Matthew Mulligan doesn’t take anything for granted when it comes to his career in the National Football League.
This spring, the Enfield native and former University of Maine tight end is training diligently, preparing for what he hopes will be his seventh NFL season.
“I don’t really know where the Lord’s going to lead me at this point,” Mulligan said recently at Husson University’s Gracie Theatre, where he and former UMaine teammate Mike DeVito of the Kansas City Chiefs spoke to students.
“I’m going through free agency right now, so this potentially could be the last time. I may not get picked up this year,” said the 29-year-old Mulligan, who spent most of the 2013-2014 season with the New England Patriots.
He is now an unrestricted free agent, which means he is free to sign with any team.
“We’ve had a few different teams calling, but it’s been unlike any other year. It’s something that takes a lot of patience from year to year,” Mulligan said.
The 6-foot-4, 270-pounder, who attended Penobscot Valley High School in Howland, lives in Lincoln during the offseason with his wife Stephanie and their 11-month-old daughter Clara.
During the offseason, he has reached out to young people across the state. Mulligan and DeVito have teamed up for several speaking engagements, during which they talk about the lessons learned on the way to success in life and football.
Mulligan stresses the importance of having enough self-confidence and drive to pursue even the most lofty goals, especially in the face of doubters.
“There’s always going to be someone telling you that you can’t do it,” he said. “You have to make up your own mind. If it’s something that you want to do, it’s very possible.”
Mulligan, who signed with Miami as a free agent in 2008, spent two seasons with the New York Jets alongside DeVito (2009-2011), then played with St. Louis in 2012. Last September, he joined the Patriots and made his second career touchdown reception, from Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady, in a Sept. 29 victory at Atlanta.
Known as a blocking specialist, Mulligan admits having the ball thrown to him can be stressful.
“It’s so nerve-wracking to have to catch a touchdown (pass), because when you don’t catch a lot of passes, if you ever drop one, just forget it. They will never, ever, throw it to you again,” he said with a chuckle.
Trying to stick in the NFL is no laughing matter according to Mulligan, who has been cut from teams six times. Each year, the influx of talented players (the 2014 draft is scheduled May 8-10), means his job could be in jeopardy.
Mulligan concerns himself only with getting stronger and faster. His training regimen consists of 2½ hours per day and the commitment is 365 days a year.
“If I’m not trying to get better, there’s always somebody else who is,” he said. “There’s always somebody who’s trying to steal my job.”
Mulligan said playing in the NFL exacts a physical and emotional toll. There also is considerable pressure to perform, especially for a player who has lived on the fringe.
Mulligan said football at the NFL level is a complex game.
“The intricacies of football are so vast. It’s really incredible,” he said.
“It can really take over your life because you become such a perfectionist that it can really hinder some other areas of your life when it’s not realistic to be perfect at everything,” he added.
A blown assignment can result in pain for a teammate, or a defeat for the entire squad.
“If you miss one guy you’re supposed to block and he destroys Tom Brady, that’s not a good thing,” Mulligan said.
Playing in the NFL also means being under a media microscope, especially in New York and Boston, where Mulligan has spent half of his career. Players stick together and to avoid getting caught up in the hype.
“We appreciate them (the media) because they give us an opportunity to do a lot of different things but, for the most part, they stink,” Mulligan said.
He is determined to do whatever is necessary to continue playing. That means making sacrifices of time and effort and refusing to hit the snooze button.
“Rest is important, but I’ll rest when I’m dead,” he said.
Mulligan admits he misses things he has put on the back burner, such as as hunting and fishing. He remains focused on his job.
“It’s how bad do you want it,” he said. “I’m going to keep playing until the last call. When they don’t keep calling any more, then I’ll hang it up.”
When that time comes, Mulligan plans to be prepared to take the next step in his life.
DeVito shared a statistic that 75 percent of NFL players are divorced and broke within three years of retirement. Mulligan has no intention of contributing to that figure.
He mentioned the possibility of working in strength and conditioning, or maybe as a game warden. In the meantime, he and Stephanie have adopted a conservative lifestyle.
“We’re trying to live within our means,” he said. “We live in Lincoln. We don’t have a lavish home. We’re not driving Bentleys.”
Mulligan said an important reason for sharing his story with young people is to help them realize that they have the ability to reach their loftiest goals.
“Youre the only one that can define yourself,” Mulligan said. “You’re the only one that has a chance to change your life and do exactly what you want to do with it.”