Max Unger wears No. 60 on his chest when pancaking defenders on the NFL gridiron with the Seattle Seahawks, but Wednesday the Hawaii Preparatory Academy graduate was honored by having his high school jersey No. 77 retired at Castle Gymnasium.
A banner will hang on the south wall of the gym, immortalizing Unger’s No. 77 and serving as a reminder for students that with hard work and dedication, anything is possible — even winning a Super Bowl championship.
Unger is the first former player in HPA’s history to have his number retired. His No. 77 will not be available for use in any sport going forward.
Adding to the excitement, Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Bob Fitzgerald announced that Mayor Billy Kenoi had proclaimed April 2 as “Super Bowl Champion Max Unger Day” in Hawaii County.
The modest Unger called the experience “very cool,” and was overwhelmed with gratitude for the people who helped make his dreams come true.
“There are really too many people to thank,” Unger said. “To see the outpouring of support I’ve got the last 10 years of my career has been pretty awesome.”
The All-Pro NFL center was surrounded by friends and family for the presentation. Speakers included former Ka Makani head coach Tom Goodspeed.
“It has been phenomenal seeing Max progress,” Goodspeed said. “Max was a great leader — a strong silent leader. He worked to pull other people up to his level.”
Goodspeed recalled a fresh-faced Unger during his freshman football season.
“As a freshman, I wanted to get him some playing time so I put him on the punt team,” Goodspeed said. “He showed up that day in his regular dress. I asked him what was going on and he told me his thumb hurt.”
“It was my wrist,” Unger interrupted with a grin. “I hurt it skateboarding.”
“That was the first memory, but after that it was awesome,” Goodspeed said. “I remember him pulling on the line and leading the way for Brad Lau.”
Goodspeed credited the coaching of assistant Bern Brostek as an instrumental ingredient in developing the skills of Unger, who had no football experience before suiting up for HPA. Brostek, a former first-round pick himself, had a nine-year career in the NFL with the Rams. During his speech, Unger said he patterned his game off of Brostek’s.
“Bern is an amazing coach,” Goodspeed said. “He had the skill, knowledge and drive to get him going. That was fun to watch.”
Unger has given back to the community that he comes home to every offseason. The South Kona native often drops in on youth teams and organizations, giving advice and hoping to serve as an inspiration.
The HPA third-grade class was in attendance for the ceremony Wednesday, and Unger made sure each student received a photo, autograph or even just a handshake.
“Growing up, I remember every single professional athlete I met — which was not very many,” Unger said. “To be able to be that guy for some third-graders is pretty powerful.”
While Unger preaches basic work ethic and hard work to younger generations, he also advises to capitalize on all available opportunities. Unger gained an eclectic palate of sporting experience during his high school career — participating in football, basketball and track and field — which he accounted for making him a well-rounded prospect heading into college.
However, he also admitted nothing can replace hard work and effort.
“The whole thing about hard work is that you should never have anybody coach you on effort,” Unger said. “That should never be an issue at the NFL level. It would be great if the kids could have that from an early age. It seems like something simple but it is powerful. There is so much more you can do and control when you are not worried about effort.”
Under the tutelage of Goodspeed, Unger was a part of two Big Island Interscholastic Federation football championship teams, including the final unified title in 2003, before the league moved to the divisional format. Unger was a standout on both the offensive and defensive lines.
After walking the line at HPA in 2004, Unger attended Oregon University on a football scholarship. Unger started on the offensive line all four years as a Duck, earning all-conference honors twice, and being named an All-American his senior season.
Unger was drafted by the Seahawks in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft with the 49th overall pick. He became the highest drafted Oregon offensive lineman since Tom Drougas in 1972.
The HPA grad quickly carved out a niche on the Seattle roster, being named a starter in his rookie season, and starting every game he has suited up for since. In his five-year career, he has been named a Pro Bowl starter twice, and to the prestigious All-Pro first team.
Unger has been a vital cog in the Seahawks transformation from a sub-.500 team, to Super Bowl champions. The HPA graduate is one of only three Seahawks who were on the roster before current head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider took the reins.
Unger’s high school teammate, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, is another NFL alumnus from HPA. Te’o-Nesheim graduated from HPA in 2005 and attended Washington University. The defensive end was drafted in the third round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, and currently is a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.