I had the privilege to sit down with Falcons great Mike Kenn to discuss his Hall of Fame candidacy and much more. Kenn shared with me how he got his start as an offensive tackle under legendary coach Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan, his thoughts on how the game is different today for offensive linemen, a fascinating look at his time as NFLPA president, and lots of fun stories along the way.
I came away from this interview feeling even more strongly that Kenn richly deserves to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His on-field accomplishments should be enough to justify it. He played for 17 years, was pretty much a fixture at the Pro Bowl, and was named All-Pro multiple times. Kenn's off-the-field work with the NFLPA during some tumultuous times in the league's history and the favorable outcomes facilitated under his leadership aren't as well known as his accomplishments on the field, but are certainly worthy of acknowledgement.
Many thanks to Mike Kenn for being willing to speak with me, and many thanks, also, to his daughter, Lisa, who worked with us to arrange the interview. Here's hoping that we see Kenn take his rightful place in Canton in 2015.
The Genesis of Mike Kenn's career:
Mike Kenn wasn't a hotly recruited offensive line prospect coming out of high school. In fact, it was a bit of a winding road for Kenn at the start of his college career.
Jeanna Thomas: Offensive linemen today are usually around, or over, 300 pounds. When you got to the University of Michigan, how much did you weigh? You were not the prototypical offensive lineman that you would see on the field today.
Mike Kenn: 207.
JT: Oh, my gosh. So how did you become an offensive lineman?
MK: I don't know. I always-everybody played football in grade school because all of your friends are playing. And then the same thing happened in high school is that you went to the same high school as your grade school friends and everybody played football there, too. And for whatever reason, I was always just a little bit better than everybody else, and I had a knack for playing the position with leverage. Nobody really taught me that, but I kind of knew I was a little light in the rear end, and I was always very tall. The only way that I'm going to be able to compete is that I'm going to have to be lower than the other guy. And it still to this day, it's a leverage game, even though they don't really play it that way anymore. It's a leverage game.
So I actually played offensive tackle and defensive end in high school, and I even thought that I was a better defensive end than I was an offensive tackle, because actually, I was pretty fast. In fact, I was really fast. But everybody saw me as a tackle for whatever reason. And Michigan picked me. I didn't sign a letter of intent with Michigan until six weeks after the fact. In fact, I was getting closed out for a scholarship because I was so thin, everybody thought I was a basketball player.
And actually, at the last minute, my academic advisor and my head coach, Murney Lazier, got me a visit to the University of Cincinnati, and I went for a visit there because my parents couldn't afford to pay for college. I went there and I hated it. And they offered me a scholarship on the spot the next day, and pushed it across the table and said, "Sign here." And thank God I decided, "No, I hate this place." I said, "If I've got to go home and go to junior college, that's just what I have to do." I called, I told my dad, he said, "Son, that's fine. Whatever you want to do."
So that's the path we were heading down, and then Michigan called because they had a player who changed his mind. And Elliott Uzelac, who actually saw me play lacrosse, was really advocating for me at Michigan. And I kept calling all the time. He's like, "Bo [Schembechler] says, ‘Well, let's give it to that Kenn kid.'" And they gave me a scholarship.
So when I reported to freshman training camp, the coaches had a big meeting room, and I walked in to say, "Hey, I'm here." This is how they made the decision. Bo says, "Kenn." He never called me by my first name until I left, which is typical. "Kenn, how are you doing? Good to see you. Welcome to Michigan." He says, "Well, what position do you want to play?" I go, "I'll play whatever position you want, Coach." He goes, "Well, who wants him in here?" Jerry Hanlon, the offensive line coach, says, "I'll take him." "Alright, you're with Hanlon."
JT: And then obviously you turned that into a stellar career.
MK: You know, I dislocated my elbow my freshman year in training camp. Then I actually bulked up to 215, but then it was really hard. The whole thing really started with, "We wasted a scholarship on you," this sort of thing. It was a high-pressure organization. And I went home. I almost flunked out of school. In fact, Bo called me into his office after my first semester, and I was depressed. It wasn't working out. Michigan was really hard academically. I think I got four Ds and a C. And Bo says, "You know, Kenn, looks like you're not going to be playing football for Michigan next year."
I said, "What are you talking about?" He says, "Well, you've got a 1.2 grade point average." He said, "In the NCAA, you've got to have a minimum of 1.8, and in the Big Ten you have to have a 2.0. If you don't get it up this semester, you're not coming back." So I got a 3.8.
