KAILUA-KONA — Max Unger knows he will miss Sundays, spending time in a locker room with 50-plus of his closest friends and the deafening noise of the Superdome serving as the soundtrack to his workday.
All that’s a given.
But unsure if he was going to be able to make it through another grueling season of professional football, the 32-year-old NFLer knew it was time to step away from football after a decorated 10-year career.
Unger made his retirement official on Monday, speaking on the decision for the first time since the news broke over the weekend.
Despite starting 63 out of 64 possible regular-season games during his time with the Saints, Unger cited long-term, lingering injury issues as the reason for his retirement, which came as a surprise to many.
“Your health is always the No. 1 priority and when the pull on your body is just too high, it’s hard to justify to continue playing,” Unger said in a phone interview from New Orleans.
Unger had talked to doctors about surgery to keep playing, but it would have required him to miss the majority of the offseason, something he was unsure was doable heading into Year 11.
“To get ready for the season, being all in is the only way to do it,” Unger said. “If you’re not, it’s hard to play to the level you want to. That was really the deciding factor.”
The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Big Island native was an AP All-Pro in 2012 and was named to the Pro Bowl three times, in 2012, 2013 and 2018. He won Super Bowl XLVIII with Seattle in 2014.
Unger had been New Orleans’ starting center for the past four seasons after spending his first six NFL seasons out of Oregon with Seattle.
He had a long list of people he thanked who helped him during and leading up to his decade in the NFL — from Jim Mora Jr., who drafted him with the Seahawks in the second round in 2009, to Pete Carroll, who coached his Seattle squads to a pair Super Bowl appearances, winning one. He also thanked Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton for bringing him to New Orleans in 2015 via trade.
But what the Pro Bowl center made sure to mention was his Waimea alma mater, where he first picked up football as a freshman.
“A huge thank you to everybody at HPA and the coaching staff up there that helped me out — Bern Brostek, Tom Goodspeed, coach White, Kalama and Joey — pretty much the whole HPA ohana,” said Unger, who gave a preemptive apology to anyone he left out. “Shout out to Kona and the Big Island. I’m very proud to be from the Big Island. To be able to go play in the NFL all these years and represent — it’s cool man.”
During Unger’s jersey retirement at Hawaii Prep in 2014, Goodspeed — Unger’s head coach during his time with Ka Makani — told a story about when the future All-Pro showed up to one of his first practices as a freshman in street clothes. Goodspeed had plans to put him on punt team, but Unger complained of a hurt thumb (although Unger maintains it was his wrist he hurt skateboarding).
Unger still laughs when he hears the story, but it shows how far he came — from a big, but inexperienced ninth grader, to being one of the NFL’s best centers for 10 years.
“I grew up in South Kona. It was never really in the realm of possibilities as a kid to play in the NFL,” Unger said. “But one foot in front of the other, kind of a fluke scholarship out of high school and then a couple years later I’m in the NFL. It’s been a good ride.”
One of the biggest twists in Unger’s journey was when he was traded from Seattle to New Orleans, a move that initially had him feeling “bummed” — and rightly so.
The blockbuster deal, which sent star tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks, moved Unger from the only NFL team he had known, and the West Coast — where most of his family was and just around the corner from where he went to college — to the South in New Orleans.
But reflecting back, Unger calls the trade “the best possible outcome” for his career.
“It was crazy,” Unger said. “I was blindsided but you kind of look back at pivotal moments of your career and that was something for the better that worked out great for me. The last four years, I got to play with some amazing people and great teammates.”
One of those teammates was future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, who Unger had a special relationship with as his center.
“Drew’s the man. It was a highlight of my career to play with him, to say the very least,” Unger said. “The guy set the standard for the QB position.”
Unger, who has a modest demeanor for his level of accomplishment, did himself some favors simply by the way he carried himself and treated people over his career. A consummate pro, Unger was always willing to accommodate and took the time to do things the right way, which has led to an outpouring of congratulations and compliments after he announced his retirement.
“Football is the only job I’ve ever known,” Unger said. “You hope that you positively impacted people throughout your career. You hope that you had a good influence and were a role model to whoever was watching. You want to be a pro, which is a term that is thrown around loosely, but it’s nice to hear from people when you retire that you had a positive impact on them.”
So what’s on the docket now for the freshly retired 32-year-old? First up is a move back across the Pacific Ocean to the Big Island with his wife, Leah, and their two young daughters.
“Hawaii is home,” Unger said. “It’s going to be fun. To just have tons of friends and family around in a small community — it’s special and something I missed.”
Unger said he hopes to stay around the game, coaching high school football on the island, more than likely helping out at Hawaii Prep.
“I got a couple calls today about that,” Unger said with a laugh. “It’ll be fun. I just have to find a way to drive to Waimea every afternoon this fall.”