No football player on this planet has a better appreciation for Kevin Mawae than Curtis Martin. From 1998-2005, Martin ran more than 2,400 times behind a Mawae-led offensive line. On many of those plays, including the New York Jets' patented toss sweep, Mawae led the way, with the freakishly athletic center blocking on the perimeter. He was Martin's escort, creating daylight.
All these years later, Martin would like to return the favor. He'd like to clear a path for Mawae to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I don't know if I would've made it to the Hall of Fame without Kevin," Martin told ESPN. "There are some things you never see if you're not literally running behind Kevin. But from running behind him, I still have yet to see another lineman who was as agile and still as strong and formidable as he was. The only other center I would compare him to is Dermontti Dawson. To me, those two were in a league of their own, and I would probably still choose Kevin over Dermontti."
The Hall of Fame selection committee, which meets Saturday in Atlanta to pick the class of 2019, should heed Martin's words and send Mawae to Canton. Mawae, a finalist for the third time, deserves to walk among the game's immortals. He was the NFL's all-decade center for the 2000s, taking the baton from Dawson, who held the title for the 1990s and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012. Like Dawson, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mawae was unique in his era because he was an outside-the-box center -- literally -- rather than the typical 300-pounder confined to the trenches.
"Kevin is to center what Saquon Barkley is to running backs," said Martin, meaning generational talents.
As usual, the competition is fierce. Tight end Tony Gonzalez and safety Ed Reed, both in their first year of eligibility, are considered virtual locks -- and should be. Cornerback Champ Bailey, another first-timer, also has a strong chance. If those three candidates make it, it leaves 12 modern-era finalists battling for the last two spots, including four offensive linemen -- Mawae, Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson.
It's hard to quantify an offensive lineman's performance with numbers, but these speak loudly for Mawae: Eight Pro Bowl selections, two first-team All-Pro selections, 92 games in which he blocked for a 100-yard rusher (the most of any lineman), 13 seasons (out of 16) in which he blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher. When he was in the middle of the line, the line was good -- and that was no accident.
Former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington used also a Dawson reference to describe Mawae, telling ESPN, "As Dermontti began to revolutionize the position of center, Kevin carried that forward. He was the next center who had great mobility and was able to block players in space and, really, helped change our game from a game that was played in a phone booth to a game that was played in space. He understood angles so well, and he was one of the first centers who could handle the smaller, faster 'Mike' linebackers. From a playing perspective, he really helped revolutionize his position."
One of those 'Mike' linebackers was Zach Thomas of the Miami Dolphins, a longtime Jets nemesis. Former Jets coach Bill Parcells said he signed Mawae away from the Seattle Seahawks in large part because he wanted someone who could neutralize Thomas. Pre-Mawae, the Jets went 0-4 against Thomas.
"I guarantee you, when you're game-planning the Jets, he's the first person we talked about," Thomas recently told Nashville-based journalist Paul Kuharsky, who covered Mawae with the Tennessee Titans (2006-09). "It wasn't Vinny Testaverde. It wasn't stopping Curtis Martin. This Kevin Mawae, he was their leader. That's respect right there, and all the guys respected Kevin. That's coming from a Jet hater, I promise you that. He's probably the reason I hate the Jets so much, but I respected him and he respected me. He brought it. He was nonstop. He had it all. He was the best lineman I ever faced."
Mawae was a big reason the Jets made the playoffs in 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2004, a run of prosperity the franchise has yet to duplicate. He capped his career in 2009, helping the Titans' Chris Johnson to a 2,006-yard rushing season. Mawae was physical and played with an edge, galvanizing teammates but infuriating opponents.
"Some people called him dirty," Martin said, "but if you look back, those were the people who were getting their butt kicked by him."
Along with the other finalists, Mawae will be in Atlanta on Saturday, waiting for that knock on his hotel-room door from Hall of Fame president David Baker -- the knock that means immortality.
"I try to keep it in perspective, and my perspective is this: I'm one of 15 finalists," Mawae told ESPN. "If you add that to the 300-something (318) already in the Hall of Fame, I'm still in the conversation when you're talking about the best 400 guys, or close to it, to ever play football. That's pretty cool."
After a pause, he added, "I'd be lying if I say it wouldn't bother me if I don't get in. This year, it might hurt more because people are saying this is my time. We'll see. I'm hopeful."