And then I went home, and then it was just my time to grow, and I put on 35 pounds of muscle in one summer. Yeah, I just--my testosterone finally kicked in, because I grew an inch and a half in college. I was 6'6" when I got there and I left at 6'7½". So when I came back, I was 250-something pounds. And they were going to red shirt me. In fact, I walked into that same meeting room, and I had cutoff jean shorts on and a Day-Glo tee, and my body fat was probably 5% because I was still a very high metabolism guy. I walk in and Bo's sitting with his feet up on the table, his reading glasses on, and he looks over his glasses like, "Kenn? Kenn? Is that you?"
He drops his feet and I go, "Yeah, Bo. It's me."
He goes, "What the hell you been doing? You look great."
"I've been working and lifting a lot of weights."
He goes, "Well, God damn it. You look great. Welcome back." But he was shocked.
JT: Well, that's a pretty big transformation.
MK: Oh, it was. So I think I had a good training camp, but Steve King was a senior, and he was starting. And the first game, he goes down with a knee injury at the end of the game. His season's over. So they said, "Alright, you're the starter next week." And I started the rest of the year until I got hurt. In practice before the Ohio State game I broke my leg. Yeah, didn't play in the Ohio State game and didn't play in the Orange Bowl when we played Oklahoma. But then started my junior and senior year, so I ended up having three years starting.
On playing at Michigan during the Ten Year War between Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes
JT: And was it your junior or senior year that you beat Ohio State 22-0?
MK: Junior year. Great game. I'll tell you a quick story if you don't mind. So Woody was a maniac. So we're down at Columbus, and that's 87,000 people. And they had a really good football team, and they were projected to be national champions again. And it's still to this day one of the hardest dang football games I've ever played in. I mean, it was guys just going at it, and it's 0-0 at halftime. So it's a knock-down, drag-out, three yards and a cloud of ash from turf.
And when we got the ball back in the second half we drove down and scored, like 80 yards. Kicked off to Ohio State-stopped them. Received again, drove down and scored--80 yards. Stopped Ohio State again. Got the punt, drove down and scored again and went for two, because Woody, if you remember, had done this to Bo. And we made it 22-0.
So we get the ball back again, because we stop Ohio State. We drive across the 50-yard line. It's in the fourth quarter, like five and a half minutes left in the game. Bo goes, "Time out. First offense, you're done for the day." So I'm sitting there, and so you're so involved in the moment. You finally go, "Holy crap, we've beat Ohio State. We've kicked the crap out of them."
JT: In the Shoe.
MK: In the Shoe. And then all of a sudden you start to take in the environment, and I realized as I'm walking off the field at the 50-yard line, I can't hear anything. It's dead quiet. And I get to the sidelines and I turn around and I look across the field, and there's Woody Hayes standing there with his arms crossed, this big scowl on his face, and there's not a player or coach within ten yards of him. I just went, "Holy crap."
On facing NFL legends before they became NFL legends:
JT: And then you went on to win the Rose Bowl?
MK: No, we did not. No, we lost to a great USC team that actually had Anthony Munoz on it and Clay Matthews, Jr. And Vince Evans was the quarterback. And then we got to the Rose Bowl again my senior year and lost to the Washington Huskies, and guess who the quarterback was?
MK: Warren Moon.
JT: That's amazing. It would have been really amazing to play during that era, because you guys have all become legends at this point.
MK: Yeah. In fact, there's a player on that team who was in the draft class with me, along with Clay, Blair Bush, who was the center. I have a picture that I still haven't sent to all the guys to get signed. At the Rams game--and the only guy who's not in uniform is Jeff Van Note--there's a picture of me, Clay Matthews, Jackie Slater, Blair Bush, and Jeff Van Note, and the guy with the least amount of years in that is Blair Bush and I at 17 years. Clay at 19, Jackie at 18, and Jeff Van Note at 18 years. Five guys.
JT: You played against Clay Matthews, Jr. in high school, too, correct?
MK: Well, Clay played one year--his senior year--at our rival high school on the north shore of Chicago. I played at Evanston and he played at New Trier. We actually played in the mythical state championship, because we didn't have one back then, and we lost the game 3-0 in a mud bowl. And our kicker made the field goal, but the official standing underneath the goal posts threw a flag for illegal procedure because our kicker had his mouthpiece hanging from his facemask and penalized us five yards, and then he missed the kick, and so we lost 3-0 where we'd been 3-3 tied. We still finished 1 and 2 in the state.
