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Cortez Kennedy (1968–2017)

Mississippi County native Cortez Kennedy was considered one of the best defensive tackles to have played in the National Football League (NFL). After an eleven-year career with the Seattle Seahawks, he retired in 2000. In 2012, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2015.

Cortez Kennedy was born on August 23, 1968, in Osceola (Mississippi County). He spent his first eighteen years in the small town of Wilson (Mississippi County), where he was raised by his mother, Ruby, and stepfather, Joe Harris. With few activities available in the rural setting, Kennedy turned to football, becoming a star defensive player at Rivercrest High School. His promising career nearly ended when, as a sophomore, he was forced to leave the team due to academic problems. Kennedy recalls his mother sending him a “wish you were here” postcard from the state championship game that year, in which he was not allowed to play. He regained his academic standing, and by his senior year in 1985, he led the Rivercrest Colts to the Arkansas 3A State Championship.

Football offered great opportunities for a young man who had aspirations to follow his stepfather into the construction business or to be a state trooper. Though he was highly recruited by colleges, academics once again proved a roadblock. Instead of enrolling in a major university, he accepted a scholarship from Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia. Successfully completing two years of junior college (1986–87), he transferred to the University of Miami (UM). Kennedy excelled on the field during his two years (1988–89) with the Hurricanes. During his senior year, UM won a national championship, and Kennedy was named Associated Press Second Team All-America.

After completing his college eligibility (he would later return to UM and graduate), he became one of the most sought-after defensive linemen by teams of the NFL. In the first round of the 1990 draft, the Seattle Seahawks drafted Kennedy as the third overall player selected.

Kennedy’s late reporting to the Seahawks training camp due to a contract dispute contributed to a rookie season in which he started in only two games. As a starter in his second season in 1991, he began the season strong, recording six quarterback sacks in the first six games. Even though a mid-season knee injury hampered his play, he made seventy-three tackles, an impressive number for an interior defensive lineman. He was selected as an alternate to his first Pro Bowl and was able to play after another player was forced to withdraw.

Kennedy received the most accolades of his career for his 1992 season. He recorded fourteen sacks. Of his total of ninety-two tackles, twenty-eight were for losses. At the conclusion of the season, he was unanimously selected as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Kennedy played another eight years, all for the Seahawks. During his career, he played in 167 games, had 568 unassisted tackles, assisted in 100 more tackles, and had fifty-eight sacks, three interceptions, and one fumble recovery for a touchdown. He was selected to participate in the Pro Bowl eight times and was named All-Pro five times. Despite his outstanding play, the Seahawks fielded only two teams with winning records during his career, in 1990 and 1999.

After an eleven-year NFL career, Kennedy sat out the 2001 season. After considering leaving the Seahawks, he announced his retirement in 2002. He soon purchased a home in Wilson and moved there. He felt that, as a single father, he could better raise his eight-year-old daughter, Courtney, there. Kennedy and his wife, Nicole, divorced in about 1996, and Kennedy had received custody. Kennedy attempted to remain fairly low key in his hometown despite his celebrity, but city officials sometimes asked for his assistance in attracting businesses to the area.

After being a four-time finalist, Kennedy received his greatest honor in 2012 by being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Among the honorees that year was fellow Arkansan Willie Roaf. Kennedy’s many honors include induction into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, the Seattle Seahawks Ring of Honor, and the University of Miami Ring of Honor; he was also a member of the 1990s NFL All Decade Team. The Seahawks also retired his jersey, number 96.

In 2012, Kennedy and his daughter moved to Orlando, Florida. He said that he wanted his daughter to be able to become her own person and escape his name. Though retired from football, Kennedy remained active in the sport. He served as an advisor for the New Orleans Saints and in 2013 was appointed a Seahawks Ambassador, working with outreach programs for the franchise.

Kennedy was found dead on May 23, 2017.

For additional information:
“Cortez Kennedy.” Pro-Football-Reference.com. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/K/KennCo00.htm (accessed August 17, 2016).

“Kennedy, OT Roaf Enshrined.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 4, 2012, pp. 1C, 8C.

Muck, Jeremy. “Big Figure in Wilson.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 24, 2017, pp. 1C, 6C.

———. “Kennedy Flourished in Obscurity.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 5, 2012, pp. 1C, 7C.

Mike Polston
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 5/24/2017

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