Kevin Mawae never won a state championship at Leesville High School. Never enjoyed a single winning season at LSU. Never reached the Super Bowl in 16 seasons in the NFL.
But Mawae, who Saturday joins Johnny Robinson as the fourth and fifth former LSU players to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, wouldn’t trade a minute of the way it happened. The way he rationalizes his career, it’s like risking invoking “the butterfly effect.”
“I’ve never wished I would have given up part of my career to play in one Super Bowl,” Mawae said. “I played in 241 games and all of them were special, some great memorable games and some tough losses. All those experiences made me who I am today.
“A butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world might create tidal waves on the other side. In hindsight, I would never change the way things happened in my life.”
Mawae created tidal waves, all right, and not just for the Hall of Fame-worthy football he played from 1994-2009 with the Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans. His story, his career, is of a purpose-driven life.
‘The way I played the game’
In 1990, Leesville was in the recruiting territory of LSU’s Joe Wessel, just promoted from graduate assistant to full-time defensive backs coach. Mawae was his first recruit.
“My first recruit got in the Hall of Fame,” said Wessel, now a vice president in Tampa, Florida, with Raymond James Bank.
“He should have stopped there,” said Kenny Ferro, then LSU’s offensive line coach.
There was a Leesville pipeline to LSU in the late 1980s with the Fuller brothers, Eddie and Vincent, and offensive lineman Raymond Smoot going to play for the Tigers. Eddie, of course, caught the winning touchdown pass from Tommy Hodson in the 1988 “Earthquake Game” against Auburn.
Mawae was at that game.
“I was sold,” he said.
Even back then Mawae was light for an offensive lineman, Ferro said: 6-foot-4, 244 pounds. But on his in-home visit with Mawae, Wessel was sold, too.
“He was a ‘Yes sir, no sir’ kind of kid,” Wessel said. “You could see he had a way about him. You knew he would be a leader. One of those types of kids who would be successful.”
Mawae bulked up and redshirted as a true freshman, making a huge impression on coach Mike Archer in practice on the scout team.
“He’d kick the daylights out of the defensive line,” Archer said. “Pete (Jenkins, then the defensive coordinator) would get mad. I’d say, ‘He’s mauling the guy.’ ”
Archer stuck by his decision to redshirt Mawae but was fired after the 1990 season because of back-to-back losing records. Kevin would play his four years under Curley Hallman.
As Wessel predicted, Mawae was successful: a freshman All-Southeastern Conference pick, All-SEC as a sophomore, junior and senior, a third-team All-American in 1993. The Tigers were not successful, enduring six straight losing seasons by the end of Hallman’s tenure in 1994.
Despite LSU’s struggles, Mawae was a solid NFL prospect. He was drafted in the second round by the Seattle Seahawks, in large part because of the final play of his college career.
Chad Loup threw an interception that Arkansas’ Orlando Waters grabbed at the 1-yard line. As Waters sprinted 99 yards for a touchdown, Mawae suddenly came flying into the picture and dove vainly at Waters about 20 yards from the end zone.
In Seattle, Seahawks offensive line coach Howard Mudd watched film of the entire game.
“That’s when he knew he wanted to draft me,” said Mawae, now an offensive analyst at Arizona State. “Here we are, down two scores, and I gave effort on the last play like it was the first play.
“That was the way I played the game.”
‘The change in my life’
Mawae quickly made himself a key player on Seattle’s offensive line. He started 11 of 14 games in 1994 and started every game the rest of his career, even as he transitioned from right guard to center in 1996.
The move likely paved Mawae’s path to Canton, Ohio. It was a seminal moment in his career. Sadly, what should have been a special year for him was overshadowed by tragedy.
The morning of May 5, 1996, a car Kevin’s brother John was riding in slammed into a parked 18-wheeler on Interstate 10 near Sorrento. He and the car’s driver, Brandon Showers, were killed.
John lettered as an LSU nose guard in 1992, often across the line from Kevin.
“They fought in practice constantly,” Archer recalled, “but they loved each other.”
Added, Kevin's wife Tracy: “He was in our wedding (in 1993). We did everything together. When Kevin and I were somewhere, John was with us.
“It shook his world. It shook all our worlds.”
John’s death left Kevin searching for answers.
