FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Matthew Mulligan has learned rather quickly that things happen quickly in the NFL.
You’re on one team’s roster one week, another team’s roster the next.
Mulligan hopes his latest stay is a little longer than his last two. Mulligan, a West Enfield native and graduate of tiny Penobscot Valley High in Howland — about 30 miles north of Bangor — signed Tuesday with the New England Patriots, just three days after he was released by the Green Bay Packers in their final cut.
“It was quick, as everything in the NFL happens,” Mulligan said Wednesday. “I was surprised at being released, but I’m just happy the Patriots called and gave me the opportunity to continue my career.”
It’s a career that, frankly, few could have predicted.
Mulligan’s story is unique; he never played high school football. Penobscot Valley offered only soccer in the fall and he was quite good at it. He didn’t start playing football until his sophomore year at Husson University, when the friend of a cousin told Coach Gabby Price that he had to get Mulligan to play football.
After a year at Husson, he transferred to the University of Maine, where he played two seasons. Jack Cosgrove, the Black Bears’ coach, said he “learned the game” in Orono.
Mulligan admits it wasn’t easy.
“It was a huge transition,” he said. “Actually I think at first the coaches thought I had a learning disability. There’s nothing wrong with it but I had no idea. It was like, ‘Why do you not understand how to get in the line? How come you don’t understand what I’m talking about?
“And I was like, ‘I’ve never played prior to last year.’ It’s definitely been a learning curve (and) I’m still behind the eight ball as far as instincts go. But I feel these last six years of my career I’ve been starting to really come along.”
There are several NFL teams that agree. After two years at Maine, where he caught 21 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns, he signed as an undrafted free agent with Miami. He spent a year on the Dolphins’ practice squad, then a year on Tennessee’s practice squad.
Then he made the big team. He played three seasons with the New York Jets and last year with the St. Louis Rams. In 50 NFL games, he has caught 14 balls for 144 yards and a touchdown.
His forte has been, and is, blocking. At 6-foot-4, 267 pounds, he has the size to take on anyone. And the foot skills he learned playing soccer and basketball are pivotal in his blocking ability.
“They told me when I first got into the NFL you want to have something that nobody else does, something that you do really well,” said Mulligan. “And there are a lot of good blockers in the league, obviously. But what I’ve been able to do is be able to block. That’s what teams have wanted me for.”
The Patriots are the latest. Coach Bill Belichick has commented on Mulligan’s blocking ability and quarterback Tom Brady is looking forward to working with him.
Mulligan has to learn quickly. The season opens Sunday at Buffalo.
“That’s part of being a professional,” he said. “You’re expected to get into your playbook and understand things quickly. The NFL happens fast.”
Those who know Mulligan know he’ll be ready.
“Once you’ve been in one, NFL systems are pretty much the same except for the verbiage,” said Matt King, a teammate of Mulligan’s at Maine and now the university’s strength and conditioning head coach. “There might be a certain call, or check, on a play that Green Bay calls differently from the Patriots, but it’s the same thing. Once Matt gets that down and understands the system he’s in, he’ll be all right.”
Mulligan’s biggest fans know he understands the game, how it’s played on the field and in the board room. Last March he was scheduled to speak to some UMaine athletes.
“That very day,” said Cosgrove, “he found out he was released by the Rams. It was a very down day for him. Yet he came in and did a great job speaking to our kids.”
Mulligan had other offers after the Packers released him. “There was a lot (of interest) actually,” he said. “Initially before they let me go there were some teams looking to trade for me. That didn’t work out. We had a few teams calling, other opportunities for sure. But this was the best fit.”
Mulligan looks at the whole picture, the way the Patriots have embraced tight ends, not only for blocking but receiving, and likes the possibilities.
“I always try to get better,” he said. ” I’m always working after practice. I stayed after practice today catching passes, run some routes, things of that nature. But at the same time I know what I do best and I try to exemplify that as best I can.”
Most of all, said Mulligan, he’s happy to be close to home. He may still be 51/2 hours away from his home in Lincoln, but he, his wife Stephanie and their 5-month-old daughter, Clara, are a lot closer than they’ve ever been.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to share more experiences with people and family I’ve been away from the last six years,” said Mulligan. “Maybe have my parents down for the weekend, stuff like that.”
Mulligan, by the way, grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan. Chances are you won’t find many of those in his family any more.
“Everyone’s always been rooting for me,” he said. “But in the back of their minds the Pats are in their hearts. So I think it makes it a lot easier for a lot of people now.”
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: