Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer 296d

Ex-Jets great Kevin Mawae back where he belongs -- center of attention

So you think these are tough times for the New York Jets? Yeah, six straight seasons out of the playoffs is a painful stretch, but it's not anywhere close to the 1990s, one of the bleakest periods in team history.

Things started to change in 1997, when Bill Parcells arrived, but the first real building blocks weren't set until the following year. Curtis Martin and Vinny Testaverde were the headline additions, but the first game-changer was Kevin Mawae. He was the first big-ticket signing of the Parcells era, a player who revolutionized the center position in the NFL and helped bring the Jets back to prominence.

On Sunday, the Jets will induct Mawae into their Ring of Honor, a well-deserved tribute for one of the best players in franchise history.

"I'm just excited about being up there and seeing some old teammates," Mawae said Tuesday. "When it was announced a couple of weeks back, it was an emotional deal for me because you never play a game hoping or expecting to be a Ring of Honor member, a Hall of Famer, whatever. You play the game because you love it. I'm sure at the ceremony on Sunday, with the fans in the stadium, I'm sure a wave of emotions are going to hit me."

Mawae made six Pro Bowls during his eight seasons with the Jets (1998-2005), a stretch in which they reached the playoffs four times. It was one of the most prosperous times in team history, and he was a big reason. He was a finalist last year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mawae, 46, who played 16 seasons in the NFL, is trying to get into coaching. He recently was a coaching intern for the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons, and he's hoping to land a full-time job during the next hiring cycle.

Unlike some players from his era, Mawae has no physical issues. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, has rattled the NFL, but Mawae said he's not worrying about his long-term health.

"The guys that are indeed suffering, I feel for them, but we signed up to play this game and junior high and high school knowing the inherent risks," he said. "That was my stance as the NFLPA president, and that's my stance now. Would I trade it for what I have now? Absolutely not. I would do it all over again.

"I would not discourage parents from keeping their kids from playing football. I think there's more you can learn in this game than in other avenues you might choose. Understanding the science and the issues that come along with it, I'm good. I'm healthy. I've got more joint issues than head issues. My wife and kids might say different, but I'm sharp mentally and I'm not going to waste my life worrying about what may or may not happen 10 years from now."

Mawae, always outspoken as a player, declined to join the discourse on the national-anthem protests and recent anti-NFL comments by President Donald Trump. He said he has "very personal opinions" on those topics, but he stayed mum.

"It's hard to get a job in the NFL," he said, "if you have strong opinions one way or the other."

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