CHARLOTTE -- The first time defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu saw the piece of tape come down off his locker, he was amazed, overwhelmed almost.
But now, when it's become clear he belongs, and that someone wants him enough to go get him, he still gets wide-eyed and quiet talking about it.
For all the players in the Carolina Panthers' locker room, there might not be one who appreciates his opportunity more than Kemoeatu. With the passage of time, he's becoming more appreciated as well.
The giant run-stopper's only now beginning to show his true personality, the laid-back humor he's always had. But one thing that won't change about Kemoeatu is his approach -- you won't ever have to worry about him taking this for granted.
"Just looking back at the hard times you go through to be where you're at, the NFL's not forever," Kemoeatu said. "So whenever I get a chance, I look back at all the sweat you have to go through to get there. And I appreciate my past. If it wasn't for my past, I wouldn't be where I am now."
To look at him, you'd think he was born to play this role. His job is to take up space, to occupy two blockers so others can run around and make big plays.
He's listed at 6-5 and 345 pounds, but both seem slight when you stand next to him. Built like a bank vault door, he's solid in every way you could imagine. But before his career became a career, he himself wasn't sure he belonged. He said he could easily envision himself working in the family construction business back in Hawaii, alongside his father and two brothers (another sibling, Chris, plays guard for Pittsburgh). In fact, he was thinking that might be the plan when he was finished with his four years at Utah.
Coming out of college, he was undrafted. That meant jumping at whatever offer came, and the Baltimore Ravens were the ones. They wanted him to bulk up and play nose tackle in their 3-4 alignment, as hard as it is to imagine Kemoeatu getting bigger.
"He was only like 305 when we were at Utah," pro and college teammate Jordan Gross said. "He was kinda skinny."
He gained the weight, which wasn't hard, but kept doing all the little things which were. Still, he wasn't sure what was happening on the day of final cuts in 2002.
In Baltimore, they keep your name on your locker written on a piece of tape until they know you're staying. So when he saw something other than tape for the first time, it floored him. He stood in the locker room, just staring at his stuff. According to some Ravens employees who saw it the first time, he was there for a while, saying nothing, soaking it all in.
"You know you've made the team when they take off the tape and your name's on wood," Kemoeatu said. "It was like working through high school and college, and officially being on an NFL team for the first time, that was it for me. When I stood there looking at my name, I had flashbacks of all the stuff I went through to be in that locker room at that time.
"Then somebody walks in and says 'Hey man, what are you doing?' He was standing there for two or three minutes, and I was just looking up."
There are loads of NFL players so in love with their image and success they could admire a mirror for hours. But with Kemoeatu, there's a sense that he's still a little amazed that anyone wants him. That's why even this year, when the Panthers changed their defense in part to better suit his talents, he was still there on cut day, still reflecting on his incredible good fortune.
"Every year I do make the team, I take some time out, sit in my locker and appreciate every year I get to be in the NFL," he said. "I still do. I do the ritual, sit and look at my name. There will be a time when my name won't be on that locker.
"The locker will be the same, but the name's going to change. There will be a day, hopefully not any time soon. That's why you've got to appreciate every day."
That's the kind of attitude the Panthers were hoping to bring, along with his wide frame, when they signed him in 2006. After having been passed over in his draft class, the idea that any team was on the phone with his agent at the stroke of midnight on the first day of free agency floored him. The five-year, $23 million contract was signed hours later, meaning that not only did he belong, but he was valued.
"It was just, to me, I was like 'Wow,'" he said, eyes still widening at the process. "Someone out there really appreciates what I do for a living. There's a team out there that wants me to be on their team.
"Four years before, I was not drafted. Nobody wanted me out of college, nobody. Baltimore gave me a shot, and then for a team to say they wanted me enough to come after me like that, that was like a drafted experience for me."
He's also feeling like he belongs for other reasons. Now that he's back to playing his more natural nose tackle responsibility (he was asked to cover too much ground the past two years), he's playing better. With defensive tackle Kris Jenkins gone to the N.Y. Jets, Kemoeatu's better able to have a personality around the locker room. He's one of the older guys now, becoming a respected voice, admired for the daily way he works.
That's why you so often see him laughing, or doing a little dance at odd times, finally comfortable enough in his spot that he can be himself.
"He's real laid back, likes to have a good time," Gross said. "He's just a real kind guy. There might be a mean streak in there, and you can see it sometimes on the field.
"'Hang loose' is kind of the cheesy Hawaiian term, but that's pretty much him."
Of course, finally being wanted might help you relax, but for Kemoeatu, the thankfulness is every day.