COMING SOON to an NFL theater near you: The Mike Mamula Mystery!
At 6'5" and 252 pounds, Mamula, a defensive end from Boston
College, doesn't look as strong as the best offensive lineman in
Saturday's NFL draft, but he is. As a big man with long legs, he
doesn't look quicker or more agile than most wide receivers, but
he is. And he certainly doesn't look like he's faster than some
of the draft's top cornerback prospects in the 40-yard dash, but
NFL scouts and front office personnel have been scratching
their heads in bewilderment over the 21-year-old Mamula since
early February, when he put on a show at the league's annual
scouting combine in Indianapolis, lifting, jumping and sprinting
his way from draft obscurity to the first round. ``I haven't seen
anything like that by any player at this man's position at the
combine,'' says Buffalo Bill director of player personnel Dwight
Adams. ``He blew them away. If he'd have done anything more,
they'd have had to put a cape on his shoulders.''
``He's a rare athlete, the kind who comes along once every five or
10 years,'' adds first-year Philadelphia Eagle coach Ray Rhodes,
whose team may try to move up in the draft to get Mamula (page
66). ``I judge players on production, and he could be the most
productive player in the draft this year.''
The mystery, though, is, how did Mamula -- this ``real genetic
freak,'' as Tampa Bay Buccaneer personnel man Jerry Angelo calls
him -- do it? How did a guy who wasn't even the big man on his own
college campus ace the biggest test he ever took?
``Don't ask me,'' says Mike's father, Milton, a slim, six-foot
maintenance and delivery man for the school system in Lackawanna,
N.Y., just south of Buffalo. ``I played some track and football in
high school but never did much. I played end -- end of the
``I don't know either,'' says his mother, 5'5" Maryanne, sitting
in the dining room of the family's 90-year-old wood-frame house
while Mike, home from college for the weekend, lies snoozing on
the living room couch, 10 feet away. ``I was never an athlete. I
can walk and chew gum, but that's about it.''
``Looking at them,'' says Mike's sister, Nickole, nodding toward
their parents, ``you'd never figure someone like him could come
Last January, when Mamula told the NFL he was coming out of
college a year early, not that many teams had a scouting report on
him. The combine, therefore, became the biggest event of his young
life. On the eve of the big show Mamula recalls thinking that it
was life or death for him.
The combine has become an overrated part of scouting. Too often
combine stars have gone bust in the NFL. Remember cornerback Bruce
Pickens, taken third overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 1991, or
linebacker Huey Richardson, taken 15th by the Pittsburgh Steelers
in 1991? With regret, the general managers of the Falcons and the
Steelers do. Most teams have learned how dangerous a workout
phenom is if he doesn't have the game tapes to back up his show at
the combine. That's the difference with Mamula. In the two months
since the combine, teams have studied video of his Boston College
career. Most of them also sent representatives to another
impressive workout by Mamula at BC in early April. ``What we've
learned since the combine,'' says Cleveland Brown personnel
director Mike Lombardi, ``is that he plays as well as or better
than he works out.''
Part of Mamula's success at the combine must be credited to
Boston Bruin strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle, who has
tutored other high draft choices, including Eric Swann, the sixth
overall pick in 1991 and now a starter with the Arizona Cardinals.
Five times a week during the month before the big exam in
Indianapolis, Boyle put Mamula through a workout designed to get
him ready for two things: the combine and the NFL. ``The combine
is a test the NFL lets you cheat on, because you know all the
questions before you take it,'' says Boyle. ``And yet few people
take advantage of that.''
But on Feb. 10 Mamula took full advantage of it. He was poked,
prodded and X-rayed, and then put on a platform in short gym
shorts while 300 scouts and NFL people ogled the 231 players who
took part in this year's combine.
Next Mamula took the bench-press test: Players are asked to lift
225 pounds as many times as they can. Mamula did it 26 times. The
top-rated tackle in the draft, USC's 6'7", 323-pound Tony Boselli,
also did 26.
