Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor
Max Unger spent hours and hours in HPA’s Castle Gymnasium as a student, perfecting the skills he used on the football, basketball, baseball and track teams.
On Wednesday, the 2004 graduate returned to his alma mater as a Super Bowl champion.
Unger was honored at a school assembly Wednesday morning, where his jersey No. 77 was the first in Hawaii Preparatory Academy history to be retired. It will no longer be worn in any sport.
“This school gave me so much,” he said. “I’m feeling a little bit old, but I remember these Wednesday morning assemblies. If you’d said I’d be coming back with the Lombardi trophy and a Super Bowl ring, I think we all would have laughed at that.”
The Honaunau native also got a surprise from Bob Fitzgerald, who coached him as a youth and now is county Parks & Recreation Department deputy director.
Fitzgerald read a proclamation from Mayor Billy Kenoi, marking April 2, 2014 as ‘Super Bowl Champion Max Unger Day’ in Hawaii County.
The All-Pro NFL center was surprised by the honor and delighted to share it with his wife Leah and parents Keith and Cynda. “Very cool,” he said.
“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.”
Unger says early on, he never even thought of playing football, let alone becoming a two-time BIIF champion, All-American college player and world champion.
“I only started playing football when I was a freshman in high school and I didn’t really know what was going on,” Unger said. “I didn’t play before that, didn’t really watch it, then I found out I had the body for it and I wasn’t bad at it and now, 10 years later, here we are.”
Tom Goodspeed, former HPA head football coach, flew in from California.
“Max, you are amazing,” he said. “You’re a great ambassador for yourself, for HPA and for your family.”
Later, Goodspeed said he watched as Unger started 51 games for University of Oregon and was drafted by the Seahawks in the second round.
“It has been phenomenal seeing Max progress,” he said. “Max was a great leader — a strong silent leader. He worked to pull other people up to his level.”
Goodspeed recalled an early moment during Unger’s 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 corrected. “I hurt it skateboarding.”
“That was the first memory,” Goodspeed said, “but after that it was phenomenal.”
Since that day, Unger has worked hard to become the best he can be.
“People ask me that all the time: What’s the key to success. And there really isn’t one,” he said. “Just focusing on what you do well. I’m very lucky. I love football. It’s easy to find something you’re passionate about. The hard part is putting in the work. And there’s no way around that.”
That work ethic, he admits, doesn’t always come naturally.
“The whole thing about hard work is that you should never have anybody coach you on effort,” Unger said. “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.”
Along with his family, a few of his youth coaches and a gym packed with HPA students, Unger watched as Keenan Greenbaum tugged on a rope at the far end of the gym.
The cloth fell away to reveal a red and white banner bearing the No. 77 – the number Unger wore his final two years at HPA and the number Greenbaum wore this past season.
Senior tackle / noseguard Greenbaum said it was a special honor to take the field wearing Unger’s old number, although it took on even greater significance after the Super Bowl.
“It gives me a reason to keep playing,” he said. “As offensive linemen, we don’t get much glory, but he’s a diamond and he just shows off what we’ve got.”
As for Greenbaum’s No. 77 shirt, he said, “I actually don’t think I’m going to sell it. But I might give it the guy who wore it before me, because he and Max really inspired me and I just want to give back to them.”
After the ceremony, Unger hung out with the students, answering questions, signing autographs and taking photos. The entire third grade class lined up waiting for their chance to meet the sporting giant.
Among the young fans was Harlow, sporting a Seahawks jersey.
“I’m going to hang my autograph on my wall,” he said. “Max is good at football and he’s from HPA. That’s really cool.”
Unger was just as excited to chat with the next generation of Ka Makani.
“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.”
Unger, 27, just finished his sixth season as a Seahawk. He was drafted in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, the 49th pick overall.
The HPA ceremony came as an early birthday present for Unger, who celebrates his 28th on April 14.
NFL CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:
* Voted starting center for the NFC in the 2013 Pro Bowl.
* Started all 16 games as well as both postseason games in 2012, helping to lead Marshawn Lynch to his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. Seattle’s ground game ranked 3rd in the league with 2,579 yards in 2012.
* Started all 15 games played and missed one at Cleveland (10/23) in 2011. Helped pave the way for Marshawn Lynch to become Seattle’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2005.
* Started the 2010 season opener vs. San Francisco (9/12) at right guard before leaving the game with a season-ending toe injury. Was placed on injured reserve Sept. 14.
* In 2009, became the first rookie lineman to start all 16 games since Ray Roberts in 1992. Started first 13 games at right guard before moving to center for the final three games.
* Started 51 consecutive games and earned all-conference honors in every season, including being named first-team All-Pac-10 twice. Also named to several All-American teams. Earned those accolades at two positions: left tackle in 2005 and 2006 and center in 2007 and 2008.
* As a senior, started all 13 games, including 11 at center. The Ducks led the Pac-10 and finished second in the nation with an average of 280.08 yards per game on the ground. They also led the league in scoring (41.92 ppg, seventh in the country) and total offense (484.85 ypg).
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