A New York Jets jersey signed by Matt Mulligan hangs in the gymnasium at tiny Penobscot Valley High School in Howland, a tribute to the former Howler-turned-NFL player.
Gerald Hutchinson, the school’s athletic director, hopes to have a New England Patriots No. 88 jersey hanging next to it soon.
On Tuesday the 28-year-old Mulligan, a West Enfield native and former University of Maine football player, signed a contract to play tight end for the New England Patriots.
He is the third Maine native to play for the Patriots, joining Gardiner’s Dave Cloutier (1964) and Biddeford’s Dennis Gadbois (1987, 1988) and fourth former Black Bear — Cloutier, Brandon McGowan (2009-10) and Clay Pickering (one game in 1987).
Mulligan, 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, has played in the NFL the last four seasons: Three with the New York Jets and last year with the St. Louis Rams. Known primarily as an outstanding blocker, he has started 20 of the 50 games he has appeared in, with 14 catches for 144 yards and one touchdown.
Hutchinson isn’t necessarily surprised by Mulligan’s success — for four years he recruited Mulligan, unsuccessfully, to join the Howlers’ wrestling team — only that it came in football. Penobscot Valley didn’t offer football so Mulligan played soccer, basketball and baseball. He picked up football in his freshman year at Husson University, then transferred to Orono to play for the Black Bears.
“It’s really astonishing when you think about it,” said Hutchinson, who taught Mulligan in two classes (algebra and geometry). “It’s really unbelievable. I don’t think you’ll ever see anything like this again. There was no nothing here, just soccer. It shows his dedication.”
His success in football doesn’t surprise those who watched him grow. Hutchinson remembers him as a good student, someone “who cared about what he was doing and was meticulous in his work. He was a kid who, when he put his mind to it, he was going to achieve it.”
Jack Cosgrove, the UMaine football coach, remembers when he first saw Mulligan, a raw, skilled athlete who was just learning the game.
“He had so much to learn, he was a neophyte,” said Cosgrove. “But he had, and has, so much of an upside, that’s what the NFL people are seeing right now.”
From his first day in Orono, Mulligan attacked the weight room.
“The kid has done it all,” said Cosgrove. “He had a great weight room ethic. And the key to that is that his best buddy is Mike DeVito (the former Black Bear who was a teammate of Mulligan’s in New York and is now with Kansas City). Both of those guys are special. They were Strength and Conditioning All-Americans while they were here. He had great physical growth and development here.”
Matt King, the UMaine strength and conditioning head coach, saw it first hand. He was a defensive end/linebacker for the Black Bears while Mulligan was there. The two went head-to-head many times.
“The one thing about Matt is that he is a relentless blocker,” said King. “He is able to block anyone. Once Matt gets his hands on you, he’s not going to give up until he buries you in the ground.”
That’s what the Patriots see in Mulligan as well. Asked about him during a conference call, coach Bill Belichick said, “He’s had a lot of success blocking and he’s a tough, physical player.”
He was more than that at Maine, according to King. He remembers Mulligan as being wide-eyed when he first arrived in Orono. But Mulligan soon began bonding with his teammates, especially those from away.
“You had your kids from Maine on the team and you had your kids from the other states,” said King, who came to UMaine from Boston. “He was a little intimidated at first, but he was open to learning a lot of different things. We learned a lot about skiing and snowboarding, things that he was used to doing while growing up. And he learned about some of the urban environments we grew up in.”
King and others soon learned that although Mulligan had very little football experience, he was a player.
“He was a great athlete,” said King. “And you can teach an athlete skills.”
Mulligan applied the same work ethic he displayed in his high school classroom and in the weight room to become an NFL player.
But he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He returns to his home in Lincoln every summer and spends time visiting schools, or working out with DeVito in the UMaine weight room.
“He’s good like that,” said Hutchinson. “He visits a lot of the local schools and talks to the kids about setting goals, how if they put their mind to something they can accomplish it.”
Hutchinson sees a confident, more mature — and much bigger — Mulligan when he visits.
“He has to bend down whenever he comes into my room now,” said Hutchinson.
And the two talk about wrestling. Hutchinson tried to persuade Mulligan to join his team for four years. “I told him he could be a state champion,” said Hutchinson.
No thanks, Mulligan would say. And then Mulligan would play basketball.
“Now, every time he comes home,” said Hutchinson, “he tells me the one thing he wishes he could change is that he would have wrestled.”