Kragthorpe: Ravens' Ma'ake Kemoeatu trying to finish comeback
The lineman became so big that the letters formed by intricate Polynesian symbols tattooed across his back and spelling "KEMOEATU" were stretched out of proportion mirroring the rest of his body.
Out of the NFL, his career seemingly ended by injuries and inattention, Ma'ake Kemoeatu ballooned to 415 pounds. It's true: The Baltimore Ravens' giant defensive tackle who's appearing in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII really is the "After" version, the downsized edition of a lineman having his biggest impact in the league at age 33.
"A year ago," Kemoeatu was saying Wednesday during an interview session, "I thought I wasn't going to play football again."
Having been released by the Washington Redskins, he ultimately decided to lose weight and make one last attempt to play. The pounds melted away, and the Ravens the team that originally signed him as an undrafted free agent from the University of Utah became interested in bringing him back with a one-year contract. And he's played his way into a consistent role during the team's playoff run.
Even if 70 pounds represented only about one-sixth of his starting point, that's a lot of weight to lose. "I had to be really strict with my diet," Kemoeatu said. "I'm more of a meat guy. I backed off of land-dwelling animals and just tried seafood and a lot of vegetables and fruits, because I know that when my weight gets up, I can't really perform."
He's delivering now, doing more for the Ravens' defense that anyone could have imagined even as of training camp in August, which is exactly what motivated him.
"With our [Tongan] culture, we don't like people to say no to us," said teammate Haloti Ngata, a Highland High School product. "We like to prove people wrong. He's definitely done that."
That's especially true in the playoffs. Kemoeatu made five tackles in the AFC title game against New England, extending his run of strong postseason play.
"He's kind of solidified us," said defensive line coach Clarence Brooks. "I'm happy for him, because I know the sacrifice he made. He's really important to us."
He's pretty much the same player Brooks remembers from Kemoeatu's original tour with the Ravens (2002-05), only more mature.
Everything involved with his comeback makes him appreciate this opportunity, while becoming part of the 23rd set of brothers to play in Super Bowls a list that includes another pair of ex-Utes, Kevin and Andre Dyson.
Kemoeatu's younger brother, Chris, started for Pittsburgh at offensive guard in a win over Arizona and a loss to Green Bay in recent Super Bowls, only to become part of the Steelers' salary purge last spring.
Chris Kemoeatu hopes to follow his brother's path back into the NFL next season. They've stuck together ever since former Utah coach Ron McBride discovered the brothers while he drove around the North Shore of Oahu. They later attended the Utes' summer youth camp and eventually joined the program along with another brother, Tevita.
Ma'ake Kemoeatu's initial success with the Ravens enabled him to sign a free-agent deal with Carolina, then he played for Washington before injuries led to his release.
His successful comeback may make him marketable again, although his biggest concern this week is performing well in front of some 20 relatives coming from Hawaii and earning a championship ring to match his brother's.
That would be a nice way for him to represent the family name on his back and the back of his jersey.