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Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks linebacker Boye Mafe honors his late mother before every game, after every sack

Seattle Seahawks linebacker Boye Mafe pressures San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy during a playoff game on Jan. 14 in Santa Clara, California.  (Tribune News Service)
By Shane Lantz Seattle Times

RENTON, Wash. – Whenever Seattle Seahawks linebacker Boye Mafe takes the field, there is one person he said he knows is always watching from above.

Before every game, Mafe finds a quiet spot on the sideline and closes his eyes, tilts his head to the sky, and speaks to his mother, Bola, who died of cancer on Mother’s Day 2018. Now, more than five years later, Mafe is quickly establishing himself as a key contributor to Seattle’s defense, and he’s bringing his mom with him every step of the way.

Once he completes his pregame ritual, and any time he gets a sack, Mafe pays tribute to Bola by signing the phrase “I love you” in American Sign Language.

Mafe did the sign after sacking New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones on Oct. 2 during the Seahawks’ 24-3 win on Monday Night Football, which drew the attention of ESPN broadcaster Joe Buck.

Mafe’s tribute was also the subject of a short documentary from ESPN, which laid out the origins of what had previously been a quiet, private moment for the second-year linebacker.

“My mom was a big part in me growing up, she taught me a lot,” Mafe said. “One of the things I pride myself on is carrying myself in the light that she did. Being that joy and being a spark in the room. She was always that person to bring the light out of other people. So I try to do that every day. Make someone happy, brighten someone’s day a little bit.”

Mafe’s parents, Wale and Bola, immigrated to the United States from Nigeria. The pair raised their children to appreciate their culture and native country, sending each of their kids to Nigeria to spend a year at boarding school.

But Golden Valley, Minnesota, was where Mafe and his five older siblings spent the vast majority of their childhood. Mafe was close with his mother, and spent many hours with her at her Minneapolis seamstress shop, where Bola made traditional clothing.

While he was growing up, Mafe knew that he could go to his mother for anything. No matter what he’d done or how much trouble he got into as a kid, he knew she would listen to him and try to understand.

“She would always keep a level head,” Mafe said. “I could bring anything to her, and she would never judge me and never look at me in a shameful way, but just hear me out, and help me out of the situation.”

Once he got older, Mafe became a star at Hopkins High School in nearby Minnetonka, where he was a standout football, basketball and track athlete. He was a second-team all-state football player his senior year, and accepted a scholarship from the University of Minnesota, where he redshirted his first year.

Mafe chose the school so he could stay close to Bola, who by this point was struggling with the pancreatic cancer she had been diagnosed with before his junior year in high school.

Toward the end of Mafe’s freshman year at Minnesota in 2018, Bola died, without getting the chance to see her son play college football.

Mafe began his redshirt freshman season for the Golden Gophers the following fall, and eventually decided to signify his love for his late mom with a simple sign. Mafe and several of his siblings took sign language in school, and he knew that signing “I love you” was a perfect visual way to salute the woman who meant so much to him.

Mafe’s tribute became a regular occurrence in college, as he developed into a star on the defensive line for the Gophers. He finished his collegiate career with 15 sacks, 87 career tackles, and 19.5 tackles for loss, and was picked by the Seahawks at 40th overall in the 2022 NFL draft.

He had a solid rookie season in Seattle, with three sacks, 41 tackles, and three tackles for loss to his name, but is on pace to shatter those totals in his second season.

Mafe has matched his rookie total with three sacks through his first four games of 2023, along with four tackles for loss, and four QB hits.

Mafe’s Pro Football Focus grades also tell the tale of a dramatically improved player. His overall defensive grade has gone from a 65.8 last season to a 79.4 this year, and his pass rush rating leapt from a mediocre 54.1 to a solid mark of 70.8 in his second professional season. His run defense mark, already strong at 72.6 last season, has risen to 75.6.

“He’s made a big jump,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “I think I’ve said he was probably the most improved guy from year one to year two, noticeably to us. It’s basically in his awareness, his understanding of what’s expected of him, how the game goes and being able to play in all situations, run and pass. He’s been a really nice player for us this year so far. He’s really just getting started.”

Bobby Wagner has noticed Mafe’s jump, too. While he wasn’t here to see Mafe’s rookie year in person, Wagner can tell that he has gone from someone trying to figure things out at the pro level, to being a player ready to make a major contribution.

“This year, being able to kind of have another year under his belt, go through a full offseason, he definitely understands the game a lot better,” Wagner said. “I think the angles that he takes on some of his pass rushes has been really cool to see, and he’s a guy that, you just know what you’re going to get out of him. He’s going to be a playmaker, and be where he’s supposed to be.”

No matter where his career takes him, Mafe said he knows there is someone who will never leave his side. When the game is about to start and the crowd is at its loudest, he just needs to take a quiet moment to himself. Bola is there. All Mafe has to do is look to the sky.

“I’m trying to work on just being the best version of myself and finding ways to get better and improve my game,” Mafe said. “I know she’d be proud of me today. She didn’t really follow along with football, but I know that today she’d be proud and excited to see me doing what I’m doing.”