So then Clay went to USC and I went to Michigan. We played each other in the Rose Bowl. He was the 12th pick in the first round-I was the 13th pick. Then he played at Cleveland, and I played against him a bunch while he was at Cleveland. Then we played against each other in the Pro Bowl the same years that we were in the Pro Bowl. And then he came to Atlanta when his career was over at Cleveland and I got to play one year with him in Atlanta. So it was an interesting relationship that spans a lot of years.
On how the game has changed for offensive linemen:
JT: So how has the game changed for offensive linemen since you were in the league?
MK: Well, it's really hard for me to watch now, because what's pretty pervasive not only in college but in the NFL, is that nobody is teaching the position correctly anymore. In fact, they're teaching it incorrectly and they're making it more difficult for the modern day player to do their job. They really, really are.
I saw a thing at the Combine one time--and it was maybe when I was watching Jake Long a few years ago. And they had a guy with the offensive tackles who says, "Okay, I want you to go ahead," and he was showing them this thing called the kick slide--a way to pass set for the offensive tackle. And my chin just dropped. I'm like, "Holy crap. That's the absolute worst thing to do. The absolute worst." And they're still doing it now. And I'd have to show it to you and do everything, but it's the absolute worst thing to do, and every NFL film I watch and every college film I watch, they're all doing it the same way. They're all doing it.
There are so many things, and it's making it harder for them. And so it's changed in that regard. So there's been a huge knowledge loss in regards to the techniques of the position. The thing that was refreshing about Jake Matthews is that he actually sets perfect. You can tell his dad taught him. He sets square, his feet are pointed up the field, he sets back in phase. He does get a little loose sometimes in his sets that I notice, and I don't know if Mike Tice even can correct it.
Because there's things like-you never set a defensive lineman square. Never. You never do. And even if you're a guard, and especially if you're a tackle, you always set them outside leg to the crotch. You just do. And I don't want to get into details about it. But when you set it out a defensive lineman, square means head up, you give him a two-way go. You just do. And they do it all the time, you see it happen. And when Jake gets a little loose, that just means he's floating a little bit and he's out of phase between the defender and the quarterback.
So the other thing that's changed is that it's cyclical. It started with the Hogs [Redskins]. They got really big and lost mobility, and now it's kind of going back in the other way where they're looking for offensive tackles who are more athletic because it's predicated on the rush end position. But they're all too big. They're all too heavy. Very few of them that are not too heavy. Jake [Matthews] is not too heavy. But I finished my career in the low 290s, but being 6'7", they really wanted me 315 to 325. But when you go ahead and take a look at most of these guys, the reason why they're 315 to 325 is because they're carrying 15 to 25 pounds of fat.
It's E=MC squared as long as you're in the leverage-winning position. So it's kind of turned into a sumo-wrestling match now. Nobody comes off the ball and steps correctly. Everybody stands up first. Nobody's hitting them in the chest with their facemask and ripping their hands through. Nobody does that anymore. The guys don't run that well anymore because they're not required to pull that much anymore. The one team that actually pulls guys and makes the fat defensive tackles run and everything and creates separation is Seattle. They're running more of a college offense there.
It disheartens me to watch, because my job is to protect the quarterback. And the one thing that kept you up at night and gave you nightmares is what we used to call "the hospital shot." Because if I don't do my job, I'm visiting [the quarterback] in the hospital. So I've kind of toyed with--but I'm so old to the point now I don't even know how I'd enter into it, because they're very defensive about things--is that I can teach you how to do this and fix this, but one, I'm going to be really intrusive trying to get it done, and you're probably going to say no and not be very accepting. But I'd do it just because I worry about the quarterback getting planted all the time, and it's happening more frequently now than it ever has. It really is.
On the best player he ever faced as a pro:
MK: A lot of people are surprised when I say this, but you might not be, because I think he made the Pro Bowl twelve times. God bless his soul, Lee Roy Selmon. Lee Roy was a phenomenal player at the right defensive end position playing out of a 3-4, which means that he was in close proximity to me, the tackle, all the time, which allowed teams to double team him when the guard was uncovered. And when we'd go to the Pro Bowl, it went back and forth. Sometimes they were playing 3-4, sometimes they'd play 4-3. At least two, if not three times, when we were at the Pro Bowl, you'd really end up seeing offensive linemen who all knew about Lee Roy--when they were in a 4-3 set, we would stand on the sidelines and just watch, because then it put Lee Roy one-on-one with the tackle, and it was like them trying to pass block a ghost. Because that's when the guys actually played hard in the game, and it was like, holy crap.
