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Max in the Middle
Leave it to Tom Cable to see something about Max Unger that even the Seahawks’ center never envisioned.
It was in 2009, when Unger was eligible for the NFL Draft after playing center for only two seasons at the University of Oregon and Cable was in his second season as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
“I knew Max when he came out of college,” said Cable, now in his second season as the Seahawks’ assistant head coach and offensive line coach. “I thought he would be a fine, fine center when he got to this level.”
Unger? Not so much. A latecomer to the game of football while growing up in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, Unger also was a late bloomer at the position he now mans on a line that is opening holes for the NFL’s leading rusher, Marshawn Lynch; and league’s No. 6-ranked rushing offense, as the Seahawks are averaging 150.8 yards entering Sunday’s game against the Panthers in Carolina.
About that late start in the sport, Unger offered, “I played soccer and baseball and basketball, everything. But I didn’t play football until my freshman year of high school. My dad (Keith) was a really good high school football player and we’d always kind of talked about that.”
So what took so long for son to follow in father’s cleat-steps? “I was always way too big to play Pop Warner football. My freshman year, I was like 6-2, 220. By my senior year, I was 6-4, 6-5, about 285. So there was no way I was going to be able to play Pop Warner football without cutting a ton of weight.”
So instead, Keith Unger’s too-big-for-Pop-Warner son simply waited.
As for playing center in the NFL, Unger added, “I never saw myself playing center, period. But moving to center (at Oregon) was extremely beneficial, obviously, for my career. I don’t really see myself as a tackle in the NFL.”
So, what was it like growing up in Hawaii?
“The Big Island is a lot different from what you think when someone says Hawaii,” Unger said, quickly dashing those visions of rolling surf and swaying hula skirts. “Not as many beaches. A lot of different climate zones.”
But it’s still island life. “If you take a left out of my driveway, you end up right back at my driveway in a couple of hours,” he said with a laugh.
And island life is a different way of life, no matter which island it is.
“My whole family still lives out there,” Unger said. “And I try to get back as much as possible.”
But how did Unger get from paradise to Eugene, Ore.?
“It was the only scholarship offer that I got out of high school,” said Unger, who played at Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Honaunau. “It was pretty cool. They offered me a scholarship my junior year. I thought I was going to get a bunch of them as a senior, but I didn’t.”
So life as a collegiate Duck it was. But life as a center? Not just yet.
A right tackle in high school, Unger also began his career at Oregon blocking on the edge as the left tackle. It wasn’t until after his junior season that he moved to center. After much thought and an involved evaluation process, no doubt.
Try again. “Our center graduated and we had a bunch of guys who were tackles,” Unger explained. “For some reason, they just wanted to move me to the interior. It happened in spring ball, and in spring ball you just throw darts at a board and say, ‘You go play there.’ I snapped the ball a couple times and they were like, ‘Oh, OK, he can do it.’ ”
With Unger at center, the Ducks averaged 280.8 rushing yards his senior season, tops in the Pac-10 and second in the nation. So center it was.
Again, not just yet. The Seahawks selected Unger in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, but he played guard as a rookie – for the first time in his career – because they already had Chris Spencer, a first-round draft choice in 2005. Unger didn’t move to center until the final three games, and then only because Spencer broke a hand. But Unger did become the first rookie lineman to start all 16 games for the Seahawks since Ray Roberts in 1992.
In 2010, it was back to right guard for Unger, until he got a season-ending toe injury in the opener.
Last year, his move to center coincided with Cable’s move from Oakland to Seattle.
“When I got here, we made some decisions – in terms of people that were here; those who weren’t going to be; and then those that were here, but were they in the right spot,” Cable said.
Spencer was out, signing with the Chicago Bears in free agency after the 136-day lockout ended; Unger was in, at the pivotal position on the line.
“I kind of just drew on my past with Max,” Cable said. “I thought three years ago when he came out that he’d be a terrific center. So we put him there from Day One and his development has been second to none on this team.”
Unger has grown into the role so well that his teammates voted him the offensive captain this season.
“That was unexpected,” Unger said. “It’s really cool and I’m pretty happy about it. It’s definitely a line thing. We’re trying to solidify the O-line in the offense and have that a constant. So I think us representing the offense shows that.”
With Unger as the poster lineman, and right in the middle of everything – a development no more unexpected than the too-big kid from the Big Island growing into the role as NFL center.