CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — Overcoming obstacles to succeed and lead by example was the dream, and reality, for NFL Hall of Famer, and Chesapeake’s own, Kenny Easley.
Easley is the oldest of five. He is the son of a Marine and parents who were married for more than 40 years. He credits his father with making him the man he is today by convincing Kenny to believe in himself the way his father believed in him.
“As a young, black athlete growing up in this area, it was not easy,” says Kenny.
When Kenny’s high school football career took off at Oscar Smith in Chesapeake, he found himself facing an awkward and confusing dynamic.
“Some of the same people who would cheer for me at the game Friday nights, when I was walking home from school after practices, would chase me in the neighborhood, throw rocks at me, and call me all kinds of names coming through the neighborhoods.”
Kenny knew then, as a young teenager, he wanted to leave the area.
“I knew also then that it was going to be football that was going to get me out of here.”
In his senior year, 1977, some of Kenny’s coaches told him he was a small town kid who needed to play small town football. That didn’t sit well with him.
“I had bigger aspirations for myself. My goal was to get out of the southeast or the south.”
For a long time, Kenny planned to go to the University of Michigan, but on National Signing Day at an assembly at his school something inside him changed.
“I think it was Bruce Rader had his camera there and he said, ‘Okay, well, what are you going to do?’ And I just blurt out, ‘I’m going to UCLA.'”
Kenny still isn’t sure why the words “UCLA” came from his lips, but he credits divine intervention. He says he will never forget when his mother dropped him off at the airport. She told him something very powerful.
“Once you get through security,’ And these are her exact words,” says Kenny, “She said, ‘I don’t want you to look back, turn back, or come back.’ She said ‘I want you to go and do what you do and prove all those naysayers wrong.'”
“There were a lot of naysayers…a lot of people didn’t think that I could go to UCLA,” says Kenny. “The day I left here, I was on a mission. I was on a mission. The one thing that I did not want to do was to have to come back here as a failure.”
Kenny thrived at UCLA. His talent and hard work lead him to become a starter as a freshman and lead to one of his most beloved moments: beating rival USC.
“Up until that point, that was the greatest thing that happened in my career.”
When Kenny was a junior at UCLA he come home to visit family and friends in Chesapeake. During the visit, he had a life-changing moment.
“I lived over on Atlantic Avenue and there was an area called Foundation Park. I was driving through the neighborhood one day and I came up to a stop sign. There were kids playing football over in the open field, and I had the window down because it was in the summertime. I heard this kid say, ‘I’m Kenny Easley!’ And right then and there, at that moment, something clicked in me saying, ‘This is why you have to do it the right way. So that this kid can say I modeled my life after Kenny Easley.’ From that day forward I wanted to be a good example to any kid that wanted to travel in my shoes.”
“There are only 310 Pro Football Hall of Famers, 310, and Kenny Easley is number 306,” Kenny says with a smile.
NFL Hall of Famer No. 306 now dedicates his life to local children. He started a flag football league for them that not only teaches them the sport, but also provides mentorship and a sense of pride and family. Kenny says that is why he came back to Virginia.
“So that when I leave this Earth, somebody can say about Kenny Easley, he did something because he cared about the children coming behind him.”
Kenny also plans to add “author” to his resume. He is currently writing a book about his life. He says you can look for it on the shelves in 2019.