KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Josh Mauga stood in the tunnel with his starting defensive teammates during pregame introductions on Sept. 7, 2014.
The Chiefs inside linebacker soaked in the Arrowhead Stadium environment while anxiously waiting to hear his name as butterflies churned in his stomach.
The heavy thumping in his chest fueled the emotions and adrenaline coursing through his 6-1, 245-pound frame.
Mauga, a fifth-year pro, entered the 2014 NFL season with one prior career start in 2011 as a member of the New York Jets.
But the Chiefs’ regular-season opener against the Tennessee Titans had deeper meaning for Mauga, who capped off an unlikely journey from two injury-filled seasons in New York to starting Chiefs linebacker.
“I forgot how it felt to be on that field,” Mauga said. “It gave me chills just standing in that tunnel waiting for my name to be called.”
That moment finally arrived, as the public address announcer’s voice boomed through the stadium speakers: “At linebacker from Nevada. No. 90, Josh Mauga!”
Mauga raced out of the tunnel on cue and through the smoke-filled entrance to the field with his right arm extended and index finger pointing to the sky.
It would’ve been easy to get caught up in the pregame festivities, but the native of Fallon, Nev., had one dominating thought.
“Just no mistakes,” Mauga said. “I wanted to play fast, I wanted to play physical, but my main thing was just being able to start and having that opportunity. I didn’t want to blow it the first game. My mind was just no mistakes, no mistakes.”
Mauga’s journey in the NFL began in 2009 as an undrafted free agent out of Nevada with the Jets. And Sunday’s contest against his former team carries special meaning because of Jets coach Rex Ryan.
“He was the only coach that wanted to give me a shot after I left college,” Mauga said. “I thank him for getting my career started.”
The admiration is mutual between the former Jets player and Jets coach.
“I think first off he’s got great instincts,” Ryan said. “That’s the thing about Josh – smart, but instinctive guy. As an inside linebacker, the No. 1 thing that you need is instincts and that’s him. He’s smart, too. He can run your defense, all those types of things.”
The 27-year-old Mauga appeared in 24 games with one start for Ryan from 2009 to 2011, recording 18 tackles on defense (10 solo) and 35 tackles on special teams.
Mauga’s career appeared on the upswing, but a torn pectoral muscle landed him on injured reserve five games into the 2012 season.
He worked hard throughout that recovery only to get hurt again the following season when a back injury caused him to miss the entire 2013 season on injured reserve.
“The only thing that would hold Josh back was his back,” Ryan said. “He had a couple of back issues and that’s unfortunate because hopefully this guy – he’s playing great right now – hopefully he can stay healthy because he’s a fine player.”
Still, the missed playing time became a gloomy period.
“That’s the worst feeling,” Mauga said. “You’re watching your teammates balling out every Sunday putting in work, and I’m sitting at home watching the game on the television when normally I’m there. That was probably the worst feeling. Just kind of glad I can put that behind me.”
Indeed, the injuries are in the past.
Outside of a groin injury in training camp, Mauga has been a model of durability and hasn’t been listed once on the injury report through seven regular games.
Mauga’s road to Kansas City wasn’t a smooth ride when the 2013 NFL season ended.
He started the offseason rehabbing the back injury and working out in San Diego with a view to make a comeback.
Still, there were moments, especially when free agency opened in March, when Mauga admits he experienced frustration.
“I had zero phone calls,” Mauga said. “It was very quiet. It was kind of tough, but my agent and my family just said, ‘You need to worry about you. Get healthy and once you’re healthy then you can start showing teams that you’re ready to go.’”
The lack of interest caused Mauga to push himself.
He couldn’t help, however, and wonder if he would have to eventually do something else outside of football and return to school to finish his degree in business, which Mauga said he’s currently six credits shy.
Mauga said he pondered opening a gym with a group of friends who are physical trainers, but the love of football proved strong.
“The mind can play lots of tricks on you,” he said, “especially when you’re down and you’re not sure what’s going to happen. There were definitely a couple of moments there when I would try to do more than I was supposed to be doing. I might have had a setback in my recovery, there was definitely that possibility, but I never wanted to give up. I still wanted to give myself a chance to get out there and still play.”
The opportunity eventually arrived in early June when Mauga said he received a telephone call from Chiefs defensive quality control coach Mark DeLeone, who previously served as a defensive assistant with the Jets in 2012.
The call likely came at the behest of Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who served as the Jets linebackers coach before joining the Chiefs coaching staff.
“We’d been following him closely,” Sutton said, “because I really enjoyed Josh in New York and thought he was a really good football player who was really getting ready to take off when he got hurt again.”
The Chiefs weren’t the only teams to express interest during the early summer months.
Mauga said he received calls from the Cleveland Browns, where former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is now the head coach, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Ultimately, Mauga chose the Chiefs and signed a one-year deal on July 24 during training camp because of an opportunity to reunite with Sutton.
