Robert Mullins' long road

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By Ted Lee
Posted Nov 9, 2012
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2014 BearInsider.com


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Robert Mullinsphoto by Michael Pimentel (GoldenBearSports.com)

For a player who'd seen occasional duty during his time at Cal, starting inside linebacker Robert Mullins could have been forgiven if following last season, he'd decided that it was time to get on with his life. But by virtue of having greyshirted in 2007 and missing 2009 due to injury, he had an opportunity to come back to Cal this fall for one more season. † †

He'd had a history of injuries and with a talented core of young linebackers, the chances that he'd get to start were far from assured.†But taking a pass would have meant walking away, and he wasn't quite ready to do that yet.

“It was a hard and an easy choice, if that makes any sense,” said Mullins, who came to Cal as an undersized linebacker weighing just a tick over 200 pounds but now weighs a chiseled 230. “ It was a hard choice for the reasons that I didn't have to ask myself if I still loved the game. I just had to ask myself will my body continue to let me play the game. That's why it was a hard choice do I want to put my body through another year.”

And for Mullins, two key considerations solidified his decision to come back – the support that he received from his family, and the desire to his one, last and best shot.

“I still loved the game,” said Mullins, who committed to Cal in January 2007, choosing the Bears over Arizona State. “I still thought I could contribute to the team. My parents and my family, my brother were big factors in me coming back. They basically said we still want to see you play. We don't want you to leave regretting that you had another year on the table and you didn't take it. I 'm not the type of person that likes to have regrets. People say live with no regrets but I think we've all done things in our lifetime that we've regretted and not coming back I didn't want that to be one thing I regretted. I wanted to at least give it a go and go from there.”

While there would be a risk in coming back, what in life doesn't have risk? You can't be a football player if you're averse to risk. And part of that entails playing through months of bumps and bruises and knowing that during that time you might not get back to being 100% but pressing on anyways.

Even during the past offseason, when a considerable amount of attention was being given to concussions and the longer-term effect of football-related injuries, those were all factors that were considered. And as much as he wanted that one last chance; to put on the uniform, to be part of a team, the represent the school that's been such a big part of his life, he considered all angles of this.

“I've had concussions,” said Mullins, who was recruited to Cal by running backs coach Ron Gould. “You see the number of concussions increase where people become more aware of them; the game's always been a violent game, people aren't hitting harder the last five years and knocking guys out harder than they were five years ago. Concussions are something that doctors are more aware of and when people become more aware of it, they develop instruments where you can find those things. Violence is a reality in the sport. I'm the type of guy if I feel something's wrong with me I' m going to let people know. I take care of my body, one thing I don't want, I don't want to leave with a bad injury, I value my mind more than anything on my body. I'm not a brute, I think I'm an intellectual and my mind is very valuable to me, It's a risk playing the sport, but that comes with playing a sport. Football is a risky sport.”

Early in his career, it didn't look good for Mullins as he battled injury woes. He missed his senior season at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles in 2007 due to an injury, missed most of the 2008 season and all of the 2009 season with an injury. Usually, with that many injury issues, the odds against a long career are fairly low. But he went on to play in 10 games in 2010 and 11 games in 2011.

“I've had two hip surgeries, one in high school and one in college,” said Mullins. “And I've had other various injuries. When I didn't have injuries, I didn't have those other nagging problems. I've been in very good shape this year and I'm better in other aspects that I wasn't good early on.”

Mullins, who's played in nine games this season and has started six, is fourth on the team with 57 tackles and second among linebackers, trailing only Nick Forbes. He's also and had four tackles for loss as well as two forced fumbles.

As might be expected of someone who's has been at Cal for more than a quarter of his life and has learned lessons that extend far beyond football.

“The biggest thing that Berkeley teaches you to do is to question everything and analyze it,” said Mullins, whose favorite TV show is Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs pitch their idea to potential investors. “Don't believe everything that's given to you. That's been a blessing and a curse for me, because I question everything. I analyze everything that's put in my front of me. Nothing goes past me without me looking at it. That factor in me has definitely grown; how much I question things, how much I analyze things, how much I don't settle for superficial answers, I like to know why I'm doing this or why that's that way. Berkeley's definitely taught you how to ask questions.”

Mullins, who's majored in sociology, and had taken particular interest in social theory and economics, has found himself in many animated late night discussions, and one career option is probably not all that surprising.

“I like to argue,” said Mullins. “I like to have arguments so I'd raise a question, it could stem from questions about anything. My roommates used to be Cameron (Jordan) and D.J. (Holt) and we used to stay up and argue about the smallest things to the biggest things. That's why I'm interested in law school. I like to argue and I like to win arguments.”

