By Michael Eisen
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Ken Kavanaugh, a former LSU standout who had a record-setting professional football career as well as being a heroic World War II bomber pilot, died this week in Sarasota, Fla., at the age of 90.
Kavanaugh passed away Thursday morning of complications from pneumonia.
Kavanaugh was a three-year letterwinner at LSU from 1937-39, earning All-America honors as an end in 1939. He was a two-time first-team All-SEC selection in 1938 and 1939 as well as finishing seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a senior in 1939.
Kavanaugh later spent 45 years in the New York Giants organization as a coach and scout.
Kavanaugh was an assistant coach with the Giants from 1955-70. He moved into the scouting department in 1971 and remained there until announcing his retirement during the 1999 season. He then retired to Sarasota.
“Ken Kavanaugh was a revered member of the Giants family,” said John Mara, the Giants’ President and Chief Executive officer. “He led an extraordinary life, from his years of service in World War II through his career in the NFL as a player, coach and scout. He made many important contributions to the Giants over the years and we will miss him very much.”
“Dad was very blessed,” said Kavanaugh’s son, Ken Jr. “He always said that he would never work for anybody but Well Mara. He was blessed with the opportunity to have an owner like Well, who created a business that was more of a family business than today’s corporate regime. He loved it; he loved what he did. I interviewed Well for a book I wrote about dad (“The Humility of Greatness”). He had some very nice things to say about dad. He said dad was always consistent, dependable, and reliable and he valued that greatly in an employee. And he said he loved mother (Kavanaugh’s wife, Ann) and they always got together. They could be with paupers or kings and be comfortable both ways.”
Kavanaugh had an inseparable bond with Rosie Brown, the Giants’ Hall of Fame offensive tackle who also joined the club’s scouting department in 1971. For more than three decades, the two veteran scouts discuss the attributes and drawbacks of thousands of prospects. Each year at training camp, they would stick their portable chairs into the grass and watch practice with a keen and critical eye. Brown passed away on June 9, 2004.
“They had an extraordinary friendship,” Ken Jr. said. “Rosie was piece of work in his own right. And Dad having coached him and then scouted with him, they were buddies. They were from the old school back when. Rosie started with the Giants in 1953 and dad joined the team in ’55. They evolved to a fast friendship and they stayed that way. The older they got the closer they got.”
Kenneth William Kavanaugh was born on Nov. 23, 1916 in Little Rock, Ark. He was an offensive and defensive end at Little Rock Central High School and later at LSU. Kavanaugh was presented the Knute Rockne Memorial Award that year, the first lineman so honored. Kavanaugh was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
The Chicago Bears selected Kavanaugh on the second round of the 1940 NFL Draft. He caught 23 passes and scored nine touchdowns in 1940-41 and led the NFL with a 28.5-yards-per-catch average in ’41. He then left the Bears for a three-year tour of duty as a bomber pilot in Europe in World War II. Kavanaugh flew 30 missions over Germany, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with four Oak Clusters.
He returned to Chicago in 1945 and played for six more seasons. He had career-high totals of 32 receptions, 818 yards and 13 touchdowns in 1947. In eight seasons with the Bears, Kavanaugh played in 90 games and caught 162 passes for 3,626 yards and 50 touchdowns. He had two more scores on fumble recoveries.
A member of the Bears’ all-time team, Kavanaugh set four Chicago records that still stand today, 56 years after his last game: most career touchdown receptions (50); most single-season touchdown receptions (13, a mark tied by Dick Gordon in 1970); highest average gain, career (22.4 yards) and highest average gain, season (25.6 yards in 1947).
Kavanaugh spent the 1951 season as the Bears’ receivers coach, a position he also held at Villanova in 1954. he joined the Giants as the ends coach in 1955, a position he held through the 1968 season. He was an offensive coach in 1969-70. Kavanaugh served under three Giants head coaches: Jim Lee Howell, Allie Sherman and Alex Webster. He moved into the scouting department in 1971 and remained there until his retirement 28 years later.
“He really enjoyed his job,” Ken Jr. said. “It kept him in touch, with not only the game, but all of the people that he had met over the years, having a 60-year career in the NFL. He had made a lot of friends. The coaches at these colleges always loved seeing Ken come in. As a player, he was a savvy, tough guy and as a coach for the Giants he was a great teacher. When he evolved into scouting he took all of that experience and expertise and applied it to assessing the talent and advising the senior management at the Giants.
“As Well said, one of the most valuable things in the business is being able to judge from where that information is coming. And dad, as a scout and as an advisor to him and the other guys, the general managers, etc, when he said he thought the guy could play, they knew exactly what he meant. He might be a little bit tough, he might have said a guy couldn’t play when maybe he could play. But he never had a guy he said could play that couldn’t play.”
Kavanaugh is survived by Ann, his wife of 64 years; Ken and his wife Betty and their three daughters, Virginia, Caroline and Katy. The family lives in Atlanta. Ken and Ann’s daughter, Kristy Nehilla, passed away two years ago. Ken Sr. is also survived by his son-in-law, Hank Nehilla. Kristy and Hank have two sons: Ken Nehilla, his wife Maribeth and their son Bradley live in Washington, DC; and Kevin and his wife Vivian and their two children, Katelyn and Colin, who live in Detroit.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.