“Coming here with him made it an easy choice,” Mauga said. “He’s the type of guy who will get guys out there no matter who you are. He just wants you to be great out there.”
The Chiefs defensive coordinator also thinks highly of Mauga.
“I think he’s a really good player that has a lot of versatility,” Sutton said. “Smart, competitive, and you know, I just thought he’d be a great addition for our program. He’s an outstanding guy. You always feel comfortable when you know somebody; good, bad or indifferent.”
The NFL’s philosophy of “next man up” has applied with the Chiefs this season.
Numerous players, including Mauga, have experienced extended playing time due to injuries to other players.
In Mauga’s case, he became the starting left inside linebacker when Joe Mays suffered a wrist injury during the preseason and hasn’t looked back.
The Chiefs green dotted Mauga, a role previously commanded by Derrick Johnson, which gave Mauga the radio helmet and made him the on-field liaison between the players and coaching staff.
As the green dotted player, Mauga is responsible for ensuring his defensive teammates know the play call and are lined up properly.
“He’s been real big,” outside linebacker Justin Houston emphatically said of Mauga’s impact. “He’s stepping up and making some big plays. He had to step in and fill Derrick Johnson’s shoes, and everybody knows those are big shoes to fill. Right now, he’s doing a good job of doing it.”
Mauga’s leadership also extends to his performance, as he has started all seven regular-season games and currently leads the Chiefs in tackles with 47 (43 solo).
The success even surprises Mauga.
“It’s been crazy,” he said. “Being out two years the only thing on my mind was to just get back on the field playing again. Never did starting come across my mind, but it’s here now and I’m definitely taking advantage of it.”
Still, there’s an area some of Mauga’s teammates wouldn’t mind seeing more.
“You know Tamba (Hali) and Justin are out there,” Mauga said with a laugh. “They’re yelling and screaming and getting everybody else a little hyped up. And Justin every week, he’s always saying, ‘I’m going to get you to talk. I’m going to get you to talk. You’re going to talk. I’ve seen it come out in San Diego. It’s coming! It’s coming!’ He’s been trying every week.”
Mauga is soft spoken, an attribute not normally associated with an intense position such as middle linebacker.
And Mauga’s quiet personality is something linebacker James-Michael Johnson, who was a college teammate with Mauga, knows well.
“When I was a freshman and he was a senior, he wouldn’t really talk to me, either,” Johnson said. “When I started playing better, he started opening up a little bit, but he’s just a quiet guy. That’s how he is. But when he plays football, he talks. In regular stuff like around day-to-day, he might not say a word to you. That’s just how he is.”
While Mauga’s mild nature reminds of Clark Kent, the football field is his phone booth where a transformation occurs.
His ability to flip the switch from peaceful demeanor off the field to chatting it up on the field with Houston’s encouragement has worked out.
“It was a slow start, but now he’s talking out there,” Houston said with a smile. “He’s having fun, relaxed, he’s playing his game. I told him, ‘This is your defense.’ He’s the middle linebacker, so if anybody has to do the talking, he’s got to do the talking.”
Mauga recorded eight solo tackles and a quarterback hit during the regular-season opener against the Titans.
And his goal of not making mistakes in Week 1 paved the path to a role as a fierce defender on one of the NFL’s top defenses.
He has developed into a “diamond in the rough” defensive end Mike DeVito predicted Mauga would become for the Chiefs during training camp.
Mauga’s play entering Week 9 also has the attention of his former coach, who couldn’t be happier knowing what his former player endured the past two seasons.
“We sat back and said, ‘Wait a second. I thought we were concerned with his injuries?’” Ryan said with a chuckle. “But you know what? He is a great person and a great teammate. There isn’t anybody in this organization who is not happy for Josh. He’s just a tremendous person and obviously the only issue to bring him back was the health and I’m glad that he’s healthy now.”
Mauga smiled when told of Ryan’s comments and also at the thought of seeing Ryan and numerous familiar faces, many of whom Mauga said he stays in touch with, on the opposing sidelines Sunday.
“Rex gave me that opportunity to play football,” Mauga said. “For him to say what he said, it’s great. The last two years, I know he wanted to get me on the field, but injuries kind of stopped that from happening.”
The journey, of course, isn’t finished given the harsh realities of the NFL.
A one-year contract means Mauga could be searching for another team when free agency opens in 2015, but he prefers to stay in Kansas City if the Chiefs want him.
“It reminds me of home,” Mauga said. “It’s very family-like oriented here. The fans here are great. They’re very welcoming. I haven’t had one bad thing about this place.”
In the meantime, Mauga takes a deep breath while recalling how the past year led him to the Chiefs.
He won’t take the path for granted given the experiences of the past two years.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster, a blessing in disguise,” Mauga said. “I’m just trying to take advantage of it, take advantage of this opportunity. Opportunities like this don’t come around too often in this league.”