A year ago, Mike DeVito was straining his way through injury rehab four months after a torn Achilles tendon had left him so demoralized he briefly contemplated retirement.

But strength has never been in short supply for the former University of Maine defensive lineman.

DeVito found it while pushing his body alongside Kansas City Chiefs teammate Derrick Johnson, who had suffered the same injury in the same game, the 2014 season opener. He found it while pumping iron back home in Maine with Matthew Mulligan, his best friend and former Black Bears teammate.

By February, he was healed. By September, he was ready to embark on one of the best seasons of his nine-year NFL career, picking up 19 tackles and a career-high three sacks to help the Chiefs reach the playoffs.

On Saturday, DeVito will take the field at Gillette Stadium, with 20-30 family members there to cheer him on, as Kansas City tries to dethrone the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in an AFC divisional playoff game.

“It was tough. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to come back,” DeVito said of the injury. “Being back in the playoffs is incredible. Thinking back to last year where I was at this time, I don’t take anything for granted.”

DeVito, 31, is a veteran presence on a young and emerging Kansas City defensive line. The Chiefs had 47 sacks this season.

Kansas City Coach Andy Reid has been impressed with how DeVito has come back from his injury, and what that shows younger teammates.

“He’s got himself in great shape, plays his heart out in every snap,” Reid said. “Great example to a lot of people around him.”

THE IMPACT OF UMAINE

DeVito was born in New York but grew up on Cape Cod as a Jets fan, attending Nauset Regional High in Eastham, Massachusetts. He arrived in Orono in 2002 as a 225-pound work in progress. And work he did. By the time DeVito left, he had packed on 85 pounds of muscle. He’s trimmed down slightly from those days, but is widely regarded as one of the NFL’s strongest players at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds.

“The strength program up at UMaine is great. Coach (Jack Cosgrove) always made it a big deal that we were going to be bigger and stronger than everybody else,” DeVito said.

While at UMaine, DeVito also developed a deep appreciation for the state, so much so that he set down roots here and lives in Hampden when he’s not playing.

DeVito signed with the Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2007 and spent six seasons there. The highlight, he said, occurred five years ago Saturday, when the Jets went into Foxborough and beat the Patriots, 28-21, in a divisional playoff game.

“That was probably the most fun I’ve had playing football. That was the biggest game I’ve ever won,” said DeVito, who will be appearing in his ninth playoff game Saturday. “The NFL is fast as it is, but there’s something about the playoffs that people find the energy to play even harder and faster.”

This will be the first time DeVito’s family will be able to see him play in person in three years. They used to attend every year when the Jets traveled to Gillette Stadium. But those trips stopped after DeVito signed a $12.6 million, three-year contract with Kansas City in 2013.

DeVito’s father, Vinnie, has a fear of flying.

It is from his father that DeVito inherited his strength. Vinnie DeVito was a bodybuilder and still lifts weights.

“I wouldn’t mess with the old man,” DeVito joked.

“I HAVEN’T MET A STRONGER GUY’

Mulligan, a West Enfield native, arrived at UMaine in 2005 and was instantly awed by what all of that weight-room work had done for DeVito.

“The first thing that anyone is going to notice about Mike is the strength. I haven’t met a stronger guy than Mike,” said Mulligan, a veteran of seven NFL seasons as a tight end.

The two became instant friends, and now are offseason workout partners. Mulligan, no weakling at 6-4, 270, said DeVito can bench-press 500 pounds and squat well over 700.

They talk on the phone nearly every day, so Mulligan heard from DeVito immediately after that season-ending injury on Sept. 9, 2014.

“It’s extremely disheartening because you work so hard in the offseason and he felt like he was in the best shape that he’d been in his career. I think there was a time where he was down about it because you lose your whole season and you know you’ve got a long hill to climb,” Mulligan said. “He tackled that just like he’s tackled everything else in life, head-on. The competitor took over in Mike, and he didn’t want to go out like that.”

DeVito credited Mulligan for helping him get through the rehab. And that enabled the two Black Bears to do something that had never occurred before – go head-to-head against each other during an NFL game. Mulligan’s Buffalo Bills visited Kansas City on Nov. 29. Mulligan estimated they were on the field together for 20 snaps.

“It was really probably one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life. It was not one of those games that you look forward to playing in,” Mulligan said of the Chiefs’ 30-22 victory. “It’s a war out there. It’s a fistfight. And then you’re playing against your best buddy, who you’re going to break bread with in the offseason.

“The one thing that kept us both sane was we would talk to each other after plays. You can play a little more relaxed that way.”

DeVITO BECOMING A FREE AGENT

The situation may never arise again. Mulligan is spending another offseason in search of a new team after the Bills let him go. DeVito will be a free agent whenever this playoff run ends. The woods of Maine, and family life, are beckoning both.

DeVito said his NFL career has brought him enough financial security that he can walk away if need be.

“There’s no way I would have pictured this when I was first going up to Orono,” he said. “I would have figured I was either going to join the military or take over my dad’s (construction) business. The NFL was a dream that was far and away.

“Without Mully, I don’t think I would be here. Lifting weights, after a while you get good at it, but you have to have someone there pushing you.”