Ultimately, Max Unger said he didn’t believe his body could continue to hold up.
The New Orleans Saints’ Pro Bowl center, and the hub of one of the NFL’s best offensive lines since he was acquired from Seattle in the Jimmy Graham trade in 2015, said that his health ultimately led to his decision to retire this offseason.
“First and foremost, I just wanted to thank the Bensons (team owner Gayle and late husband Tom), and (General Manager) Mickey (Loomis) and (Coach) Sean (Payton) and the whole organization for getting me down to New Orleans,” Unger said Monday. “You look back at your career and you realize how pivotal it was getting traded down here, how unbelievable it’s been to play for the Saints in the Dome and playing in New Orleans.
“At the end of the day, I guess I’m retiring because I didn’t think I could make it through another season. I’ve got some health issues and you kind of evaluate how you’re playing and where you see life after football going. And I just made the decision to retire.
“I’ve had some kind of long-term issues that I’ve had to do a lot of maintenance on, lower-body issues, stuff that just bothers me getting into a stance. There’s a doctor that I’ve been in touch with for the last couple of years and he recommended that I do a surgery.
“That would take pretty much all of the offseason and going into Year 11, I couldn’t do that. I’ve known about this for a little while, it’s just kind of been a maintenance issue. But at the end of the day, I’ve done a surgery (foot surgery, in 2017) which took me out for the whole offseason. It didn’t go very well – not the surgery, just my play. To do that going into Year 11, I didn’t think was going to work out.”
Unger, an All-Pro in 2012 and two-time Pro Bowler, started all 63 regular-season and four playoff games he played with the Saints. During the regular season, he only was penalized four times as a Saint and didn’t accrue a single penalty in 2017.
But Unger said he noticed a dip in his play.
“Just looking back, I’m getting older,” he said. “There’s no way for me to replicate the play of me five years ago, or a couple of years ago, and that’s just the reality of life. And that’s a tough pill to swallow, too. But that factors in. Was I playing bad? No. Was I playing up to my standard? I don’t think so, either. So that was a factor.”
He said he reached the decision after consulting with his wife, and kept the team abreast of the situation.
“Right when we got done with the season, I’ve been talking to my wife and just kind of assessing how I felt recovering from the season,” Unger said. “Ultimately, probably the last month or so is really when I kind of made the decision.
“It’s not easy. This is obviously not…it’s not easy. There’s a lot of very close relationships and guys that I have a lot of respect for, and to have to call them and tell them this, it’s tough. But the last month, I think I came to the realization that I was done.”
Unger wound up being the principal acquisition for the Saints in the Graham trade. The first-round pick that was acquired was parlayed into linebacker Stephone Anthony, who lasted three seasons (2015-17) in New Orleans.
But Unger solidified the Saints’ offensive line and became a leader of the unit and in the locker room.
“I was not expecting to be traded,” he said. “I loved my time in Seattle, I liked living up there, I was close to a lot of things. It was a good setup for me. And then I got traded down here, I’d never lived in the South, I’d only really ever lived on the West coast. Get down here, new city, new team, new system – it was hard. And then we kind of got into it. And it ended up working out.”
It worked well enough for Unger to help the Saints win back-to-back NFC South Division titles, the first that in franchise history the team has won consecutive division crowns, and to two straight playoff appearances, advancing to the divisional round and NFC Championship Game in 2017 and ’18, respectively.
Unger said he plans to move back to Hawaii and likely will coach high school football, but that he’ll remain connected with the Saints.
“You kind of see retired players that played here whoever long ago always (back), and you just kind of realize why – because it is a special place,” he said. “It’s unique. It was the best possible outcome for me, to get traded here.”
He’ll most miss the camaraderie of the locker room.
"It’s really the only thing I’ve known for the past 20 years,” he said. "My life has revolved around football since I was a freshman in high school. It’s the lifestyle that I know. But the thing that probably will be the hardest to replace, or the thing I’ll miss the most, is just the locker room.
“You hear that a lot, but being around 50-plus of your closest friends for six months, you don’t really find that anywhere else. It’s the equipment staff, it’s the trainers, it’s the groundskeepers, it’s the relationships you have with people we see every day but don’t get too much credit. It’s all that stuff.”