He had an inside move that was so quick that you had to overplay it. If you didn't and tried to react to it, he'd be by you. So you had to overplay it. So Lee Roy was probably the best overall. The guy I probably had the most difficult time with, because I couldn't overcome his leverage. I was really happy when he went back inside--was Joe Klecko. Joe was very, very powerful. He was shorter, and he wouldn't give you anything to hit. In the early years, you'd go Bruce Smith. Bruce was a very--there's three kinds of rushers. There's a pre-planned rusher. There's an instinct rusher, and then I can't remember what the next one is. But the instinct rushers are harder to block than pre-planned rushers, because pre-planned rushers basically say, "Okay, I'm doing an up-field rush, this one-armed rip up the field this time." They've already decided what they're doing.
Bruce Smith and Lawrence Taylor lined up, and they had no clue what they were going to do. They just reacted to what was presented to them. So they were very hard to block. The other one is a setup artist--there's three. Richard Dent was a setup artist. He would set an offensive tackle up, and you always wondered how Richard, for some reason, had a knack to get the big sack at the big time in a game. Because--and I watched a lot of film and finally got it. I said, "Damn, Richard. You're a setup artist." And I actually confirmed with Trace Armstrong about it, who was a teammate of his. I said, "I finally figured Richard out. He's a setup artist." He goes, "Yeah, he is."
So I played against so many really great players, but Lee Roy was a special guy. And he only weighed 245 pounds. Man, he was phenomenal. I had to play him every year he was in the league, twice a year, because of geographical proximity, we always played them in the regular season and we always played them in the preseason, so it was like they were in our division. So I played against him a lot, and he was the best.
Kenn thought rookie left tackle Jake Matthews was the best tackle available in the 2014 NFL Draft:
MK: I was curious about Jake for two reasons. One, that he was Bruce Matthews' son, and then two-what's his name? Taylor Lewan was in the draft, too. He had some off-field controversies. So I pay very close attention, if not more close attention, to Michigan football now than I really do the Falcons, and not just because I played there-because then my youngest daughter was there for four years. And some of my teammates still live there, and I stay in close contact with them.
And I thought that [Matthews] was the top-rated offensive tackle in the draft. I was tickled that, if the Falcons were going to draft a tackle, that they picked him. The other two guys were going to--Taylor Lewan has a very bad stance and very bad footwork and posture, but somebody needs to correct it if they know how to correct it. If they do, then he could be as good as Jake Matthews is. Jake was already setting correctly. The other guy, Robinson, he's a guard. I don't know why they picked him--he's a guard. He might be a hell of a guard on the run block. He's still going to struggle in pass protection. But I think that Jake Matthews is a ten-plus year player barring injury, because he's got a solid foundation, uses his hands well, plays leverage. So he was a good pick for the Falcons.
Kenn was very active in the NFLPA, including spending eight years as NFLPA president:
JT: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to be the president of the NFLPA?
MK: It was a very difficult responsibility at very difficult times. I had been started with the NFLPA my second year as an alternate rep, then a player rep, then the executive committee--having gone out on strike in 1982 while I was a player rep, going out on strike when I was an executive committee member, and then becoming the president in 1989 when we finally realized--at my suggestion--that we weren't going to prevail through the labor courts, that we needed to consider decertifying as a union in order to sue the NFL in antitrust court. And that happened under my watch.
Met a lot of great guys--a lot of very compassionate guys, and passionate guys, because they cared. They not only wanted to protect themselves, but they wanted to protect their teammates. Basically our job was to represent players for wages, hours and working conditions. Simple union representation. Wages, hours and working conditions. I mean, one of the things that a lot of people don't even know--one of the rights that we wanted from the 1982 collective bargaining agreement--and I bet your dad doesn't even know this. Very few people do. We got the right for the first time to actually see our medical records.
JT: Really? That's huge.
MK: Yep. And I remember this, everybody, when they came back to work afterward, went in and got their medical records and started looking through them, and guys found stuff that they had never been told. Buddy Curry had a cracked vertebra in his neck he was never told about. So that's significant.
So there were some things going on back then that, in today's standards, could be arguably almost criminal. Then in 1987, that was really a difficult time, because the league orchestrated scab teams, as we called them--replacement teams-and actually played games, and we actually walked picket lines and were trying to hold team members from crossing in, and there was a lot going on. And to be honest with you, what happened there--the league didn't know how badly they had the NFLPA down. We were running out of money. Guys were crossing in. They started a new union, led by Larry Csonka, and they had a group licensing program where they were signing players up and giving them money, and they had signed up a lot more than we had thought. But [the NFL] ended up blinking first, and that's the only reason. But I remember sitting at the bargaining table with Jack Donlan at the table and Tex Schramm and all those people, and it's--a lot of stuff.
