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Friday, January 30, 2009

Ex-Ute Kemoeatu front and center -- this time as Steelers guard

When he takes the field as a starting offensive guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's Super Bowl XLIII, Chris Kemoeatu will have come a long way from his first day on the University of Utah campus.

Having arrived from Hawaii, he was so mystified by the all the equipment that former Ute coach Ron McBride found him alone in the locker room and helped him properly dress for practice.

Well, the kid was only 13.

From that introduction to college football during Utah's summer camp, Kemoeatu advanced to becoming a prized recruit and a member of championship teams at every level. He led Kahuku High School to its first state title in Hawaii, helped the Utes win the Mountain West Conference two years in a row and go unbeaten in his senior season, then joined in the Steelers' Super Bowl victory as a rookie.

The only necessary clarification: Kemoeatu did not dress in Detroit, being listed as inactive on game day because he was so low on the depth chart.

Three years later, "It feels extremely different," he said. Having replaced seven-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, who departed via free agency, Kemoeatu is a fixture on an offensive line that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger keeps having to defend.

"A lot of people have talked bad about them and have made them play that underdog card all year, which is good for them," Roethlisberger said this week. "They kind of like when people talk bad about them because I think it fuels them. I've been behind them all year. … They're my guys. They always will be. They protect me and I think they've done a great job."

Kemoeatu's ability rarely was questioned on his way to the NFL. Playing for Kahuku on Oahu's North Shore with future BYU and Arizona Cardinals defensive back Aaron Francisco, he was Hawaii's defensive player of the year as a senior. A knee injury made him doubtful for the championship game, but he played both ways and the Red Raiders ran behind him for 270 yards in a 26-20 upset of St. Louis.

Heavily recruited by Pac-10 schools, Kemoeatu joined his brothers Ma'ake (now with the Carolina Panthers) and Tevita at Utah, as McBride's long relationship with the family paid off.

Kemoeatu quickly established himself in college, with the disposition that McBride likes in a lineman.

"He was probably the meanest of the group, the most nasty," said McBride, now Weber State's coach.

That trait became an issue after Urban Meyer replaced McBride. Kemoeatu was suspended for kicking an opponent during his junior season.

"They say I had a temper problem, but it's football," he said. "In the heat of battle, I just reacted back then. I'm through all of that; I'm in the big leagues now."

Kemoeatu drew a penalty for retaliating in the AFC championship game against Baltimore, but his aggressiveness is better channeled. That was the case in his senior year at Utah, when he never allowed a sack and the Utes went 12-0 with a Fiesta Bowl victory over Pittsburgh.

The school shares the Steelers' training facility, so that game comes up in conversation at Kemoeatu's workplace. So does the Utah-BYU rivalry, with two former Cougars among the Steelers' defensive linemen.

Kemoeatu dressed for only one game as an NFL rookie who was drafted in the sixth round, then appeared in three games in 2006 before becoming a special-teams regular last season and moving into the starting lineup this year.

"I'm happy with how he's coming along," said line coach Larry Zierlein. "With each game, he's gaining a greater understanding. I didn't know how long it would take and, like all of them, he still has mental errors at times, but he's made good progress."

Starting in the Super Bowl gives Chris further distinction in the family. In seven NFL seasons with Baltimore and Carolina, Ma'ake has appeared in only one playoff game. In a mock interview, Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch prodded Kemoeatu to say of his brother, "He's still jealous, and I try to rub it in his face."

But the whole family is in Tampa for the game, supporting the guy who finally figured out what to do with all those pads.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

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