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Saints program cover story: Max Unger

Posted Sep 1, 2016

Saints center carrying on a proud Hawaiian tradition

There’s a banner that New Orleans Saints center Max Unger is carrying, invisible to most but distinctly noticeable to a proud few, an indicator that he is the latest in a line of brothers, the most recent to uphold a tradition of excellence that began in the early 1980s and extends to the present.

See, Hawaii isn’t known as a football breeding ground, not like Florida, Louisiana, Texas or California.

Except this: to call Honolulu a “cradle of centers” might not be a stretch.

If you were a kid with size and girth and lived in Hawaii – Unger fit each category – then it was natural to want to play center. When, that is, you were allowed to play, which Unger wasn’t until ninth grade.

“There’s no way I was going to make weight,” he said, laughing. “I was a big dude – I think it was, like, 25-30 pounds to cut to make the Pop Warner team. So I just decided to nix that and then I just started playing when I was in high school.”

And then began his journey to carry the banner.

“I had a great high school offensive line coach named Bern Brostek, who played center in the league for a very long time,” Unger said. “So it was always kind of like a position of pretty good notoriety when we were growing up, and Hawaii has produced a lot of really good centers – Olin Kreutz, the Raiolas (Dominic and Donovan), Bern, a bunch of people. It’s a position that somehow fit me, and it’s awesome.”

So, the line goes something like this:

There was Jesse Sapolu, from Farrington High in the island of O’ahu, who played for San Francisco from 1983-97 and won four Super Bowls with the 49ers. Next up was Brostek, currently the head coach at Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Kamuela, who played at Iolani High in Honolulu and later made 85 starts, in 106 games, for the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams from 1990-97.

Kreutz then lined up, playing at Saint Louis High in Honolulu and later in the NFL, notably for the Bears (1998-2010) before a brief stint as a Saint in 2011. Then the Raiola brothers stepped in; Dominic, from Saint Louis High, went on to play for Detroit from 2001-14 and Donovan, from Kamehameha High in Honolulu, was with Washington in 2011.

That leads to Unger, who played at Hawaii Prep and made it to the NFL as a second-round draft pick (No. 49 overall) by Seattle in 2009. He started every game he played for the Seahawks for six seasons (including two Super Bowls, one of them a victory), and was a two-time Pro Bowler before joining the Saints as the centerpiece player from the Seahawks in the Jimmy Graham trade in 2015.

Unger’s path to center wasn’t a clean direct snap, but he recovered.

“I played right tackle in high school,” he said. “And then I got to Oregon and I played both guard positions. And then we got a new coach and he moved me to left tackle. So my first 20-something starts were at left tackle.

“And we had a couple of players that were playing really well and we graduated a senior at the center position, and we needed one. So, randomly, in the middle of a two-minute drill my sophomore year in spring ball, (Oregon offensive line) coach Steve Greatwood throws me in at center. And I probably fumbled the first three snaps I ever did live. And then I just played center from then on.”

He didn’t just “play” it.

He was an All-American center in 2007 and ’08, and all four seasons at Oregon was named All-Pac 10 (Pac-12 now). He was an NFL All-Pro and Pro Bowler in 2012, then a Pro Bowler again in ’13. Leg and foot injuries limited him to six regular-season games in ’14, but he returned to start all three playoff games that year.

Then the Saints and Seahawks made the major trade, one former Pro Bowler in exchange for another, mixed in with a couple of draft picks.

The transaction brought Unger into contact with Saints quarterback Drew Brees, made him a central figure in one of the most productive offenses in league history, and gave him an inner look at the Saints’ operation.

“Drew Brees is as good as everybody says that he is,” he said, smiling. “Really, I think that was just the eye opener – coming in and working with an offense that has 10 years of building off itself.

“Our system is established and they know what they want to do with the ball and they have a clear vision of how to do it, and it’s kind of up to the players to get in line. That was the kind of thing I learned when I got here.”

That, and the fact that he was a member of a team that worked until the finish. Despite being out of playoff contention, the Saints won three of their final four games, the high point of a 7-9 season.

“That was positive at the end of the year, ending the season with a couple of wins,” he said. “And the close games. There is a lot to look forward in the sense that we just need to be able win some close games and we’ll turn this ship right around.”

If that happens, Unger, a vocal leader, will be one of the ones at the front of the pack. It’s a position he’s familiar with, carrying the banner for a successful line.

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