When most people watch football, they're drawn to the electric talents, the players who make everything look instinctive to the point of being easy. But while a few players can make it look effortless, most college football players aren't shoo-ins for the depth chart the moment they set foot on campus. There's a lot of work involved; whether it's building one's self up physically, learning assignments, understanding not just the position but how the entire unit functions and being able to react instantly, knowing that a brief delay could be the difference between a tackle for a loss and a big gain.

And for Mullins, the path from seeing spot play to becoming a starter has taken his entire career. Early in the season, he was starting at one of the inside linebacker positions along with J.P. Hurrell, both players eventually yielded to Nick Forbes and Jalen Jefferson, but since Jefferson's been sidelined with a concussion, Mullins has come back to regain his starting position.

“Nothing's ever been given to me in this sport, going all the way back to high school,” said Mullins, who came as part of the 2007 class, when the Bears had just come off the 2006 season where they tied for the Pac-10 championship. “You get a shot to compete. They are always going to look for guys to compete with you and I've competed with D.J. (Holt) and Mike (Mohamed). I came in when they came in. I've played with Worrell Williams, Anthony Felder and Zack Follett. I take stuff from all those guys; leadership skills, communication skills, the physicality which with they play and the preparation they put into the game, that's the biggest part.”

Of his teammates, there's one player who stood out game after game.

“Mychal Kendricks made some superhuman when he was here,” said Mullins of the 2011 Pac-12 Defensive Player Of the Year and current Philadelphia Eagles linebacker. “We've had a lot of great players, but with Mychal Kendricks, you'd see plays where he'd make a difficult play. I'd try the same thing but it didn't work out the same. He showed his athletic ability at the NFL combine this past spring. He's a surreal player.”

Although this happens to an extent after high school, it's in college where you develop deeper relationships that last through your life, but it's also the start of when you begin to experience people that people who've been a big part of your life for several years will leave. As part of a team sport, students become accustomed to seeing each other day in and day out, for hours at a time, week after week, over the course of years. But circumstances change, people aren't supposed to be in college forever, some leave sooner, some leave later, but eventually, everybody leaves.

“It's very humbling. You have to know that people are going to come in and out of your life, but it's a very humbling thing,” said Mullins. “Those guys were my roommates since the summer of 2008, so three-and-a-half years basically and they're out of my house. I've only lived with three other guys – Matt Summers-Gavin, D.J. Holt and Cameron Jordan. I try to stay in contact with them. I talk to D.J. almost every day, I try to stay in contact with Cameron every now and then. Other than my brothers, those are the guys who've seen me grow over the past five years. When you run into good people and you make friends, you have to stay in contact with those guys, real good friends don't come around a lot, you don't want to lose contact with guys like that.”

One benefit of remaining for an extra year is getting the chance to play in the renovated Memorial Stadium and use the Student-Athlete High Performance Center. For several years, incoming recruits were told that one day those projects would come to fruition, and while the intent was there, circumstances didn't exactly cooperate.

And even when work on the both projects was underway, there was one senior class that had to use makeshift weight rooms, borrow the rugby field, bus across the bay to home games, hold meetings in temporary facilities – all while knowing that better facilities were being built and that they wouldn't have the chance to play in them.

“I know a lot of guys who were promised a stadium,” said Mullins. “Basically guys in my year, when I came in, my '07 class thought they'd be in this. From that class, the only two guys who are still here are me and MSG. I came in when there were no gates outside, this stadium wasn't here, we walked through the hippies and the trees, and we came to practice. It's been a long journey from there to now and it's kind of surreal how things are finally where you can actually see it.”

And while future classes of recruits will be able to enjoy the new facilities, they won't have the perspective that current players of team have, who understood how different things used to be and are especially appreciative of what's in front of them – but were also well aware that whether it's the old stadium, a temporary shed, or a modern facility, work's still work.

“Unfortunately more guys couldn't see it,” said Mullins. “The people who would appreciate it the most are the guys who had to go through it earlier; in Memorial Stadium to (the temporary facilities) and back to here. Most guys just coming in and coming straight here so they can't appreciate it as much, I had an internship during the summer with a firm that was designing the stadium so I had the opportunity to see it beforehand, when it was just cement and nothing else in here. But eventually a weight is still a weight no matter where it's at; no matter whether you're lifting in the backyard or the local gym or a high performance center, a weight is still a weight.”

During his career, as he's steadily climbed the depth chart, culminating with several starts this season in one of the inside linebacker positions, he's also been named to the traveling roster on several occasions, which means that he's had the chance to visit several stadiums...and hear their hecklers.

“Arizona's a real intense place to play,” said Mullins. “It gets real loud, it's a real good football environment. Oregon's always a hostile environment. Washington State is one of the funniest because the fans that heckle there, they say the funniest things. In 2008, there was a guy that said something to one of our players like, we had a linebacker named Matt Russi, and the guy was yelling “Russi, I love seeing you little!” I was like, 'that was the best he could do?'. It was so just so ridiculous that he said that it made me laugh while we were warming up, because it just didn't have anything to it.”

