It was the height of incongruity. Polite, gentle, easygoing UCLA senior Kenny Easley, seated in the relaxed surroundings of a rooftop restaurant, looking down on Sunset Boulevard and, in his soft-spoken way, evaluating the manner in which he plays football: "On the field I'm related to a maniac, I guess, or a wild man."
At the very least, the 6'3", 206-pound Easley plays with the storied abandon favored by coaches since Amos Alonzo Stagg was in his heyday, and this is what makes him the best defensive back in college football today. Indeed, there is a feeling in some interested quarters that Easley just may be the best defensive back in collegiate history.
"I like to hit," understates Easley. "I dream about it." Easley is also very versatile. Says UCLA Coach Terry Donahue, "Kenny would realistically have a chance to be first string at any position on the field." But Easley, who was an outstanding high school quarterback, demurs, saying, "I don't think I have any astonishing qualities as a passer or as a runner." There had been some thought last season that Easley might become the Bruins' quarterback. He is not disappointed it did not come about. "As free safety here at UCLA, I make all the checks in the secondary and shade the defense, to make the calls for our alignment set. I don't miss the mental challenge and leadership of the offense because I'm doing the same thing with the defense. The jobs are similar."
It took Easley only three years to establish a UCLA career interception record of 17, which isn't surprising because he is a student of the interception. "There's a key to interceptions," he says. "No. 1 is to put yourself in proper alignment. Two, in good field position. Three, making a good cutoff point. Four, reading a quarterback's eyes and body. When I say eyes, I mean the head, the helmet, the shoulders, the entire head structure and upper body." Further, he is a student of the open-field tackle; the key is getting the man with the ball where he wants him. His 158 unassisted tackles are testament to his scholarship. "The sideline is my silent partner," says Easley. "If you give a runner two ways to go, then he can manipulate you."
Easley seldom has been manipulated, going back to his career at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Va. "I never thought anyone would come down to a little town such as Chesapeake to recruit what was really a country boy," he says. It helped that his brickmason father, Kenny Sr., was a fervent UCLA fan, which was the major reason Kenny ended up going to school clear across the country from his home. Ducky Drake, UCLA's trainer, says, "If we had 22 Easleys, we wouldn't need a 23rd."
Sadly, the Bruins don't have 21 Easleys and have such a rigorous schedule this year that Easley might not get the nationwide attention he deserves. But that won't take away from the glittery play of this articulate history major with a 2.975 grade average. He failed to become an academic All-America (3.0 is required) because he missed a midterm exam. (He was in Phoenix filming a TV promotional message on drug abuse for the NCAA.) The instructor wouldn't let him make it up. Thus, an A on the final gave Easley a D for the course.
Staring out at the California night, Easley talked of the joys of playing free safety: "I take the game very seriously. It means a great deal to me, and I never look at it as being drudgery. There are thousands of young athletes who have the ability but just don't have the drive and determination to go out and pursue a goal. Not only do I want to put the ballcarrier on the ground, but I want to let him know that Kenny Easley tackled him—that he shouldn't be running in my territory. I like to initiate contact rather than receive it, but I don't play the game to hurt anyone. Once I see the man getting up, that clears my conscience that I didn't hurt him or that he didn't get hurt falling. The satisfaction is that I might put a little fear in a guy's heart next time he comes into my land."
His most jarring lick, in Easley's opinion, was one he put on Stanford's All-America flanker, Ken Margerum, two seasons ago when Margerum "caught a pass—well, he attempted to catch a pass—down the left sideline. He didn't see me, I saw him. It was the most vicious lick I ever delivered." He wants his hits solid and clean. Says Easley, "I want to look good, feel good and play good."
Easley is also good at learning from errors. His first television interview came when he announced his signing with UCLA. Afterward, his high school coach, Tommy Rhodes, called and said, "Kenny, my wife and I listened intently to the interview. You used 23 'you knows.' " Today, Easley carefully monitors his speech and says of that phrase, "It chills me. It shows lack of continuity and thought in the speech process." There's no lack of continuity and thought in anything Kenny Easley does, which is why the Bruins' assistant coach, Tom Hayes, sees him as "simply a rare gem."