ball – according to, NFL teams threw 615 interceptions in 1984, when there were 28 teams, compared to 415 last season, when there were 32.

But don’t mistake Easley’s critique as any lack of admiration for how Thomas and Chancellor – two players he considers worthy heirs – play the game.

“I really love the way they play with that excitement and the way they get the defense fired up as they come together,’’ he said. “It would have been fun to play with either of them.’’

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