And don't think that Mullins wasn't a target, either.

“Those guys can get real mean,” said Mullins. “Especially if you're not playing, then they'll heckle you the whole game.”

As the 2012 season comes to a close, the Bears fell short of their goals this season, missing out on postseason play, and despite several inspired moments during the course of the season, were never able to string enough consistent efforts together to enable them to pose a threat to the better teams in the conference.

Still, Mullins is happy with his decision to come back.

“It's meant a great deal to me,” said Mullins. “ Basically one of the things I wanted to accomplish when I came back was to prove to myself that I still had it that I could still play this game that I worked so hard to get here for. And I think I did that, I did that to myself, I prepared every hard every week and I made plays when plays were needed I was consistent, it just means a lot to me every time I take the field I take it with pride and passion and hopefully people can see that in my play when I'm out there and on the field.”

Last year, Mullins walked through Senior Day festivities at AT&T Park, not knowing if his Cal career would be coming to an end or if he'd be able to come back. To that end, he's already gone through the process of understanding the finality of the season, that year's team, and everything that's associated with it.

“I wish it would never come to an end,” said Mullins, who's won the number 37 throughout his Cal careers (“it's an awkward number, but it's my awkward number.”). “Playing football is something that if I could I would I'd do it forever. Obviously everything has to come to an end, but I feel good and the longer I'm out there and the more comfortable I get and the more I'm able to make plays. That's kind of how it's been the last couple of weeks, and hopefully the net two weeks I can continue that going and elevate my game each week.”

And with the season scheduled to end in a week, it's dawning on Mullins that these are the last sets of meetings, practices, lifting sessions that he'll go through. And whenever there's a sense that something's coming to an end, the natural tendency is to want to hold on and savor those final moments.

“I do sense that but we take it one practice at a time and game at a time,” said Mullins. “We do have two games left and I'm looking for this next practice ahead of me. I'm not looking at the whole overview of it becoming my last couple of practices, my last two games. When the time runs out on the last game that's when it's over.”

How the season turned out didn't sit well with Mullins. Dating back to the offseason following the 2011 season, the team was committed to improved upon those results and they put in the work during the spring and summer, going through conditioning, running through drills. There can often be the appearance that if a team has a bad year that somehow those things weren't happening. And that if a team continues to struggle that somehow they must have checked out or cared less.

Although the team has a longstanding rule about not letting losses linger and flushing it from their memory banks, there's no question that the way the season's unfolded has weighed heavy on some players. And while they can't singlehandedly reverse the team's fortunes, what they can do is renew their commitment to their teammates and coaches on a daily basis.

“If you're a competitor and the end result is a loss, it should eat at you inside,” said Mullins, who had a career-high 12 tackles in the season-opener against Nevada. “It eats at me every time because I feel like I prepare as much as anyone on the team and all you can do is hope that you prepared enough and hope you gave everything on the field so that when you look at the film and when you look back at the career you don't have any regrets that you didn't give all that you had. Yes it's been difficult, the season has had its ups and downs and that's unfortunate. But at the end of the day I felt like I gave it my all each game.”

And through adversity, you learn about other people, and you learn about yourself. It's easy to handle prosperity well. If a team puts in the effort, and they can see the results of their work pay off, that reinforces the effort. But if a team puts in the work and it doesn't pay off, what comes next becomes uncertain.

“The one lesson I'll take from this year is to persevere,” said Mullins. “And to never stop leading. Don't just lead when things are going good. You have to lead when things are going bad and you have to set an example despite your situation. It's easy to lead when things are going well and it's easy to be optimistic and energetic when you're winning and everything's good. But when things are going bad, I want to be the guy they look to and be consistent, whether things are going good or bad, that's where the real leaders step up.”

While the season didn't go as expected, when Mullins concludes his Cal career and looks back at his time in Berkeley, he'll remember the 2009 Big Game when the Bears went down to Stanford and regained the Axe, he'll look back fondly at butting heads with fellow linebacker Jarred Price when he first arrived from Texas but how they ended up becoming the best of friends, he'll remember the 2008 Emerald Bowl, not just because Cal beat Miami at AT&T Park but because all of the former players that came back to support the current team.

He'll look back at being part of the first team to play in the renovated Memorial Stadium, the friendships that he's made that will last his entire life, and how he's evolved from being a follower to a leader and how that's going to end up shaping his future.

Yet as fondly as Mullins looks at his time at Cal, as a student and as a football, he isn't satisfied, but not for the reasons you might think.

“I'm never satisfied,” said Mullins.”I always want to do better. Even if we'd won all of our games, in every game you'd find something to work on. I'm never satisfied with a practice, I'm never satisfied with a play of mine, I can always find something – I didn't step up with the right foot, I could have been there faster, I could have attacked that stronger. Once you're satisfied you're going to go against someone who's going to humble you.”

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