“My whole goal was the money, the fame, the Super Bowl confetti,” Mawae said. “The whole stereotypical NFL lifestyle you think of, that’s what I was looking for.
Kevin said he struggled for about a month after John's death. Then Tracy became pregnant with their son, Kirkland (the Mawaes also have a daughter, Abigail).
“You really start to question the why of life," Mawae said. "That led me to my faith journey, reading the Bible, getting involved with other guys on the team. A year after my brother’s death, I became a born-again Christian.”
Mawae began using football as a platform to speak to thousands about his faith. But it was a one-on-one exchange in the Jets locker room one day that Mawae still remembers.
A teammate — Mawae declined to reveal his name — asked him about the story of Noah’s Ark. Mawae wrote him a two-page letter about it and quietly put it with a new Bible in his locker.
Mawae thought nothing came of it — until years later, when the teammate called.
“His career didn’t end the way he wanted,” Mawae said. “He was depressed. He went and sat in his closet one day with a gun in his mouth. The thing that kept him from pulling the trigger was thinking about his two little boys sitting in the living room. And he remembered the Bible that I gave him.”
A simple act of answering an easy question changed a life.
The not-so-simple act of searching for answers after John’s death changed Kevin’s life, too.
“It was a catalyst for my life,” he said. “It was the change in my life.”
Eight seasons with the Jets led to the final four seasons of Mawae’s career with the Titans. By then, he had become a major figure in the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).
Jets receiver Keyshawn Johnson urged him to become the team’s player representative.
“Keyshawn sat in front of me in our team meeting room,” Mawae said. “He kept asking questions and I kept giving him answers. He said, ‘Well, you need to be our team rep.’ We had an election that year (1998) and he nominated me.”
Mawae rose to become the NFLPA’s vice president. In 2008, he was elected president just as the league and the association were facing two huge issues.
“That was two years out from the CBA expiring,” Mawae said. “Six months later, (NFLPA executive director) Gene Upshaw passed away. I became the point man trying to find another executive director.”
Mawae led the search that found current NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.
“In our history as a union there’s been a handful of people who have contributed in an outsized way,” Smith said. “Kevin is clearly in that top five.”
Collective bargaining agreement negotiations began in early 2010. Demanding salary and benefits concessions, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell threatened a lockout by March 1, 2011. After months of wrangling that ended up in federal court, the new CBA was finalized July 25, 2011. It runs through the 2020 season.
“My signature is on that page,” Mawae said.
Mawae is also proud of the player safety advancements that came out of those contentious CBA negotiations.
“Our goal was always to protect player safety,” Mawae said. “Concussions became a big deal at the time. How do you prevent concussions? You reduce the number of opportunities for guys to get concussions. That’s how that morphed into not doing two-a-day (practices). You eliminate one whole practice where guys are not going to get banged up.
“It has filtered all the way down to the high school level. That’s a great feeling.”
‘Welcome to Canton’
Before he left the Jets, reporters started asking Mawae about making it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He began studying the careers of centers enshrined in Canton.
“You come up with stats that matter to football people, to show the impact you had on your team and in your locker room,” Mawae said. “I found out these statistical numbers about me that I didn’t know I had: 1,000-yard rushers, 100-yard games. The number of games you played and started is a huge thing. All-decade teams. The number of All-Pros and Pro Bowls you had.”
Mawae was a Hall of Fame finalist in 2017 and 2018. New inductees receive word during the weekend of the Super Bowl, and Mawae attended both — but he came away with a conciliatory phone call instead of the coveted knock on the door from Hall of Fame President David Baker.
Before going to Atlanta for this year’s Super Bowl, Mawae told Archer he thought this was his last chance at enshrinement. Mawae feared his role with the NFLPA worked against him.
“History has shown guys in leadership positions in the union pay a price when it comes to the Hall of Fame,” Smith said.
Fortunately for Mawae, it wasn’t a price he couldn’t overcome.
The day before New England beat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53, Mawae’s got a knock on his hotel room door. Only he and Tracy were in the room.
Mawae opened the door to see Baker smiling at him. Mawae’s left hand covered his mouth as he broke into tears.
“Welcome to Canton, Ohio, brother,” Baker told Mawae as they embraced. “Thank you for all you have done for this great game, Kevin.”
Baker isn’t the only one who should thank him.