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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Kennedy a good fit in NFL Hall of Fame

With the release of Northwest Mississippi Community College’s football signing class for 2012 Monday, I thought it appropriate to look back at a former Ranger signee who went on to impact the game at the Division I level and the NFL.lize it, but defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy got his standout career started in Senatobia with the Rangers. Before he terrorized ballcarriers at the University of Miami and with the Seattle Seahawks, Kennedy was driving quarterbacks and running backs into the ground at NWCC.
Kennedy, who was just inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame on Saturday, was a unique defensive tackle. He was large — over 300 pounds when he first came to campus — but yet very quick for his size. Kennedy was a dominating force in the middle of the line for the Rangers and coach Bobby Franklin in 1986 and 1987.
Franklin, who played for Ole Miss under legendary coach Johnny Vaught in the late 1950s, has forgotten more about football than most people know. Franklin, who played safety in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns for seven seasons, said he was thrilled for Kennedy and his recent achievement.
“I couldn’t be prouder of Cortez,” Franklin said Monday afternoon. “He is a great guy. He was a great player for us here. I watched the TV to see if he was going to get in this year. He’s been close before and when he made it down to the final 10 (names), I knew he had a chance.”
Franklin said he talked with Kennedy, who now lives in Orlando, Fla., three weeks ago about possibly getting into the Hall of Fame. He was unable to reach him to congratulate him on Saturday, but Franklin was positive that Kennedy would call soon.
The two talk on a regular basis. Franklin said Kennedy still calls him Dad on the phone and when they are able to meet up in person. The relationship started quietly, Franklin said Monday.
“We went over to meet him in Wilson, Arkansas when we were thinking about signing him. He was a nice guy. I can tell you this, they love him in his hometown. He took us to his school and introduced us to his teachers and people around town. Everybody knew who he was,” said Franklin, who added that Kennedy’s mother was a school teacher and his father was a state congressman. “We really liked him, but he didn’t say too much. I remember when we first got him on campus, we  just stared at each other in my office. It was like he was trying to feel me out and really understand who I was.”
The relationship eventually improved from a few words to one where Kennedy routinely stopped by Franklin’s office for words of wisdom or advice. Franklin remembers telling Kennedy, after his first year with the team, that he needed to lose weight so that he could be an even better player as a sophomore.
“It was just before we got ready to lift and workout in the summer. I asked him what he was going to do, if he was going to stay with the team. He told me that he was going to go live with his uncle who was a lawyer in Texas and work,” Franklin said. “I told him I thought he needed to get down to 275. We called him “Baby Cakes” because he loved to eat, so I told him if he didn’t get his weight down, that I was going to cut him. I really wasn’t, but I wanted him to think that. Anyway, I asked him where he was going to work. He said that his uncle had gotten him a job at Pizza Hut. I said where? I said Cortez, you’ll never get that weight down.
“He left and went to Texas and I remember sending him a letter each week with the number 275 on a sheet of paper in an envelope. The summer was just about over and the team was coming back together for practice and here comes Cortez,” Franklin continued. “He drove one of those Ranchero trucks. I remember him driving up and getting out in front of the office. He had on these tight Levi jeans on and he told me how he weighed 280. The thing I remember about that is when he said he was going to do something, he meant it. He didn’t get to 275, but he was close. He really worked hard, always did.”
Too dominant
Gary Darby, who called games for NWCC on the radio during that time period, said if Franklin told him to do something, Kennedy would do it.
“The big guy was just that way with Coach Franklin. You could tell he had a great respect for Coach Franklin,” Darby said. “He was such a dominant force out there every game. He was double and triple teamed all the time and still would make plays. Cortez was one of those first players that looked like the Refrigerator (William Perry). You maybe didn’t think he would make a play, but he always got it done.”
David Kellum, who also called NWCC games during that time period, called Kennedy “a man among boys.”
“He was so good. I don’t think there was any one game that stood out more to me because he was good every game he played in. He could use his hands and push guys out of the way and make the tackle, just amazing,” Kellum recalled. “You didn’t realize that he would be a Hall of Famer. You knew he was good, that he was similar to the players that we’ve all seen at Ole Miss like a Patrick (Willis). I just don’t think we knew just how good he really was. Looking back in hindsight, he was the best tackle. He was just really special.”
Helping the Rangers
Kennedy helped the Rangers win 10 games in 1986 and another 10 games in 1987, as well as a North Division title and an MACJC state title. Kennedy also earned All-State recognition as well as a spot on the NJCAA All-American team. His stock was very high with college recruiters and there were several schools looking to sign him.
“He always talked about playing for Arkansas because he was from there. In December, (Miami head coach) Jimmy Johnson asked me how good he was. I told him, ‘Coach if you don’t sign him, somebody else will.’ Well Arkansas’ coaches called me and asked if they could come by the school to talk with him,” Franklin said. “I called Cortez up there and I went back into my office. Two minutes later, the guy from Arkansas comes in and said ‘Coach, can you come in here for a minute?’ I went in across the way and Cortez had his foot up on the desk. The coach said ‘Ok, tell Coach Franklin what you told me.’ Cortez said he was going to be a Hurricane. I said ‘well this is news to me.’
“I told him it was his choice and left. A few minutes later that Arkansas coach said he was leaving and Cortez went on to Miami.”
Stardom
Kennedy went on to star at Miami under Johnson and Johnson’s successor, Dennis Erickson, a coach Franklin said Kennedy got to be very close to over the years. He helped lead the Hurricanes to a No. 2 ranking in 1988 and then a national championship in 1989. Kennedy started a pipeline of NWCC players signing with Miami. A total of four Rangers played for the Hurricanes in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in large part because of Kennedy.
After Miami, Kennedy, who was drafted as the third overall pick in the 1990 draft, played 11 seasons with the Seahawks. He was named All-Pro five times, selected to eight Pro Bowls and was named Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in 1992 despite the Seawhawks’ 2-14 record. He finished with over 600 tackles and 58 sacks, big numbers for a 6-foot-3, 295-pound player that constantly drew two and sometimes three blockers each play.
“He was so dominant,” Franklin said. “I know what it’s like to play in the NFL. I also know what it’s like to get into the Hall of Fame. (Franklin gave the speech for former Ole Miss standout Gene Hickerson when he entered the Hall of Fame a few years back). He was just a great player, a great person. I couldn’t be prouder for him.”
                                                                                                                                                                         –johndavis@oxfordeagle.com (February 7, 2012, Page 9)

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