Matthew Mulligan knows he has been a fortunate soul.
He played nine years as a tight end in the NFL despite not playing football until his sophomore year in college. He played soccer at Penobscot Valley High School in Howland because the school didn’t offer football. He took it up when he was at Husson University, then blossomed after he transferred to the University of Maine for his final two seasons.
“I realized a long time ago how blessed I was to have the opportunity to be given these chances that maybe people before me hadn’t had the same opportunity,” said Mulligan, now 36 and living in Lincoln with his wife, Stephanie, and their three children – Clara (8), Emmett (6) and Lena (4). “I always tell people that whatever you do, if you go full tilt and accept giving nothing less than your full best, if you push and push and push, there are so many more things in life you can accomplish.
“I had my ups and downs. It was not all sunshine and roses. But I realized at a young age if you put the work into something, it will happen.”
Mulligan, who played for 10 NFL teams – including the New England Patriots in 2013 – from 2008-2016, is now back in his home state and hoping to inspire a new generation of football players. He has joined the UMaine football coaching staff as a volunteer. He works primarily in strength and conditioning, though he also participates in team drills, coaching tight ends, offensive linemen and wide receivers.
“He’s been great so far,” said Nick Charlton, the Black Bears head coach. “He’s been awesome. He’s a great story. He accomplished a lot in his career and he’s continuing to do that. Now that he’s into coaching, and getting involved here, it can only be helpful down the road.”
Charlton, who is entering his third season as the Black Bears head coach, believes it is important for his young players to see examples of Maine players having success at the next level.
“Obviously, with his experience and what he accomplished here and in the NFL, that speaks volumes of what can be accomplished here,” said Charlton. “He’s living proof of it. When he talks, it goes a long way.”
Mulligan, who will be inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame on Sept. 26, also trains local high school athletes at the gym he built at his home. But he is enthusiastic about his position at UMaine.
“It’s important,” he said. “When I got into the NFL, I heard about all the big schools and the guys who go back to their schools or go back to work at their colleges when they’re done (playing). It gives players the opportunity to see it first-hand, ‘Hey, I go to UMaine, but this guy made it.’ Look at Pat (Ricard), he’s still playing. Mike (DeVito, the retired NFL defensive lineman). They made it. It’s important to give back.”
DeVito, who had a nine-year NFL career with the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, is Mulligan’s training partner and best friend. He said this is a win-win situation for everyone.
“I’m happy for Matt that he’s able to get back into football,” said DeVito, who has a home in Hampden. “I’m happy for the players because they are getting the opportunity to learn from someone who was not only a Black Bear, but has been somewhere that they want to go to for nine years. The width and scope of knowledge that he brings, you can’t put a price on it.”
DeVito said Mulligan’s expertise in the weight room goes beyond simply how to lift. “If Matt’s an expert about anything, it’s in the weight room,” said DeVito. “He knows all the ins and outs, all the nuances. He keeps up with the latest research, including nutrition. It’s a great thing for everybody.”
Mulligan, who works with the Black Bears four days a week, has a simple message for the UMaine players: “I’m here to show them that they have to work hard every day in (the weight room). The expectations are very high. You guys have all the potential in the world. But it can’t just be about potential.”
Mulligan knows a little bit about hard work. It’s what got him into the NFL and kept him there for nine years.
“I had to put in a lot of effort in the gym,” said the 6-foot-4 Mulligan, who played at about 285 pounds and now weighs 300. “I didn’t have the experience of a lot of guys, I didn’t have the instinctual ability. I had God-given strength and I tried to expand on that.”
Undrafted out of Maine, he signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins in 2008. He spent time on the Dolphins practice squad, and then with the Tennessee Titans on their practice squad before he got his chance in 2009 to play in the NFL with the New York Jets. He was there for three years, going to two AFC championship games.
He didn’t catch many passes in his career – just 18 for 170 yards – but he wasn’t in the game to catch balls. He was was an exceptional blocker, able to not only take on linebackers but larger defensive linemen because of his strength. “I could get the job done because of the work I put in on the strength and conditioning side of things,” he said.
He caught two touchdown passes in his career, including a memorable one from a certain New England quarterback named Tom Brady. It was a 1-yard pass in a Sunday night win over Atlanta.
“To this day, people still talk to me about it,” said Mulligan. “At the time, as a player, I never tried to get too high or too low. I tried to stay even keel, in the moment. It was a job. Looking back on it now, it’s something I’m very thankful for. I mean, Tom’s credentials speak for themself. And me? I was just where I was supposed to be at the time I was supposed to be there.”
The Patriots would lose in the AFC championship game to Baltimore that season. Mulligan was let go and signed with Chicago. He would play three more years, finishing up after Detroit in 2016.
He has enjoyed his time at home. His wife, Stephanie, has become a successful children’s author – she’s written “How to Catch a Keeper” and “How to Tap a Maple” – and is collaborating with Matthew on a children’s book about his life called “Just a Kid from Maine.” They hope to have it published by the fall. It will be in comic book style, illustrated by former Marvel illustrator Rick Parker.
“I’m obviously so proud of him,” said Stephanie Mulligan, the owner and editorial director of McSea Books, a small publishing company. “So I approached him and said, ‘I’d like to do a tribute to you and write a book about you.’ I want to share his story to inspire others, children and adults, because it is a pretty incredible thing. He’s pretty humble but he went along with it. I mean, I’m the boss. I’m the publisher.”
“The goal,” said Matthew Mulligan, “is to take the book into schools and talk to the kids, show them that they can make it, that they can get it done. It will take hard work, effort and persistence, but you can get it done.”
Stephanie Mulligan said her husband’s new position is a perfect fit. After his retirement as a player, Matthew Mulligan became involved in strength and conditioning and was a consultant for the Washington Football Team. He said he enjoyed it but wasn’t sure how it would work out. When he got the call from Charlton to join the Black Bears, he jumped at the chance.
“I couldn’t think of a better fit, honestly, and it’s coming full circle,” she said. “It’s a nice way to still be connected and in the proximity of where we want to raise our children. It’s a blessing.”
Matthew Mulligan is hopeful his volunteer position will someday become full-time. But for now, he’s just glad to be back in Orono.
“I’m just happy to be part of the program,” he said. “I’m going in there and giving 110 percent. I’m excited to be part of the UMaine family.”