By Cynthia Zordich, Player Engagement Insider
When Walter Jones first walked onto the practice field – a rookie selected sixth overall in the 1997 NFL draft -- defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy was THE MAN in Seattle.
“As a rookie, you’re just trying to hang with the big boys,” Jones remembered. “Early in camp, all of the veteran linemen were gathered around talking before practice. So, I was there and decided to chime in. As soon as my mouth opened Cortez looked at me and said, ‘Shut up rookie, If I want your two cents, I’ll take it.’”
From that day forward, Jones stood back and watched. Whom he watched most was Kennedy. His mission? To gain his respect. Jones was a quick study and he watched closely how Kennedy played the game, how he practiced, how he spoke to his teammates, the staff, the field crew, the executives – all the same - with respect and a genuine interest in who they were.
“Tez knew everybody, but you had to earn his respect before he let you in,” Jones said. It wasn’t until my third year during one-on-ones. Cortez was still the man. I think there were some whisperings that I was coming into my own. One day he decided to go up against me. After that, we kind of connected. We started talking. It wasn’t about the play – it was that I had earned his respect and after that he treated me like a friend. We were connected from that point on.”
When asked to describe Kennedy, Jones said, “He played the game the way it was supposed to be played.” To Jones, this means with professionalism. To play the game respectfully, to practice passionately, to mentor on and off the field, to care.
The mentor would record 668 tackles, 58 sacks and three interceptions. A two-time Pro Bowl selection and five-time Associated Press All-Pro, Kennedy played 11 seasons for the Seattle Seahawks earning an induction into the Seahawk Ring of Honor in 2006 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012. The same year, the Seahawks retired his jersey -- number 96.
The student would go on to become a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and six-time Associate Press All-Pro, starting 13 seasons with Seattle. In 2010, the Seahawks would retire Jones’ jersey number 71. and in 2014, he was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Walking into the Hall of Fame that first year, Jones relied on Kennedy to bridge the gap between himself -- a young selection -- and the veteran Hall of Fame players.
“He was a buffer for me being a young player going in to the Hall,” Jones said. He played with a lot of those guys and made it a point to make me comfortable and help me connect with them.”
On May 23, 2017, Kennedy passed away at the age of 48. The idea of returning to Canton for the 2017 induction ceremonies without him made the decision to go difficult for Jones. Walking in without his buffer, he was emotional.
“I walked up to the registration desk and there I saw the number 96 buttons,” Jones said. It felt so good to put one on my yellow jacket - like Cortez was there with me. A lot of people asked what the 96 was for and it gave me a chance to talk about Tez. I realized that I needed to talk about him and that could be why I made that trip after all.”
A dozen or so Hall of Fame players donned the button: Jerome Bettis, John Randle, Richard Dent, Chris Doleman, Joe Green, to name a few. The tribute created a community that opened discussion about their own health. It gave cause to check on each other, ask the good question: Is everything okay?
“What is significant about that,” Jones said, “is that Cortez always called to check on me. Out of the blue he would call and say, ‘Hey Walter, just calling to check on you. No, I don’t need anything - just checking in to make sure all is good.’ That’s how he was with a lot of his teammates and probably everyone he knew.”
Always the mentor, Kennedy is still teaching, and Jones keeps soaking it in. How simple, he thought on his way home from Canton, to pick up the phone and call a friend to check on him.
This September 6th, in paying homage to his teammate, Jones is launching the 96 CHECK initiative. Jones is asking NFL players and families across the league to pick one NFL teammate they have not talked to in a while and check on him on September 6th each year, “To make sure all is good.”
For 96 CHECK, all current and alumni players have to do is check on one player and confirm their check with a post or tweet with the #96CHECK and #NFLBROTHERHOOD hashtags on 9/6/17.
“Of all the things I’ve done in a Seattle uniform, all while under the watchful eye of Cortez – I know that living a life of kindness, a respectful life, is what mattered most to Tez. 96 CHECK gives me the chance to honor his life and shine a light on his caring heart, while looking after players who may have slipped through the cracks.”
Cynthia Zordich is the co-author of When The Clock Runs Out and founder of nflthread.net. She is the wife of Former NFL Safety/current UM DB Coach, Michael Zordich, and the mother of Former Fullback Michael Zordich (Carolina Panthers), Former D-1 QB Alex Zordich and Daughter Aidan Zordich (Assistant, Funny or Die).