Another NFL Center Of Attention

Max Unger of Seattle follows Jesse Sapolu and Olin Kreutz as Hawaii Pro Bowl centers | AP photo

Max Unger exhaled. “Man, it was tough,” he says about the Seattle Seahawks’ heartbreaking ouster from the NFL playoffs, a 30-28 last-second loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

But the first-time Pro Bowl center from KailuaKona on the Big Island quickly recovered.

“It was really hard playing on the road the first two weeks of the playoffs, really hard. But our team was very special this year,” he says of the Seahawks’ almost-magical season. “Our youth made a huge impact, both in our winning and losing. We had a great run and have a very bright future.”

Just like Unger himself. At 26, he’s only now entering his prime professional years.

A starter at the University of Oregon for four years (where he played on an Oline with two other local boys, Enoka Lucas of Kamehameha and Palauni Ma Sun of Kahuku), he switched from his natural position of tackle after two years, playing center for his final two.

He was drafted by the Seahawks in the second round of the NFL draft after his All-American senior season, started at guard for the first 13 games of his rookie season, then moved over to center. He’s been the Seahawks’ vocal leader on the offensive line ever since.

And he loves being the snapper for Seattle’s rookie quarterback sensation Russell Wilson.

“Russell really got better throughout the season. Nobody works harder than he does. He was able to handle so much,” Unger says.

The 6-foot-5-inch, 305-pounder says his own rapid rise was vastly aided by another outstanding NFL star with Hawaii ties – the great Bern Brostek, also of Hawaii Prep.

“He was my high school O-line coach. I owe a large portion of my success to him,” Unger says. “He was tough, but his coaching style was very evident. He was coaching us NFL stuff when I was in high school.”

He recalls one of his first workouts after he left the Big Island for Oregon. “They couldn’t believe some of the stuff I already knew. ‘Where’d you learn that?’ they said. I owe it to Coach (Brostek).”

Unger, who has garnered a number of post-season All-Pro honors, is very appreciative of being selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time.

“This is cool,” he says. “The Pro Bowl is a big deal, very special. To come home to play in it in Hawaii – and I believe the Pro Bowl always belongs in Hawaii – it means so much.”

He says he’ll likely have a big fan base when he takes the field for the NFC stars.

“I figure I’ll have about 50-70 people there. I just know I have to buy a lot of tickets,” he says, laughing. “I’ve got a lot of friends coming from the Big Island and also from Oahu.”

In the few days between the NFL playoff loss and the official start of Pro Bowl practice this week, Unger says he’ll be “hanging out” at home on the Kona side of the Big Island. “Maybe I’ll hit the Pine Tree Café on the way home,” he says with a smile.

Unger is truly the local boy who made good. From Big Island to Sunday’s Pro Bowl, he’s a big deal in every way. He’s the third player from Hawaii to make it as the Pro Bowl center – following Jesse Sapolu and Olin Kreutz. Throw in brothers Dominic (Lions) and Donovan Raiola (Redskins), and Hawaii looks like a breeding ground for NFL centers.

“I have so much pride representing us,” Unger says of his home state and his snapping brethren.

And then he exhaled again. What a season it’s been – and continues to be – for Max Unger.