By any view, he was not only among a flood of fully-loaded, ready-to-go National Football League stars on the 2008 Oregon football team, he was one of the stars himself, right up there with the big names in Eugene.
It was a long way from being an anonymous high school lineman on the Big Island hoping to play college football somewhere, some day.
For the Ducks, LaGarette Blount and Kenjon Barner anchored the running game, spiced up by a freshman named LaMichael James, a year after Jonathan Stewart left for the Carolina Panthers. The linebacker Kiko Alonso teamed up on defense with pass defenders like Patrick Chung and Jarius Byrd.
Oregon was now competing at the top — instead of the gray middle portion — of the Pac-10 Conference. Instead of playing for bowl eligibility, the Ducks were playing for BCS eligibility, a distinctive level above the vast majority of college football teams.
It was the last year of college football for Max Unger, the last season of coaching for Mike Bellotti, who became the athletic director, overseeing the program and new head coach Chip Kelly. Four years earlier, Unger was a 3-star prospect from Hawaii Prep Academy, an attribution that generally means he can probably play college football but don’t expect too much.
Unless you are Marcus Mariotta or Tua Tagovailoa, a 3-star rating is a a high bar for Hawaii football players. But don’t sweat the numbers, youngsters, save the sweat for working out.
Keep in mind there are very few former football players who evaluate high school players for college recruiting websites, and all the sites evaluate different things. Some think camps are most important, some ignore camps. Most all of them adjust their own subjective rankings when scholarships are offered. If you are valued as 3-star, but Ohio State offers you a scholarship, you’ll probably wake up with a higher grade the next morning.
It’s a racket, assigning “stars” to high school players with a standard rating that cannot possibly compare who Unger, playing at HPA, to a similar lineman in a school five times the size in a huge population. But fans pay money to see the ratings, and brag on their teams, so they continue.
Fortunately for Unger, back home after his 10th season in the NFL, Bellotti was never attached to the recruiting numbers. Bellotti took the program to a higher level after the departure of Rich Brooks, who did all the heavy lifting to move the Ducks from the dregs of the Pac-10 to respectability.
As a 3-star player out of high school, Unger is in the majority of NFL players, even Super Bowl players, who were not highly rated coming into college.
Take heart, high schoolers, in the most recent Super Bowl, Philadelphia started five former 5-star players out of high school, New England started one. That’s six 5-star players out of 44 starters in the Super Bowl, or, 87 percent of the starters on both teams that were not 5-star recruits.
There’s something to be said for keeping your head down and being good at your job. Eventually, somebody is going to notice.
“People get carried away with all that stuff,” Unger said last week from his home in Honaunau. “I would tell (high school players), not to get caught up in all that stuff. Just listen to your coaches, work on your body, stay in shape all year, don’t slack off, those are the things that will help you.”
It’s the successful profile of Unger, who has risen to the top of the profession after being named all-Pro and a Pro Bowl selection. Along the way, Unger was a big part of the success of the Seahawks.
They did a lot of winning in Seattle, including a 43-8 Super Bowl triumph over Denver, and they had an excruciating defeat in losing at the goal line to New England on a pass play when the world saw a handoff to Marshawn Lynch, following Unger into the defense.
More winning ensued in New Orleans when the Seahawks traded Unger in a deal that brought tight end Jimmy Graham. As it has developed, the Seahawks were shortchanged, the Saints cashed in. Seattle is listening to offers for Graham while a serious void exists in its offensive line.
Unger has two years left on a contract, so while the offseason is the time every player reconsiders his past and tries to peek into the future, he is content not speculating on the road ahead. He’s been relatively injury free, which in this business is one of the best credentials a lineman can have and he’s smart enough to know they will have players in camp who want his job this summer. Better to attack those last two years on the contract and let the rest fall away.
The best advice is simple advice — good technique and an extra strong work ethic will take you a long way.
“I would tell young players to not get caught up in all recruiting rankings and all the rest,” Unger said. “We didn’t have a lot of recruiters hanging around HPA, but you always have opportunities; there are camps you can attend, different opportunities here and there and there are more of them now than there used to be.
“The truth,” he said, “is that if you’re good enough to play in the NFL, you’ll be on a team, you will get a shot. Even if you don’t get drafted, you can get on a team, I think we had 10 un drafted players make rosters this (2017) year.”
The upper level of football is all about technique. For linemen on both sides of the ball, it’s understanding how technique fits into leverage and using your particular skill set — as seen on video and discussed with coaches — to your best advantage. Probably, you won’t bowl anyone over like you did in high school or college, you have to win with brains and brawn.
“Those kids who develop that work ethic, who are supremely motivated and driven to dedicate themselves to the daily grind of getting better? Those guys will find a place, but without that work ethic and determination, it probably won’t happen.”
And when it does all come together, like it did for Unger, a kind of personal celebration takes place that doubles down on the work ethic, but the heartaches will come. You will absolutely be denied at times that very thing you thought you had won.
Unger was in the middle of that disappointment in the Super Bowl when the Seahawks decided to pass the ball at the goal line instead of handing it off to Marshawn Lynch to run between his big center and guard. The pass was intercepted at the goal line, a season’s work washed away.
“I think I’ve blocked that out,” he said with a laugh on the phone, “it seems a long time ago.”
That might be because he just came off another crushing defeat on a miracle last-seconds pass by Minnesota that denied the Saints a chance to play in the conference championship.
“I saw the whole thing,” he said of his view from the opposite sideline. “I didn’t get to see what happened on the pass, but yeah, I saw the catch I saw (Stefon Diggs) cross the goal line. I looked up and saw the clock, it was zero-zero. It was over, boom, just like that.
“Wow,” Unger said, “that was a tough one.”
Fans often ask how players can recover from defeats like that, or the Seahawks’ Super Bowl disaster.
They do it for two reasons — love and money. Nobody can be made to perform at the level of a Max Unger for an entire decade if that player does not love the game, love the grind.
Now he’s back home for a couple months, helping with a 5-month old and a 2-year-old toddler. He’s at the gym daily, staying in shape, getting ready.
It’s a 12-month-a-year job that goes away without the hunger for that daily grind.
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