State Your Case: Deron Cherry
A 1980s NFL all-decade selection
(Published April 2019)
The Pro Football Hall of Fame took care of some unfinished business in 2019 when it finally elected Johnny Robinson, the AFL’s best safety of the 1960s for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Maybe the Hall can now address some unfinished business with another Kansas City safety, Deron Cherry, who was arguably the AFC’s best safety of the 1980s.
Cherry was one of five safeties named to the 1980s all-decade team along with Ronnie Lott, Kenny Easley, Joey Browner and Nolan Cromwell. Only Easley and Cherry played in the AFC and only Easley and Lott now have busts in Canton.
Easley’s stay in the NFL was cut short at seven seasons by a career-ending kidney disease. He intercepted 32 career passes, went to five Pro Bowls and was a three-time first-team all-pro. Cherry intercepted 43 passes in the 1980s, went to six consecutive Pro Bowls and also was a three-time first-team all-pro selection.
Easley had to wait 30 years to finally get his bust as a senior candidate. Cherry has never been a finalist and, thus, has never been discussed as a Hall of Fame candidate. He retired after 11 seasons with 50 career interceptions. But he didn’t start in either of his first two seasons. In fact, as an undrafted college free agent from Rutgers, Cherry went to his first training camp with the Chiefs hoping to win a roster spot as a punter.
Instead, Cherry made the Chiefs as a backup safety but suited up for only 20 of the 32 games in his first two seasons, intercepting one pass. He moved into the starting lineup in 1983 and promptly intercepted seven passes on his way to the first of his six consecutive Pro Bowls. In five of his nine seasons as a starting safety, Cherry intercepted at least seven passes with a high of nine in 1986.
His 50 interceptions rank 35th in NFL history, tying him with Hall of Fame safety Yale Lary with one more than Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston and two more than Hall of Fame safety Willie Wood. Robinson intercepted 57 passes in his 10 seasons as a starting safety — but there’s one big difference between his candidacy and that of Cherry.
Robinson was a member of a team that won three AFL championships and one Super Bowl. Cherry never played on a championship team. In fact, Cherry played in just one winning playoff game and only four playoff games total in his 11 seasons. Of the 280 players enshrined in the Hall of Fame, 63 percent won championships. Of the 280 players enshrined, 65 percent played offense. Of the 280 players enshrined, only 11 played safety and two of them were elected as seniors.
So a safety who didn’t win a championship becomes the longest of longshot candidates for Canton. Cherry, who has been waiting now for 28 years to have his career discussed by the Hall of Fame selection committee, knows the deck is stack against him.
“It’s very frustrating,” Cherry said, “because I think, as a player, you go in with the mentality that you’re going to try to be the best player that you can possibly be and the best in the league at your position. I think I accomplished that throughout my career.
“I can tell you this — there are a number of great players who don’t get that look just because they (voters) look at championships. I think that is an injustice to the players who play the game the right way, do things the right way (and) accomplish things for their team to win.”
Cherry played in one of the most talented secondaries in NFL history in Kansas City. All four starters went to Pro Bowls – cornerbacks Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross and safeties Cherry and Lloyd Burruss. All four also starred on special teams. Cherry returned two blocked punts for touchdowns in 1986 and also reached the end zone in 1985 on a 47-yard interception return against the Steelers.
On defense, Cherry collected 927 career tackles and recovered 15 fumbles, He posted six 100-tackle seasons and has been elected to the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame. His career is worthy of discussion by the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee – with or without a championship ring on his hand.