Five games into his second NFL season, outside linebacker Boye Mafe is making the Seahawks look good for selecting him in the second round of last year's draft.
More importantly for Mafe, he is also making his late mother, Bola, proud every time he takes the field.
When the Seahawks host the Cardinals on Sunday, it will be the team's Crucial Catch game, an annual league-wide initiative that encourages early screening and detection to reduce cancer risk, and that also raises money that funds the American Cancer Society's CHANGE Grants. It's a game that will be particularly meaningful for players and coaches who have been affected by cancer, including Mafe, who lost his mother to pancreatic cancer when he was a freshman in college, as well as outside linebacker Darrell Taylor, whose mother, Peggy Tyler, died of breast cancer when he was in high school.
Mafe is the youngest of six children of Wale and Bola Mafe, who emigrated from Nigeria before starting a family in Minnesota. "Family is everything" to the Mafe family, Boye said, so when his mother was diagnosed with cancer while he was in high school, and when she passed away on Mother's Day in 2018, it was a devastating blow, but one that ultimately brought the family even closer together.
"It brought us a lot closer, honestly," Mafe said. "At that time, we realized we were in it together and that we have each other to lean on. Those are the people I leaned on in the tough times."
Mafe, like anyone facing tragedy, questioned the reason for his family's loss, but knowing how his mother faced adversity, he refused to let her death keep him down long.
"It affected me tremendously; it changed a lot of my outlook on life," he said. "At first I thought of the, 'Woe is me,' but at the same time, my mother never did that. She was one of those people who, during the whole situation, she always told me to find the positives in everything.
"The biggest thing is having compassion, taking care of others. She was a very selfless person. I always think of myself last. She was one of those people who would take care of everybody in a room before she would make sure she was OK."
The positive for Mafe to find at the time, aside from the support of a loving family, was a blossoming football career that saw him develop from a raw prospect heading into college into player coveted by NFL teams, one who was eventually picked by Seattle in the second round.
Mafe honors his mother before every game, and occasionally after a sack, by signing "I love you" in American Sign Language and by having a quick conversation with her.
"Before every game, I talk to her, I sign to her, tell her I love her," he said. "I tell her I think about her every day."
And this season, Mafe is playing in a way that surely is making Bola, as well as his entire family, proud. After a solid rookie campaign that saw him adjust to the NFL, Mafe came to camp this summer and was praised by coaches and teammates alike as the most improved player in camp.
He has backed up that praise early this season, earning a starting job at outside linebacker opposite Uchenna Nwosu, and recording 3.0 sacks through five games, matching his rookie season total.
"Mentally, I definitely understand who I am as a player, and that I need to see things and slow the game down for myself," he said. "When I slow the game down for myself, it makes it easier on me. I'm just understanding my role and where I fit into the defense."
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll always talks about the potential for players to make a big leap from their rookie season to their second year, but few players have embodied that growth quite like Mafe.
"He's made a big jump," Carroll said. "He's probably the most improved guy from Year 1 to Year 2, noticeably to us. It's basically in his awareness, his understanding of what's expected of him, how the game goes, and being able to play in all situations, run and pass. He's been a really nice player for us this year so far, and he's really just getting started. He's going to continue to grow and take advantage of opportunities he has. He had a great opportunity in the game last week when the protection allowed him to get free, and he made a great sack on it. He's doing really well."
And it isn't just Mafe's head coach noticing the big improvements in Year 2.
"He's been taking that leap," said Nwosu. "He's a lot more confident in his play now. He can trust himself a little more, he's not thinking as much as he did, as rookies tend to do in their rookie year. He's just going out there and playing, which is good for us. To have another guy like that who can be effective, it relieves pressure across the whole D-line.
"As soon as we came to training camp, he told me, 'Oh, man, this is so much easier than last year.' Right then I knew, he was going to unlock his full potential. He still has a long way to go, but you can see him settling in."
And with every big play Mafe makes this season and beyond, he's not only proving he can be a difference maker in the NFL, he playing to honor the woman who helped him achieve this dream, but wasn't able to see it play out.
"My mom never got to see me play collegiately or professionally," he said. "So I try to show out and play for her."
Take a look at linebacker Boye Mafe during his time at the University of Minnesota. Mafe was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2nd round, No. 40 overall, in the 2022 NFL Draft.