Kemoeatu returns to the Ravens with a different look, better perspective

Ravens defensive lineman Ma'ake Kemoeatu takes a break during practice.
Ravens defensive lineman Ma'ake Kemoeatu takes a break during practice. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun)

He was nearly unrecognizable, not just from the guy who played for the organization seven years earlier but from the one who had just been in the building eight months ago.

That Ma'ake Kemoeatu (ma-AH-kay key-moy-AH-too) weighed 415 pounds, struggled to run on a surgically repaired Achilles tendon and barely could breathe as he went through a workout that he hoped would be his ticket back to the NFL. The guy who walked into the Ravens' facility in May was 70 pounds lighter and filled with confidence, conviction and perspective.

"I didn't recognize him when he came in the second time," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I was looking around to find him because I didn't realize that was him. Obviously, he dedicated himself to wanting to come back and play."

The Ravens' signing of Kemoeatu in May after his workout garnered very little attention. Sure, Kemoeatu was once a key cog on the team's defensive line, starting 21 games for the Ravens during a four-season span, and making 70 tackles in 2005. However, that was seven years ago. Kemoeatu is now 33 years old, and not only did he not play football last year, but he also missed the entire 2009 season as well after tearing his Achilles.

He was defensive line depth, perhaps a reserve fill-in for the first three weeks when Ryan McBean served his suspension, or when starting nose tackle Terrence Cody needed a break.

Maybe, that, too, is what the Ravens originally had in mind, but not anymore. In recent practices, Kemoeatu has been working alongside Haloti Ngata as the starting nose tackle. On Sunday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who might have lost McBean for the season because of an ankle injury, said "Kemo is pushing for a starting job. He's in great shape, and he's playing extremely well."

Harbaugh's words easily could have served as another indication of how far Kemoeatu has come. Instead, they seemed to remind him that there still is so much work to be done.

"It's been incredible. I went from not playing for a full year to being on one of the baddest defenses in the league," Kemoeatu said. "Coach Harbaugh has always talked about making sacrifices. I had to do what I had to do to make sacrifices to get on the team. I still have a long road ahead of me to make the team and it's going to take more sacrifices, coming in early in the morning and getting an extra workout in here and there, get a little quicker and faster. I have to sacrifice the next four weeks to make the team."

It certainly would bring things full circle for Kemoeatu, who signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent after the 2002 draft after four years at Utah. Kemoeatu played well enough over four seasons with the Ravens to get a five-year, $23 million free-agent deal with the Carolina Panthers in 2006.

He had three solid seasons in Carolina, but he tore his right Achilles' tendon as he prepared for the 2009 campaign. Kemoeatu was released less than a year later, paving the way for him to sign with the Washington Redskins. However, his Achilles never fully healed and a shoulder injury also compounded Kemoeatu's woes in 2010. He was cut by the Redskins before training camp last year, triggering a confluence of events that left Kemoeatu wondering whether he'd ever play in the NFL again.

"I got comfortable and I let myself go," Kemoeatu said. "I think when I left here, I was 340. Then, the following year with the Panthers, I got to 350. The year after that, I was 360. I was putting on 10 pounds a year."

While spending last season in Virginia, Kemoeatu mostly avoided television on Sundays. He wanted to play football, not watch it, and seeing his former teammates and organizations in action only added to his frustration. He decided that he would give himself a full year to find another team and if he couldn't, he'd move on to another phase of life. The Ravens gave him the first opportunity last September.

"It was hard. I couldn't breathe, I had all this extra weight on me," Kemoeatu said. "They were like, 'Kemo, we have no time to get you in shape. Go lose weight and call us back.' That's when I changed everything. I got a personal trainer, a nutritionist, a physical therapist to work on my Achilles. I did all those things off the field that I needed to do."

Eddie Mason wouldn't have stood for anything less. Mason played seven seasons as an NFL linebacker, four of them with the Redskins. After his retirement, he opened the MASE Training Sports Performance & Fitness Center in Sterling, Va. His staff, which included trainers and physical therapists, has helped rehabilitate current and former athletes of all kinds. When Kemoeatu reported to MASE training last year, Mason surveyed all the challenges.

"He had the shoulder, the Achilles where he couldn't even flex his foot," Mason said. "And on top of that, he was 415 pounds. We had our work cut out for us. It was a yearlong project, and Ma'ake went through a lot of ups and downs. He had developed a lot of bad habits when he was out of football, and we really had to discipline him in a lot of ways."

Kemoeatu's biggest challenge was his diet. A native of Tonga, a group of islands in the South Pacific, Kemoeatu stayed in Virginia largely because the food on the West Coast and in Hawaii, where he grew up, was too enticing.

"Ma'ake was the red-meat king," Mason said. "That's really where his weight shot up. In his culture, that's their kind of thing, they eat a ton of red meat. They love to eat, spend time with family and it's a beautiful thing. But I told him, 'You don't have the luxury at 415 pounds to be festive every weekend.' We would have him down 20 pounds and he would come back on Monday 15 pounds up, and he'd be like, 'Well, at least I'm still 5 pounds down.' I said, 'That's not going to work.'"

After ditching some of those bad habits, Kemoeatu embraced a rigorous training routine that included plyometric exercises ,yoga and "everything you could think of," according to Mason. He regained full flexibility in his Achilles, thanks to his physical therapist, Mike Davis. His diet now consisted of fish, chicken, salad, fruit and Body by Visalus shakes.

"I always say losing weight is like being in a relationship. The more faithful you are in the relationship, the more successful it's going to be," Kemoeatu said. "I had to be faithful to my diet."

In May, confident he was now ready to help an NFL team, he had his agent send Ravens officials a current picture of himself and a tape of one of his recent workouts.

"Remember, they saw me in September. When I send them those pictures in May, they were like, 'Nah man, this is Photo-shopped. This can't be him,'" Kemoeatu said. I'm glad Harbaugh and [general manager Ozzie Newsome] and those guys gave me an opportunity to come back. They say once you're a Raven, you're always a Raven."

Kemoeatu stepped on the scale this week and was down to 337 pounds, meaning he had lost 78 pounds in less than a year and now weighed less than he did when he left the Ravens seven years earlier. He would like to settle around 315 pounds -- "I'm starting to see little abs show up," he joked -- but his coaches have reminded him not to lose too much girth, considering his primary role will be to occupy space in the middle and keep blockers off middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

Mason attended a Ravens practice two weeks ago. What he saw bore no resemblance to the man he had encountered less than a year earlier.

"It was almost like a proud dad going to watch his son," Mason said. "You've seen the labor, the hard work that went into it, and you actually get to see the final process of coming down from 415 pounds and having the potential to jump-start his career again. I think this time, Ma'ake is going to be 110 percent better. You're looking at a totally reinvented Ma'ake: mind, body and spirit."