Josh Mauga leads the Kansas City Chiefs in tackles.
If you take time to let that sink in, you're not the only one. It marks an unexpected turn for both an injury-riddled Chiefs defense and the inside linebacker himself. After two years lost to injuries, Mauga found himself as a free agent cut loose by the Jets and replaying the mental frustrations of similar issues in college. Then the Chiefs called and needed competition for back-up linebacker. He never knew he'd replace the man in the middle.
As the Chiefs enter the bye week, we recently caught up with Mauga to hear more about his journey to this point, and the adjustments he's making week to week.
You're on the bye week. How are you spending a day like today?
Relaxing. [Laughs] I'm trying to take advantage of the time off and spend time with my family.
Is this coming at a good time or do you wish the bye came later?
Yeah, I wish it would have been a little later on, maybe halfway through the season, but it is what it is. And it is nice kind of nice, anytime you can get a bye week, it's nice to have a week off to rest your body up and get your mind set for the rest of the season.
Everyone is probably dealing with bumps and bruises from the rigors of the season. How are you feeling at this point?
I feel great. Probably the best I've felt in a long time. Definitely a little more sore than usual, but I think that's due to not playing these last two years. [Laughs]
Glad you brought that up, because I wanted to ask about that. You're leading the team in tackles and close to matching your career total in just this season alone. Obviously, injuries around you are tough, but is there a sense that the work has finally paid off?
Most definitely. It has been a roller coaster these last couple of years, even this year, coming into training camp, I wasn't expecting to step up into the role that I have now. I was just trying to get on the field and play football again. That was my main goal. But this season has been progressing for me. Each week, I feel I've gotten more comfortable and used to being on the field a lot more. I feel great.
What's the biggest single adjustment for you week to week? Is it stamina to play so much? Is it reading the offense? Is it just all of it at once?
For me, it's being more consistent and cleaning up any mistakes I had from the week before and just trying to be a better player week to week. The preparation for me is still the same and it's always been the same. Before I trained like I was a starter, my defensive coordinator now who was my linebacker coach with the Jets taught me to prepare like I'm a starter. You never know in the NFL. Somebody could go down and then I'm the next one up. So I've always had that mentality, and now it's really happening.
Take me back to the injury. It was a torn pectoral, correct?
That was two years ago this month.
Correct. It was the first week of October on a Monday night.
In that moment, how severe did you believe it was?
This was actually my second pectoral tear that I had. I tore one back in college. When I tore this one two years ago, I had a feeling that I did the same, just on the other side. When I came to the sideline, that's the first thing I said to the trainer, "I think I've torn a pec."
I'm assuming the first thought is "not again".
Yes, that's exactly what was going through my mind. My senior year was a nightmare. I played with injuries and felt like I was going back to that, going back in time again. So yeah, it was rough, but like everything in life, you get over it and move on.
You missed the rest of 2012 and then all of last year as well.
Yeah, last year in training camp, I hurt my lower back. I had to get surgery on that at the end of the season. It was frustrating. It was definitely frustrating. It felt like I was putting a lot of time, a lot of hard work into something that I loved doing. It just felt like I was taking steps back with these injuries and that nothing could go right for me.
Was there a point you considered quitting?
There was never that option in my mind. I always wanted to play in the NFL, and I didn't want to stop or end my career on back to back injuries. My motivation was to get healthy first and then just get out on the field and show teams that I can play in this league.
When you're waiting this offseason, is there a moment you wonder whether the opportunity was going to be there? What was the waiting game like for you?
After the surgery, it was definitely quiet. For the first couple months, I didn't hear anything from any teams. It was quiet on my agent's side as well. At that point, my mind started playing games with me. I just focused on getting healthy and hope I can get on the field again. But there was a point where I definitely thought, "This could be it. My career could be over." But with family support and friends, they told me to continue to get healthy and hopefully one day I get a shot and I can go out there and prove myself.
Were there any signs the Chiefs would be interested given the ties to the Jets defensive staff?
Yes. I would say about two or three months after my surgery, I received a call from my assistant linebacker coach, Mark DeLeone, and he brought it up to me that they were looking at bringing in a linebacker. They didn't draft one, so they said there was a vacancy there. If I could get healthy and prove myself that I'm healthy enough to play, they would be interested in signing me. That right there just gave me some extra motivation and fire to get healthy and ready to go.
Joe Mays goes down. Then Derrick Johnson goes down. That's a tremendous loss. Does that create a swirl of emotions for you?
Yeah. [Laughs] When Joe went down, I went out there and thought, "All right, I gotta learn the calls. I gotta make sure I got the signals down." Then when DJ went down, that was a whole other level, losing a guy like that just impacts a defense. He's one of our leaders. It was all hard.
I wasn't sure being the new guy on the team and wasn't sure how guys would react to me taking over that new role, but they've actually been great. My teammates have helped me along and guided me on certain plays and things to do or not to do. Joe and DJ are still around our facilities and they do the same as well. They're encouraging and coaching me up, so it's been great so far.
How's team morale heading into the bye?
I think we're good. I think the team morale is doing a lot better than where we started at in the beginning of the season. We did come off a tough loss, but it's a long season and guys realize that. We're just going to continue to get better and hopefully get a win streak going and hope to be successful at the end of the season.
One more for you. The best part of being a linebacker in Bob Sutton's defense is...?
Blitzing. [Laughs] I love blitzing. Playing with two fierce pass rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali makes that middle spot a little easier while they take on double teams. [Laughs]