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Opponents must wish Easley would leave the field a little more frequently than he does, or at least with less drama. Against the Chargers two weeks ago Easley intercepted three Dan Fouts passes. That was a team record, but nobody on the Seahawks got too excited about it.
"He's just the best strong safety in football," says defensive backfield coach Ralph Hawkins. "I coached Ken Houston for seven years at Washington, and he's going to go into the Hall of Fame. But in a lot of respects Easley is better than Houston was."
"He's incredible," says Knox. "He's got great agility, quickness, hands, size and attitude. He can make plays nobody else can."
Strong, too. At 6'3" and a ropy 206 pounds, he is the largest punt returner in the league, as well as a terrifying sight to crossing wide receivers. A marvelously gifted athlete, Easley lends credence to one of the gags that circulated during the Olympics. Question: Where are America's great decathletes? Answer: They're safeties in the NFL.
As a quarterback at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va., Easley became the first player in the state to both run and pass for 1,000 yards in a season. As a safety at UCLA he became the first player in Pac-10 history to be named All-Conference four straight years. He also played JV basketball for the Bruins and was picked in the 10th round of the NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls. His JV coach said the only other player who could cover the floor the way Easley did was Marques Johnson. Just for kicks, Easley took up golf for relaxation when he joined the Seahawks, and already he has a five handicap.
Then there's the way he hits. "He's one of the most vicious tacklers ever," says guard Reggie McKenzie, 34, a 13-year NFL veteran who starts to giggle at the very thought of Easley in action. "He comes up and shaves the man's butt. I mean, he lathers the ballcarrier."
There were occasions at UCLA when Easley, who shaved his head before each season, almost seemed ready to blast off into orbit. "I just worked my way into an animalistic frenzy," he has said. "I played like a wild man." Now, though, he's more controlled, if no less dynamic, while on the field doing his job. "I don't talk out there," he says. "I just play as hard as I can. Playing defense suits my temperament. It's like a release mechanism for me."
Before this season Easley and his agent, Leigh Steinberg, decided that his contract (about $285,000 counting bonuses) was too small and that he should get what the best defensive backs in the league were getting. Easley said he wanted what the 49ers' Ronnie Lott signed for—about $577,000 per year—plus a dollar more. As these things will, the negotiations turned ugly, nothing was signed and Easley said, "I know I won't be here next year."
There was gossip that Easley was moody and selfish and that his teammates wouldn't be sorry to see him leave. This hurt Easley, who says, "It's strange that for three years I was a humanitarian and a good Samaritan, and now in the final year of my contract I'm a dirty thing. All I can say is, ask other people what they think."
" Kenny Easley is a class act," says McKenzie. "He graduated from college, he's articulate, he doesn't dissipate, he's a home-run hitter. It would be one of the worst things in the world to let that boy go."