Calling his 16 years in the NFL a “dream come true” and a “joyous career,” veteran center Kevin Mawae shed a few tears and announced his retirement on Friday afternoon.
Mawae, 39, ends his career with eight Pro Bowl selections, and said he knew it was time to retire when a team finally called him about potentially signing with them, only to find that the desire to continue playing professional football was gone.
“As a player, you become accustomed to living with some sort of pain. Discomfort is a way of life. You build a mental wall to push it all aside to continue doing what you love to do and to do what you have to do,” Mawae said. “However, with each week and each month that went by this off-season, waiting for a phone call, while still trying to stay in shape, I allowed that mental barrier to erode away.
“I did eventually receive a call from a team several weeks ago. I thought I would be excited and ready to move on to the next team, but that emotion and excitement never came. Instead, I was filled with angst, not because I didn’t think I could endure the physical part of another NFL season, but because in my heart, I didn’t have the desire to be grinding it out for another 16 weeks.”
While Mawae refused to name the team that contacted him, it is believed to be the San Francisco 49ers after veteran center Eric Heitmann broke his left leg in training camp.
With his eyes filling with tears, Mawae said it was simply too difficult to leave his wife, Tracy, and their children, Kirkland and Abigail, even for the duration of a four-month NFL season.
“I thought about a 13-year-old son, who needs his dad around, and a 10-year-old daughter who shouldn’t be separated from her daddy,” Mawae said.” And I thought about being apart from my wife, even if it was just for a few short months, and I knew it went against everything we believed a family should be.”
Mawae, however, will remain on and finish his term as president of the NFL Players Association, an obligation that runs through March 2012 and a position that comes with a potential labor lockout on the horizon after the current season is completed. He was in New Orleans for the season opener Thursday night between the Saints and Minnesota Vikings, as he was on hand for the show of union solidarity that both teams showed before kickoff at the Superdome.
Mawae admits that had he signed a contract with a team early in free agency or perhaps even before training camp that he might have had the fortitude to play another season. But when that did not come, his desire to play lessened.
“Over the last month, we had heard from a few teams, but the more Kevin thought about playing, the more he decided that his heart just wasn't in it,” his agent Mark Bartelstein said. “With Kevin, it is about the desire. It's not about the money.”
The veteran offensive lineman has spent much of his summer helping with practices at Vanderbilt, and apparently will stay with the Commodores in an internship capacity working in the Vandy weight room.
Mawae was a second-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 1994 and also played with the New York Jets prior to coming to the Titans in 2006. He made 211 starts at center, third all-time among centers since 1970.
It is no secret that Mawae wanted to return to Tennessee, but said now that even that door is closed in his mind, that he will not entertain thoughts of any return to the Titans or to a Super Bowl contender. He also indicated he has no hard feelings toward the Titans for not extending his deal.
“Whether the Titans or anyone else in a 100-mile radius calls, the answer is no,” Mawae said. “The Titans didn’t owe me anything. They had offered me a contract. My contract was out. I thought I did enough with that organization, the Tennessee Titans, that would have earned the respect of a phone call, but outside of that, they owed me absolutely nothing.”
Though he never made it to a Super Bowl, Mawae considered last year, the one in which Titans star running back Chris Johnson reached the 2,000-yard rushing mark, the highlight of his 16-year career.
“I’ve blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in 15 of my 16 years, and only one time did I have a 2,000-yard rusher, and that was Chris Johnson,” Mawae said. “Ironically enough, my last NFL game was played in the city where I began my NFL career. I don’t know if you could script it any better than that. … The 2000-yard rusher, there’s only been six runners that have ever done that.”
When Mawae arrived in Tennessee, he immediately assumed a leadership role in a locker room filled with younger players who needed guidance.
“Everybody was wondering about the leadership in the locker room with all the young players and he came in a time where he was not only a leader of my room but the whole team,” Titans offensive line coach Mike Munchak said. “He was a big comfort for Vince [Young] in the huddle his first two years. For a coach he was great to have. He came in here and bought into our system.”
Mawae’s former Titans teammates wished him well in the next chapter of his life. Titans teammates Michael Roos, Leroy Harris and David Thornton stopped by the press conference to help send Mawae off.
“I definitely think he could have kept playing. He had the passion for it. The body is in good shape. He’s one of those guys that the league will be a little more somber not having him here,” said Roos, who still has Mawae’s No. 68 practice jersey hanging in his locker.
Roos said he has plans for the jersey down the line.
Guard Jake Scott, who played alongside Mawae the past three years, admitted that he was caught off guard a bit by Mawae’s decision, given his desire to continue playing earlier this off-season.
“I’m a little bit surprised. I know earlier in the off-season he had said he wanted to continue playing, but I guess when he couldn’t find any teams interested, that desire waned a little bit and he decided to retire,” Scott said. “I’m sure he’s going to do well with the next phase of his life. He has a wife and two kids, and I’m sure that will keep him busy.”
Mawae said he took pride in always being listed among the league’s dirtiest players in polls taken among his peers, and that that was just his hard-nosed way of playing the game.
“I take pride in being third on the dirtiest player list, and I was on that list for over 12 years. I take pride in the way the game is played, and the way I played the game. I’ve taught many young players how to be good players, and my legacy will live on through them,” Mawae said.
It’s part of a legacy that could someday carry him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.