When Paul Johns, the Seattle Seahawks' career punt return leader, went down with a season-ending ruptured disc in his neck in the fourth game of the season, strong safety Ken Easley volunteered for Johns's job. The amazing thing is not that Easley has been so successful at returning punts—he ranks third in the NFL with a 12.1-yard average—but that he took the job at all.
"I'd have to think a long time before I could come up with the name of another starter who ever volunteered to run back punts," says head coach Chuck Knox, who's in his second year with Seattle and 12th in the NFL. "But that's the kind of guy Kenny is."
That's also the kind of guy the Sea-hawks—a moderately talented team in a chain-saw division—have depended on to get where they are this year. They have their best record ever after 10 games (8-2) and seem shoo-ins for the NFL overachievers-of-the-year award. Were they in a division without the Broncos (9-1) and their nemesis, the Raiders (7-3), they might be gliding blissfully toward the playoffs. As it is, they're in a dogfight that may not be decided until the end of the season.
Lacking big stars—just try to name an active Seattle offensive player other than Dave Krieg or Steve Largent, or any defender other than Easley—they're doing it like a high school team, with intensity and spirit. And nobody on the team plays with more intensity than Easley. "I just have a lot of confidence in what I'm doing," says the two-time All-Pro from UCLA who was taken by the Seahawks in the first round of the 1981 draft. "Some people have to go through a ritual to get ready to play, but I don't. The game itself turns me on."
His mere presence on the punt return team has been a huge morale booster for the Seahawks. After losing star running back Curt Warner to early-season knee surgery, the team was in danger of a psychological cave-in. Symbolic acts become important in moments of stress, and Easley's offer to take over what may be the most dangerous position on the field was a perfect demonstration of altruism. "People ask why I risk such a valuable player that way," says Knox. "But the point is he wants to do it, and it's the kind of attitude this team thrives on."
And indeed, special teams—which are nothing more than heart and spleen with 22 legs attached—are at the core of Seattle's success. The offense is ranked 22nd in the NFL and the defense fifth. But the kick-off coverage team is ranked third and the punt return team 11th. And it has been that way for a while. Last season the Sea-hawks' special teams led the NFL in both punt and kickoff coverage, and it was only the second time a team has led in both categories. Seattle first led the league in kickoff coverage in 1982, allowing only 15 yards per return, which was the second-lowest yield in NFL history.
Moreover, aggressive play by special teamers has lent a certain heads-up quality to everything the Seahawks do. The defense is second (42) to the Bears (47) in the NFL in sacks; it's tied with the Rams and Broncos with 18 fumble recoveries; and its 26 interceptions leads the league. In Sunday's 45-0 blowout of the Chiefs, the Seahawks set an NFL record by running back four interceptions for touchdowns, two by Dave Brown (the first for 95 yards, the second for 58), one by Keith Simpson (for 76 yards) and the last by Easley (for 58 yards).
A lot of the credit for the gung-ho play of the bomb squadders must go to special-teams coach Rusty Tillman, 38, who played eight years of backup tight end for the Washington Redskins in the '70s. "Rusty was a special-teams player most of his career, so he understands what it takes to do the job," says starting cornerback and special teamer Dave Brown. "He can get us up and be reasonable."
Tillman himself says good special-teams performance is just a matter of getting players to realize how vital their role is to the big picture. "It has been demonstrated to our guys how they help us win," he says. In the Buffalo game, for instance, the Seahawks blocked two punts and recovered a fumble in the first quarter, resulting in a 17-0 Seattle lead on just 17 total yards of offense.
"We do well on special teams because we don't just talk about it," says Easley. "Every Wednesday we work on blocking Jeff West's punts, and you can't leave the field until you get one."
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."
"I go to church and pray he's back next year," says Hawkins. "Or if he's not, I want a deal where he takes me with him."
"We're not going to lose Easley," says general manager Mike McCormack firmly. And you have to believe him. Punt returners are hard to find.