Former NFL All-Pro Kevin Mawae, M.A. ’06, prepared for life after football by pursuing a master’s degree at Adelphi.

by Cecil Harris

In the violent world of pro football, the average player’s career lasts less than four years. Kevin Mawae, M.A. ’06, however, spent 16 years in the National Football League—including eight with the New York Jets—before retiring in 2010 with body and mind intact.

“Each man that dons a football uniform must ask himself if the potential rewards are worth the inherent risks,” says Mr. Mawae. “For me, the answer was and still is yes.”

As a center, Mr. Mawae took hits and dished them out on every play. Eight times he was voted All-Pro—the best in the NFL at his position—and he is likely to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he’s eligible in 2015.

Mr. Mawae, 42, proved to be an atypical athlete on the field and off. In 2004, while starring for the Jets, he decided to prepare for life after football by pursuing a master’s degree at Adelphi. (He received his bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University.) Along with his master’s, Mr. Mawae earned the Jack Foley Award as the outstanding student in Adelphi’s sport management program.

“Students enjoyed his intelligent and entertaining answers from real-life situations in the world of sports,” says Daniel Bedard, a clinical assistant professor, who was Mr. Mawae’s academic adviser. “His passion was always trying to help others.”

Mr. Mawae’s ability to make esoteric labor-management issues understandable to other players made him ideally suited to be the Jets’ player representative. After six years in that role, Mr. Mawae was elected president of the NFL Players Association—the voice for nearly 1,700 players—in 2008 and re-elected in 2010.

NFL owners locked out the players before the 2011 season in a dispute concerning how to distribute the league’s annual revenue of $9 billion. Under the leadership of Mr. Mawae and Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA decertified itself as the players’ representative—a tactic that allowed players to sue the NFL, something the union could not do. Faced with a potential onslaught of lawsuits, the NFL settled with the players. The NFLPA then re-certified.

Kevin Mawae Family

Reflecting on the benefit of his Adelphi education during those intense negotiations, Mr. Mawae says, “My master’s degree gave me credibility. When I stood in front of the microphones and talked, guys would say, ‘He’s not a dumb jock. He’s very educated.’ I think that helped me set a good example for younger players.”

Mr. Mawae’s willingness to speak out on issues affecting players past and present also sets a good example. In the last two years, former NFL stars Junior Seau, 43, and Dave Duerson, 50, both of whom had struggled with the impact of concussions after retirement, committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest—so their brains could be analyzed by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine. Although Mr. Mawae is not a plaintiff in a lawsuit former players have filed against the NFL, he wonders if the league has been forthright with players about the long-term effect of head injuries.

“If the league did know, was there a level of responsibility the NFL had in educating the players but chose to suppress in pursuit of the almighty dollar?” he asks.

Mr. Mawae, a sought-after public speaker, lives comfortably in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife, Tracy, and teenaged children, Kirkland and Abigail. While some former players say they don’t want their sons to play football, Mr. Mawae put no such restrictions on Kirkland.

“He played two years of flag football and one year of tackle, but, because of weight restriction rules, they wanted him to play on the offensive or defensive line instead of at wide receiver, so he chose not to continue,” Mr. Mawae says.

Instead, his kids compete in swimming and Irish dance. And Mr. Mawae cheers them on, enjoying retirement and good health after 16 years in a violent game.

This piece appeared in the Adelphi University Magazine Fall 2013 edition.

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