That big guy sitting in the front row during Sunday service at St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Ocean View sure looked large enough and strong enough to be a pro football player — and sure enough, he was.
Sitting next to his grandmother, Cynthia Salley, was Max Unger. Unger, 26, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound NFL All-Pro/Pro Bowl center for the Seattle Seahawks, was in attendance to thank the congregation for its support. Support through prayer that dates back to his days playing football for Hawaii Prep, then the University of Oregon and now the Seahawks.
“My grandmother has been going to this church for maybe 20 years,” Unger explained. “She wanted me to come say hello. She prays for my success, not the outcome of the game. Because the (NFL) games start early here, she actually gets up and announces the game score during service.”
Salley, 75, said she gets updates on the Seahawk games by text message from her husband, who she said is “well trained.”
“Usually I’m at church when the game starts, and my husband texts me updates,” Salley said. “I’ve been doing this (announcing scores) since he played at HPA — telling the congregation how HPA was doing. Same thing when he went to Oregon.
“He’s a terrific grandson, kind, just a nice guy. And, no, I’m not prejudiced at all. He has a fabulous work ethic — an exceptional work ethic — that got him where he is today.”
That exceptional work ethic helped Unger earn All-Pro and Pro-Bowl honors as the Seahawks compiled an 11-5 regular season record and a playoff victory. Their season, and a shot at the NFC championship game, ended with a 30-28 loss to Atlanta.
Unger, who was born and raised on the Big Island, said losing on a 49-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the game hurt.
“To come back from 20 down in the fourth and lose in the last 8 seconds was a tough ending to a good season,” Unger said. “But there’s a lot of reason for optimism next season. We have a lot of talented guys.
“Last year — being voted All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl teams — will be pretty tough to top for me.”
After the service and prior to the pot-luck lunch, members of the congregation, most of whom are seniors, lined up for Unger’s autograph.
“Well, I have a son who went to Sunday school with Max,” said Ocean View resident Jym Duncan, 76. “I know the family really well. My son, SolRay Brilliant Duncan, is a Special Olympics athlete. He plays basketball, soccer and is a long-distance runner.”
Captain Cook resident Barak Benlevi, 77, said he attended the service at Duncan’s behest to meet Unger and perform two of his original songs.
“Jym invited me to sing my songs,” Benlevi said. “She told me he was a football player. I’m going to give his autograph to my son, Niyah.”