Early encouragement lifted Kevin Mawae’s career

The seeds of self confidence Kevin Mawae said he needed to become one of the top NFL centers of modern times were planted by Kenny Ferro.

Ferro, a 65-year-old New Orleans native who now is a special education teacher in Kilgore, Texas, coached for more than 30 years in high schools in Louisiana and Texas and at Nicholls State, LSU and Tulane. He was Mawae’s offensive line coach in his first two years at LSU.

“He’s the first coach I’d ever had who told me, ‘You have what it takes to make it to the big time,’ ” Mawae said of Ferro.

“He was willing to tell me that before anybody else ever did.”

Ferro downplays that he noticed such potential in Mawae.

“I can’t tell you how special he was. … He had such great footwork and great fluidity,” he said. “And he had a grit about him, and an attitude that it was too important for him not to be the reason a play wasn’t successful.”

A military brat who went to LSU after an eye-catching career at Leesville High School, Mawae said the confidence Ferro instilled in him was crucial in molding his football career at LSU and for three teams over 16 NFL seasons.

It’s a career that has been validated by numerous awards and honors, the latest of which is his induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches on June 29.

“As I look back over my timeline, the first word that comes to mind about my being selected for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame is ‘Wow,’ ” said Mawae, whose family is of Hawaiian descent. “It’s something I didn’t ever strive to achieve.

“Part of my love for the game is I wanted to be the best I could be, and whatever happens, happens,” he added. “It’s pretty special what I’ve been able to achieve because of that. It’s humbling and a great privilege.”

Born in Savannah, Ga., where his father was stationed at Hunter Army Airfield, Mawae spent his early years at military towns in Kansas and Germany before the family moved to Fort Polk. At Leesville, he became an all-state and all-academic football player.

He still remembers the date he signed his letter of intent to play at LSU — Feb. 11, 1989 — and he said the day he signed with LSU and the day he signed with the New York Jets in 1998 were two especially memorable.

Mawae wanted to play for LSU after being present as a recruit for the famed LSU-Auburn “Earthquake Game” in 1988. He signed to play for coach Mike Archer, but then had to endure what he calls the “Dark Ages” of LSU football under Curley Hallman.

Chad Loup, the LSU quarterback during those times, remembers being shocked when he first met Mawae as a fellow freshman.

“He was 6-foot-4, maybe 250 (pounds) and had hair down to the top of his butt,” Loup said. “I thought he was a wild-looking, Samoan linebacker-type. Turns out he was one of our linemen. I got to know him, and he was — and still is — just a phenomenal individual. ”

Mawae, under Ferro’s tutelage, began his career at LSU as a left tackle and finished it as a center, where he would play and thrive for most of his lengthy NFL career.

Loup said Mawae had a key role in a singular highlight from LSU’s “Dark Ages” — the Tigers’ 17-13 upset of No. 5 Alabama in 1993 at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., that ended the Crimson Tide’s 31-game winning streak.

“The day before the game, we had a walk-though at the stadium, and afterwards Kevin called the team together,” Loup said. “There were some dark clouds above us and he said, ‘Look, guys, I have a funny feeling we’re going to do something big tomorrow. I think we can win it. I know we’ve had a rough go, but if we play like we’re capable, we can do it.’

“I think that fired us up, rallied us, got us to thinking we can do something good,” he added, “and sure enough, we beat them.

“I’m sure every guy who was there remembers him firing us up.”

A third-team All-American at LSU, Mawae’s dream since age 8 was to play in the NFL, and that dream came true when he was chosen in the second round of the NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks in 1994.

He started his NFL career at right guard but moved to center at the start of the 1996 season and played there the rest of his career.

When he signed as a free agent with the Jets in March 1998, and his agent told him and his wife on separate phone lines, “Congratulations, you’re now the highest paid center ever!” Mawae couldn’t contain his emotions.

“I started crying,” he said. “My agent said, ‘Are you there? Are you there?’ Tracy was listening on another phone and she told him I couldn’t talk because I was crying.

“I mean, I had five long seasons at LSU and four mediocre seasons at Seattle and you begin to wonder if people are recognizing you for what you think you’re worth, and then Bill Parcells makes me the highest paid center in the league.”

Mawae lived up to his five-year, $16.8 million deal — which included a $5 million signing bonus — during his time with the Jets.

He helped a future Pro Football Hall of Famer, Curtis Martin, rush for a franchise-record eight 100-yard rushing games en route to a 1,287-yard season in 1998.

“Kevin is definitely one of the top two players who had the most impact on my career,” Martin said. “With his leadership and versatility as a center, it kind of changed the way we were able to play the game. It made me so much better for my running style.

“I don’t know of anyone who ever played better at his position,” he said. “Quite frankly, he played a large part in my being elected to the Hall of Fame. For that, I am indebted to him.”

Recognized three times as a first-team All-Pro by The Associated Press, Mawae was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s.

As a testament to his durability, he played in 177 consecutive NFL games before suffering a serious triceps injury to his left arm in October 2005. He missed the rest of the season and was released by the Jets before signing with the Tennessee Titans nine days later.

Mawae, who lives in Baton Rouge with his wife and two children, helps financially support the Children’s Cup International Relief missions organization and does a lot of public speaking.

He often tells how he became a better person after the death of his brother, John, in a car accident early in his pro career. It was a transforming event in his life that he says help “get me on the right course” and helped him realize “there was more to life than making money and being rich and famous.”

He said from that point he committed himself to living for God, and even attributes his leadership as president of the NFL Players Association to the seminal moment when he was “saved” on June 24, 1997.

“I get to do this,” he said he tells people as a way to lead them into striving to live a godly life, “because my brother passed away.”