ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Matt Mulligan is acutely aware how fortunate he is.
That realization was reaffirmed Sunday, when he enjoyed a memorable day on the field for the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams.
Mulligan partially blocked a punt that set up his eventual game-winning touchdown reception in the fourth quarter to help the Rams edge the Washington Redskins 31-28 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
“It was a great blessing,” the Enfield native said Tuesday. “I was really thankful for it. It was awesome.”
The 6-foot-4, 275-pound tight end is in his first season with St. Louis after spending the previous three years with the New York Jets. Sunday’s accomplishments were rare high-profile moments for the 27-year-old Mulligan, who has earned his keep as a blocking tight end and special-teams player.
The blocked punt came as a bit of a surprise, since his primary job is to hold up an opposing player to help set up a return.
“On that particular play, my guy didn’t get enough of me and I just kept going and fell right into the punt and I was able to block it,” Mulligan explained.
The TD pass, Mulligan’s first in the NFL, came on a play the Rams have worked on extensively. However, he credited his teammates with enabling him to find a hole in the defense.
“It’s a testament to [tight end] Lance Kendricks, [quarterback] Sam [Bradford] and the other guys running the play,” Mulligan said. “They executed their jobs so well that it left me wide open. Everybody just forgot about where I was.”
Mulligan had the ball knocked out of his hands during the celebration, but a team employee picked it up so he can have it as a souvenir. As a tribute to his efforts, head coach Jeff Fisher also presented Mulligan with a game ball during a team meeting.
In March, Mulligan signed a two-year contract that will reportedly pay him $675,000 in 2012 and $725,000 in 2013.
He has built an impressive pro resume, especially for a young man who attended Penobscot Valley High School in Howland, which does not even field a football team.
Mulligan first put on the shoulder pads and helmet at Husson University in Bangor, then took his game to another level during three seasons at the University of Maine. He believes there is a significant element of divine intervention that has led him on what is a rare path for someone from the state of Maine.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that it’s through a lot of prayer and seeking after God, who’s taking care of me in a lot of ways,” Mulligan said.
Mulligan wound up with St. Louis, where he had connections. They include Fisher, who was the head coach at Tennessee, where he landed briefly after being cut by Miami, which had signed him as a free agent in 2008.
The Rams’ offensive coordinator is Brian Schottenheimer, who had held the same job during Mulligan’s three seasons with the Jets.
“I couldn’t be more fortunate to play for an offensive coordinator as good as he is,” Mulligan said. “He’s not just a great football mind, he’s a great person as well.”
He also knew assistant head coach Dave McGinnis, who had been with the Titans.
St. Louis uses its tight ends extensively and Mulligan’s experience made him a good fit.
“In the offense, the tight end and the fullback’s interchangeable and we, at any given time, could put three of them on the field,” Fisher told Turf Show Times in June.
Mulligan said in spite of the TD catch, his role is to throw his weight around up front. He caught two passes on Sunday for 14 yards and has eight career receptions for 74 yards.
“Catching passes is not something that they’ve required me to do [a lot],” Mulligan said. “My best thing is to be able to block and hopefully move the line of scrimmage on guys that I’m matched up against.”
He also is a regular on the punt return and kickoff return units and noted that his special-teams play was how he established himself with the Jets.
Mulligan is motivated by the amount of faith the St. Louis staff has shown in him, but he knows he can’t be complacent.
“It is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life to this point, in a lot of areas,” Mulligan said.
“It’s a crazy business, but I’m just thankful to be here and I’ll do whatever I have to do to keep ahead of the guy who’s behind me [on the depth chart].”
Mulligan expressed gratitude for the many friends and mentors he had at UMaine, including head coach Jack Cosgrove. He speaks often with his best friend, former Black Bears roommate and teammate Mike DeVito, who plays for the Jets.
He expressed joy in seeing UMaine graduate Jovan Belcher during a preseason game against Kansas City. Former Black Bears running back Ben Sirmans coaches that position for the Rams.
“During practice, we’re always yelling out ‘Black Bears,’” Mulligan said. “He’s another great person coming out of the University of Maine system.”
In February, Mulligan married the former Stephanie McCoy of Otisfield. She gave up her job as a middle school teacher so they could spend this season together.
“She’s an amazing woman and I’m thankful to have that,” Mulligan said.
However, the Mulligans have a home in Lincoln, where they live during the offseason. Success cannot change who Mulligan is, or how he feels about his home state.
“Maine is the only place I want to be,” he said. “I’m thankful for my job and I’m really happy to be doing what I’m doing, but I love coming home to Maine. I feel like I never left.”