“I don’t know, it’s the battle, the going to war with the other guys, hanging together, having our own dorm, staying in hotels the night before the games, setting ourselves apart, being different than everybody else, having a chance to be somebody, to do something that people look up to you for, your strength, your courage, not everybody can play football … we’re the lucky ones.”
– Character Steve Lattimer on why he loves football in the movie “The Program.”
PULLMAN – Matt Mullennix is one of the lucky ones.
He can still play football at a high level after two major reconstructive knee surgeries.
And that is college football’s version of lucky.
Just don’t ask Mullennix about it if you’re carrying a tape recorder or a camera in your hands. He won’t answer.
He doesn’t want to stretch his luck any further, afraid it may snap like just another ACL, bringing to an end his seventh fall of football since graduating from Liberty High in 2002.
Superstition has a deep grip here.
“He’s one of my best friends and I have a lot of respect for his superstitions,” said Washington State junior center Kenny Alfred, one of the Cougars’ most loquacious players. “You know I will talk to (the media) any time, but I kind of feel like I’ve got to respect him. … It’s such a strong thing for him that I’ve got to respect it.”
The last time Mullennix opened his mouth for a reporter to quote came Aug. 22, 2006. He spoke about finally earning a starting spot in what was then his junior season.
“I’m not as fast in the 40 as a lot of players,” Mullennix told The Spokesman-Review’s Glenn Kasses. “But I think when a lot of fast players are jogging, I’m the one that’s running as hard as I can. I make up for it.”
He was doing just that three days later.
Going upfield on a pass rush, he planted his left leg to spin back to the action and his knee didn’t follow. His season was over, taken away by an unlucky break for the second time.
“It was bad,” said senior middle linebacker Greg Trent, who was near Mullennix when he went down the second time. “It was hard going through the rest of practice.”
Just think about going through the rest of your career.
Saturday won’t be Mullennix’s first Apple Cup. In fact, he has a chance to be the first Cougar to have been a part of teams that won four games against their rivals from Seattle.
But few could have predicted such a fate when he graduated from Liberty High. Cougars coach Paul Wulff, then the Eastern Washington head coach, admits he was surprised WSU used a scholarship on the tall (6-foot-5), light (235 pounds as a freshman) defensive lineman from a small school.
“I remember when we signed him, I was very excited about that and I think Matt was, too,” said current Idaho head coach Robb Akey, then a Cougars assistant. “His daddy had played there, too, so I think that was an important thing in the family.”
The son of a Cougar – father Scott played for WSU in the mid-1970s before becoming a police officer – Mullennix grayshirted, enrolling in the spring of 2003 and redshirting that fall.
On the field he fit right in – until his first knee injury struck four games into the 2004 season.
“He kept having to battle injuries his entire time,” Akey said. “He always worked his tail off to overcome them and always came back stronger.”
After rehabbing the knee, Mullennix returned for 2005, still not at full strength but good enough to appear in all 11 games. More hard work over the summer got him back to where he once was and Mullennix won the starting defensive end spot as camp progressed.
Then Lady Luck hit him again.
“He had busted his tail to get (his knee) rehabbed, he busted his tail to be as strong as he could be going into the season,” Akey said. “I know that hurt him. He took that hard.”
Hurt, yes, but not fatal to his career. More hard work followed. Last year Mullennix started most of the season at end, recording 33 tackles, a sack and his senior parting gift – a framed jersey.
Which he promptly decided to use.
Watching Mullennix limp through practice every day, one wonders why he’s putting himself through this.
He already has two degrees and is working on a third. He participated in senior day activities last year and was ready to get on with his life.
Then came the change in coaches, the resultant gap in recruiting and a need for defensive linemen.
Mullennix told a reporter in a hall conversation last winter football was over for him. It wasn’t. He decided to petition the NCAA for a sixth year. It was granted in May.
“He loves the game, it shows,” Trent said. “After all the adversity he’s faced from the surgeries and the injuries, I thought he was going to be done after last year.”
Trent learned otherwise during the spring, when Mullennix sent him a text saying he had some good news. He was coming back.
“To go through all he’s gone through, most guys just throw in the towel,” Trent said. “He comes back and keeps playing. It just tells a lot about him. He gets back on the horse because he loves the game.”
Mullennix leads all WSU defensive linemen with 40 tackles, including a sack and three tackles for loss. Despite the limp, he leads all Cougars in effort during practice.
“He goes as long as he can, as hard as he can,” Trent said. “I know he’s hurting from all those surgeries, but he just keeps going … like that Energizer Bunny.
“I know he motivates me.”
“He talks a great deal,” senior defensive tackle A’i Ahmu said. “He’ll get on your case if you’re not doing what you need to be doing. But he definitely is an encourager.
“He can be a mean, mean son of a gun, if you want to call him that, but he just calls it how he sees it. A real honest guy. He’ll jump your case if he needs to.”
When asked the first thing to come to mind when he thinks of Mullennix, junior defensive end Andy Mattingly didn’t hesitate.
“Passion,” Mattingly said. “He plays with more passion than anybody I’ve ever been around.”
That passion is what led to a moniker Trent applied to his good friend.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is (Steve) Lattimer,” Trent said, referring to a character in the college football movie “The Program.”
“Lattimer was just a big, scary guy who just goes and busts people up. Matt’s just a big, scary, intense player. That’s why I’ve got to call him Lattimer.”
But there’s more to Mullennix then his on-field persona.
There’s Mullennix the friend. Everyone asked to comment for this story mentioned how lucky they felt to count him among their friends. Even Alfred’s silence testifies to that.
“He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever met, either on the field or off,” Mattingly said. “He’s a guy you can count on to be there for anything.”
Count Wulff as one who thanks his stars for Mullennix.
“He gives us everything he’s got,” Wulff said. “Boy, you can’t have too many of those type of guys.”
So maybe it’s not Mullennix who’s the lucky one. Maybe it’s the players and coaches he’s around.
Quarterback Kevin Lopina, who was knocked out of the Arizona State loss with a concussion, was back at practice Wednesday, running the first-team offense. Wulff said he had been cleared to practice and play this week. When asked if he felt better about the quarterback situation with Lopina back, Wulff said, “Better, better.” … Receiver Brandon Gibson was also back at practice after attending his great-grandfather’s funeral and missing practice Tuesday. Gibson said he’s been thinking about how Saturday will mark his last home game and he hopes to “leave with a win and leave the fans happy.” … The last part of practice was enlivened by a scuffle that broke out after Lopina scrambled during a scrimmage and contact was made despite his yellow, no-contact jersey. The skirmish included about a handful of players and led to a lot of whooping and hollering before coaches broke it up. … It looks like everyone but Chris Ivory (hamstring) and Alfonso Jackson (stinger) will be available Saturday. They were the only players listed as questionable who didn’t practice.
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