If he could, Max Unger would jump on his magical unicorn to drop in annually for the Super Bowl, especially soaking in the hilarity of media day, but his journey to the NFL’s biggest game as a Seattle Seahawk center was a much longer one.
From his Big Island Interscholastic Federation days at Hawaii Preparatory Academy, nimble footwork was already part of Unger’s package of potential, along with size, strength and a nonstop motor — all hallmarks of skilled offensive linemen.
Besides football, Unger also played basketball at HPA, where he averaged a double-double in points and rebounds as a 6-foot-5, 275-pound senior, going up and down the court and doing far more running than on the gridiron.
But football fit Unger best, and that’s where the 2004 HPA graduate really excelled. As a junior and senior, he was named to the All-BIIF first team on the offensive and defensive lines.
Back then, Unger’s potential was obvious to his former Ka Makani coach Tom Goodspeed, who’s now the athletic director at Chadwick (Calif.) High School.
“He’s got size, speed and quickness. He’s got a great attitude and he hustles. He’s got footwork, and that’s what makes a good lineman,” Goodspeed told the Tribune-Herald in 2003. “Whenever we needed yards, we ran behind him. That’s how valuable he was. His side of the line was the strength of the line.”
While Unger carried the tools of potential, he didn’t have the plum designation of being a five-star blue-chipper. He was rated as a three-star recruit by Rivals.com coming out of HPA. It probably didn’t help being 2,400 miles from the mainland.
Still, Unger received a scholarship to the University of Oregon, where he worked hard, improved and prospered. He started for four years and was twice named to the All-Pacific 10 first team and a first-team All-American in 2008. He played left tackle before moving to center as a senior.
In the 2009 NFL draft, the Seattle Seahawks picked Unger in the second round. Just like in college, he put his nose in the dirt, made like a mule and outworked the competition to win the job at right guard. And soon enough, he added to his stack of career highlights: All-Pro in 2012, Pro Bowl in 2012 and ’13.
His latest achievement puts him in rare company as the first Big Islander to reach the Super Bowl, where the Seahawks will play the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Game time is set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday on Fox.
Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, a 2005 HPA graduate, is a defensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the only other Big Island product in the NFL. That’s something of a blue moon special for HPA, a small private school in Waimea, to produce two NFL players and maybe a third someday.
Back at HPA, Unger had the good fortune of being coached by former Ka Makani assistant Bern Brostek, who played offensive line at the University of Washington and for the Los Angeles and St. Louis Rams.
“I’m really proud of him for all he has accomplished, even though he did go to Oregon. I’m a Seahawk fan now,” said Brostek, his sense of humor still sharp as a tack. “I remember in his sophomore or junior year, I had a flashback to when I was playing, thinking, ‘He looks like a guy who’s going to go far.’ Working with me, I know how hard he had to work.
“The nice thing is he’s been on winning teams wherever he’s been. In that sense, he’s been very fortunate. Richard Sherman made his life a lot easier, a lot less stressful. But you know, I’m just really proud of him.”
Brostek’s son, Shane, a 2013 HPA graduate and offensive lineman, is on scholarship at the University of Washington. When Brostek took in games to see his son, he made it a point to visit his former pupil. When the two meet, they take a trip down memory lane.
“I think about high school football all the time,” Unger said by phone Wednesday. “I didn’t play Pop Warner because I was too big. My freshman year at HPA was the first time I got to play football.
“It was an unreal coincidence to have a high quality of coaching with coach Bern. He’s still the toughest coach I’ve ever had. He gave me the foundation. The stuff he was coaching me up on is the same stuff we work on today. It was more about attitude, playing on the offensive and defensive lines. It’s incredible that Daniel, Shane and me were all really coached by the same guy.”
Then, Unger showed he can match humorous barbs with his old coach.
“To a certain extent, I was gifted with that footwork. But coach Bern was always yelling at me to run faster,” said Unger, laughing at his fond memories.
The main focus on Denver will be if 37-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning can win a Super Bowl in the cold. No doubt the cameras also will be tuned in to Sherman, the Seattle cornerback who stole some attention from his team in a rant after the Seahawks’ 23-17 win against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game Jan. 19.
“It’s crazy out there,” Unger said of Tuesday’s media day. “But it’s a really good experience, being in New York, the sports mecca, going through the traditional Media Day. It was wild. The media asked all kinds of silly questions: If the Lombardi Trophy is made of chocolate and if I wanted a pet unicorn. I said, ‘Sure.’”
Of all the positions, offensive linemen are often the most unsung. They usually don’t get talked about much unless they give up a penalty or allow a sack. If Unger snaps the ball cleanly to quarterback Russell Wilson all day and takes care of his blocking assignments, the 27-year-old center will fly under the radar.
Outside his All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors, perhaps Unger’s best acclaim was from Pat Kirwan, a former NFL scout and coach, who writes for cbssports.com. In a May 2013 article, Kirwan ranked Unger as one of the NFL’s best centers.
Kirwan wrote: “Not sure everyone knows the Seahawks center, but they should. He’s allowed just two sacks and had three penalties in the last two years. He did a great job with a rookie QB (Wilson) last year.”
Unger’s work ethic, not only for football but also classroom work, comes from his parents, Keith and Cynda Unger. Keith Unger is a ranch manager in Captain Cook at McCandless Ranch, which Cynda’s family owns.
“My mom claims the athleticism comes from her,” Unger said. “My dad was my coach in my sports growing up, basketball and baseball. Both of my parents went to HPA. The work ethic goes back to my parents. They put a high priority on sports and school.
“When I was at HPA, they did an amazing job to prepare me for college. When I got to Oregon, it was not that much harder. Football was incredibly different. The school stuff I had a pretty good foundation. The football always came easy. I put my head down and worked super hard.”
Unger laughs last
Reached by phone, Goodspeed pointed out Maxwell McCandless Unger would have been a fit in any field.
“First of all, I’m so proud of him how far he’s come. A lot of it is because of his intelligence and perseverance, being able to understand the offense and handle all the pressure,” Goodspeed said. “He’s motivated. That’s No. 1. And No. 2 is he’s a really intelligent guy, basically the QB on the line.
“His family is great people. They know what it takes to work hard. In terms of Bern, he was a great resource, working with Max every day, recognizing his football drive and pushing him every day. If you get through Bern, you’ll do well at another level.”
Goodspeed attended Seattle’s 27-24 home victory against the Buccaneers Nov. 3. After the game, Unger and his former coach hung out and spent time shooting the breeze. What Goodspeed saw was a five-star polished gem, not only for actions on the field but off it as well.
“He’s got his act together, his priorities set,” Goodspeed said. “He’s grown up to be a fine young man. He would succeed in whatever he did. Right now, he’s doing that in the NFL.”
Unger and his wife, Leah, a former Ducks sprinter from Coos Bay, Ore., don’t have any children yet. Someday, they’d like to, and sports and academics will be the family glue again.
“The nightmare would be if we had a kid who has her size and my speed,” he said.
Email Kevin Jakahi at firstname.lastname@example.org.