And so it was--I said earlier--I made more friend relationships through the NFLPA than I did playing for the Falcons. I knew players all over the NFL on every team--multiple players--because I was their president, and I was their president for eight years. So I probably learned more in that role and capacity than I did in anything else I've done in my life so far.
JT: You've been active in local politics since you retired from the NFL. Did your time as NFLPA president help push you toward politics after you retired, or was that always an interest of yours?
MK: No, it didn't push me toward politics, but it made me comfortable with the political process. That's what it did. So I wasn't going in or deciding to get involved in politics from a naïve point of view. I already had what I thought was a pretty good understanding of the political dynamics in that environment. Anything from race relations to monetary decisions, labor relations, all that. I didn't have institutional knowledge on the infrastructure, like water and wastewater and roads and bridges and things like that, but on all those other issues I already did. I'd negotiated billion dollar contracts, you know? I knew about labor law, contractual law. I knew about all those things because I had to learn those things in order to properly represent the players in those types of discussions. It's like--I'm not a lawyer, but I did stay at the NFLPA Holiday Inn Select. So I learned to be a lawyer. I hung around with a lot of lawyers. So it was good, and it was a good deal. And still to this day I've got a lot of friends from that.
On his fondest, most bittersweet memory from his playing days:
JT: What is your happiest memory from your Falcons career?
MK: Wow. I always say--but it's a memory that involves a loss, though. See, we weren't very good, okay? I had four winning seasons in 17 years, and three were in the first five years. Then we went on a nine-year losing streak. Nine in a row, and had a coach leave before the season was over. It was very hard to go to work. I mean--we were not good. When you knew you were halfway through the season and you were already out of it-and that's one of the--actually, to get off subject for a second--is with the Hall of Fame in general is that one of the--I don't want to say problems or criticisms, but is that it's an individual honor that takes team success too much into consideration, so it's a little contradictory. Because I think you can make the argument that it's harder to play at a high level with a poor cast of characters than it is to play at a high level with a good or great cast of characters. Since it is "the ultimate team sport," from a comparative standpoint, I think that's an easy argument to make.
So if I had played on a team that had won the Super Bowl, that they could say, "Mike Kenn was great--he helped contribute to the Super Bowl win." Well, every player on the team, whether they sat on the bench or played in the game, you could argue that they contributed to that Super Bowl victory. But when you're already down by four touchdowns by halftime, and Lawrence Taylor knows that you're not running the ball anymore and you've got to pass block him for at least 40 more times in the game every game, there's no second-guessing anymore. That's a difficult circumstance to be in, because one, even if they get blocked, they don't care, because if you get one touchdown closer, who cares? You can't stop us anyway.
But the fondest, most bittersweet memory is the 1980 game against Dallas. I mean, we were that close. It was the only team we had that had the best synergy. We had a bunch of gamers. They came--not great players, but they had great heart, and they came on Sunday. And we got on a roll. We had a great quarterback with a solid receiving corps, and we had one of two great offensive lines that I played on. We had three guys in the Pro Bowl--myself and R.C. Thielemann and Jeff Van Note, and Warren Bryant and Dave Scott were no slouches. We had, after that season, I think we had nine out of 11 starters on offense make the Pro Bowl.
But we lost that game. So it was so close, but yet so far. We lost it in the last two and a half minutes. And then that was it. We went back to the playoffs in '91, and I'll give Jerry Glanville credit for that. I mean, he got us back to the playoffs. But that was it. So I almost have an allegiance with Tony Gonzalez, even though I think that he's had a phenomenally successful career as an individual player and is a definite first ballot Hall of Famer. But he got close to the game, but he never got in the game. At least he got to play in the NFC Championship. I didn't even get to do that. But that's the best and worst memory at the same time, I guess.
Mike Kenn on what being inducted into the Hall of Fame will mean to him:
JT: Obviously, you've been nominated for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, and we are all very excited about that. We believe it's a well deserved honor and are certainly hoping it happens. What will it mean to you to be inducted into the Hall of Fame?
MK: Well, it's, for the individual, it's the ultimate recognition of an effort well played. You can't get a higher peer recognition than being one of the select few to get into the Hall of Fame. That's what it would mean to me personally, but there are a lot of friends and relatives who have lived vicariously through my career. I come from a middle-class, blue collar socioeconomic environment, and all my friends from grade school and high school grew up in a similar manner, and they were always very proud to say that, "That's my buddy, Mike Kenn." So I would get great satisfaction out of it. I know that my family would. But I also know a lot of my friends would, too, so it would be very gratifying to them. So that's meaningful to me.