As Matthew Mullin looks on from the sideline, he patiently waits for his chance to finally play a down of collegiate football. Although he is sidelined due to injury, he continues to cheer on his teammates without hesitation.
Diagnosed with patella tendinitis, an ongoing injury dating back to his high school playing days, he would eventually tear his patella tendon in the very first week of training camp at Castleton University.
Needing surgery, Mullin laid in a hospital bed on Oct. 24, looking forward to getting through his surgery and beginning his road to recovery.
Mullin, an offensive lineman, began playing football in the fourth grade. He spent his early years wearing number 91, then switched in middle school to number 56, a tribute to his favorite football player of all time, Lawrence Taylor.
After a successful high school career, Mullin was recruited by Castleton University and committed to the school in the summer of 2016
And he worked hard and sacrificed other sports to make sure he was healthy to start his college football career.
“I definitely wanted to play this year. I took off playing baseball my senior season at Mount Abraham Unified High School here in Vermont. I wanted to play basketball too, but I took off to try and get healthy for football season,” said Mullin.
Most people who face a season-ending injury, find it hard to motivate themselves to not only stay with the team, but to continue to attend the college they have enrolled in. For Mullin, it was more of a personal decision than anything.
“When I would watch the team during camp week after my injury, I was watching everybody working hard to prove themselves, and I just feel like I haven’t proved myself yet,” Mullin said. “I had a pretty impressive high school career, but that’s all in the past and I want to prove myself at this level. I just want my shot.”
Healing inside and out
The only thing worse than a paid in Mullin’s knee, was the pain in his heart.
Over the summer, prior to coming to Castleton University, Mullin endured a deeper loss, the loss of his father.
Mullin’s father was a truck driver, so for him to see his father was rare when he was younger, but he said they still had a close relationship.
But the relationship got stronger when his father was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited eye disease that slowly destroys the retina and causes blindness. This led to his father’s trucking license being stripped from him and he was no longer allowed to drive trucks.
“I guess we were kind of distant at first, but once he was forced to stay home, this was when we really become closer,” Mullin said.
They really began really bonding when Mullin became his father’s driver and when his father picked up blind ice hockey.
“It sounds cruel, but It’s a thing. They put ball-bearings in a hockey puck and they play off the sound, Mullin explained.
In Mullin’s freshman year of high school, though, things got worse than a loss of vision. His father was diagnosed with colon cancer. Battling it for a year, he was then in remission for the next two years.
Just as things began to look up for his father, Mullin’s family was then told that more cancer had been found and his father would have to begin chemotherapy once again.
He was back in the hospital on May 6, 2016 and was hospitalized for the last month of his life.
The cancer had spread into his blood, his brain and all of his other major organs.
“He passed away on June 3, the day before my birthday, so I remember that date pretty well,” said Mullin as he stares into his fiddling hands. “When he passed away it was just devastating, I can’t really describe a feeling like that.”
At home, it was important for Mullin and his family to keep going, which was done by assuring that they were really open with each other, that if they ever needed to talk about something they would always know the door was open.
Football family makes a statement
For Mullin, the hardest part of all this was planning the funeral arrangements. To his surprise, Castleon football head coach Tony Volpone and defensive coordinator Blaise Zambrano both made appearances at the funeral.
“We knew Matt was coming in to play for us, we knew the circumstances regarding his personal life and we wanted him to know that even though he may not have officially become a student athlete here, we wanted him to know what kind of people he was coming to play for and the kind of culture he was becoming a part of, said head coach Tony Volpone.
Mullin’s relationship with his mother was just as significant as the one with his father and she clearly felt the same.
“We are very close. We share the same sense of humor, the same sense of wonder in how we see the world and the same sense of how you should proceed in life and how you treat others,” Cara Mullin said.
While the whole family suffered during his father’s illness, it was a struggle that Mullin preferred to hide.
“His father lost 100 pounds and Matt watched cancer eat his body. It was devastating to Matthew but he did not let it show,” said Cara. “Mullin would help his father whenever he could. He would help feed him, carry him up and down the stairs, get him anything he needed. This just shows the type of character. Mullin is. He is strong and kind and he was all of these things before losing his father; he just had to grow up a little faster than others,” said Cara.
It take’s a strong individual to be able to overcome all of the adversity that Mullin has, but he said he does it because it’s what his father would have wanted.
“He was my drive to keep playing honestly. He always taught me to stay humble and if there was something that I wanted to do, to go after it and do it,” he said.
One of Cara’s favorite memories of her son, actually occurred relatively recently. She claims this moment truly defines his character.
Mullin and his mother were walking down the street, when he mumbled under his breath.
“Nobody should have to live like that,” he said as he saw a homeless man, rummaging through the garbage. Unsure if the homeless man was looking for food, water or cans to cash in for a small profit, Mullin walked over to the man, took his wallet out of his pocket, reached in and grabbed his last $20, and handed it to the man.
“Matthew is a young man with a very large heart. He is a person who thinks of others before he thinks of himself,” she said.
His positivity and commitment to being the best individual he can be has spread among people around him and is easily noticed.
“I think it’s safe to say that Matt has done a great job. I think we can all say that when we see him or we’re in his company, he always seems to have a smile on his face, always seems have a positive vibe to him, he’s always joking around … kind of reminds you of a Chris Farley-like-type behavior, which can make anybody laugh,” said Volpone.
And it’s not just the coaching staff that notices his positive behavior.
“I think he’s an inspiration. He’s 18 years old and he lost his father and his season of football in the same year, yet his still has an awesome attitude towards life,” said teammate Luke Tancreti.
He looks forward to making a speedy recovery, getting back into football related activities and said he will continue to make his family and friends proud of the individual that he has grown to be.
There’s no telling that the first time he gets to strap up that chinstrap, he will take a second and look to the sky, knowing that his father is looking down, watching over him, proud of the young man he raised.
“I’m looking forward to getting my shot next season, I can’t wait for my shot,” he said.