The rest of the athletic tests came the next day. The first stop
was the vertical jump. Mamula doesn't recall ever being as ready
to jump over anything in his life. He rose, stretching an arm
ceilingward. ``Thirty-eight inches,'' the scout monitoring the
jump called out. The scouts murmured. There aren't too many pro
basketball players who leap higher. My god! Mamula thought. Are
you kidding me? That's the highest I ever jumped in my life. His
jump ended up being seventh best at the combine.
Then he broad-jumped 10'5", a foot farther than Notre Dame wideout
and track star Mike Miller and an inch farther than Colorado's
Michael Westbrook, one of the best receivers in the draft. The
distance was what Mamula had hoped he would do. Damn! he thought
to himself without showing a shred of emotion.
Then he walked onto the floor of the RCA Dome for the 40. The
artificial turf in the Dome is springy, not the fast track that
players prefer for the sprint. Mamula paused to look into the
stands and soak in the moment. There sat Arizona Cardinal coach
Buddy Ryan. There was Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula. There was
Bill Parcells, whom he'd met at a New England Patriot practice two
months earlier. Parcells nodded at him, smiling slightly. A vote
of confidence, Mamula thought to himself. And there was his
college position coach, Deek Pollard, sitting with some old NFL
buddies and bragging on Mamula.
John Teerlinck, the Detroit Lion assistant head coach/defense,
got tired of listening to Pollard's boasts. So he said, ``Bet
you a dollar he doesn't break four-seven.''
``You're on,'' Pollard said.
At the starting line Mamula thought, This could be a
million-dollar run right here. Then he was off. One NFL observer
clocked him at 4.62, another at 4.63, the electronic timer at
4.62. Teerlinck slapped the dollar into Pollard's hand. Jimmy
Hitchcock, a first-round cornerback prospect from North Carolina,
ran a 4.64. Mamula ran the first 10 yards of the dash in 1.55
seconds. Washington scatback Napoleon Kaufman ran his first 10 in
The 40 was followed by pass-coverage drills, which Mamula was
asked to do because some teams project him as an outside
linebacker. He would change direction this way, then that, then
this way again, and -- boom! -- a pass would be thrown in his
direction. He caught 10 in a row. ``And this was after a season in
which we never dropped him into coverage,'' Pollard says. ``I
couldn't believe it,'' Mamula says. ``I hadn't played catch with a
football in two years, and I didn't miss one.''
He also did the 20-yard back-and-forth shuttle run in 4.03
seconds, faster than every wide receiver at the combine. He did
the four-square -- a drill measuring change-of-direction speed
around four cones placed to form a square -- faster than every
wideout and cornerback. One more thing: On the Wunderlic, the
NFL's 50-question standard intelligence test, Mamula scored 33.
The average for NFL prospects is 19. Maryanne can't get over that
because Mike has a C average at BC. But when you're charmed,
you're charmed. Don't ask why.
Afterward Mamula knew he'd done well but didn't know how well
because he didn't know what the standards were for the bench press
and the shuttle. ``I was 99 percent satisfied,'' Mamula says,
``but I wish I could run the 40 again. I know I could run in the
Mike isn't effusive. He's a man of action, not words. His parents
were dying to know his results from the combine, but this is what
they got in a two-minute phone conversation that night.
``How'd you do?'' Maryanne asked.
``I did O.K.,'' Mike said.
``That's it?'' she said.
Not quite. He then told his father, ``Oh, Dad, I got you a couple
of NFL hats.''
The scouts were much more voluble in assessing Mamula's
performance. A scout for the Giants said it was the best
size-speed-strength workout in the history of the combine.
Then every scout worth his stopwatch went back to the videotape to
find out just who this kid was. One thing was certain. ``Mamula's
no secret anymore,'' said new Seattle Seahawk coach Dennis
Erickson, who was hoping to grab him in the second or third round.
He was never a secret in Lackawanna, a hardscrabble mill town
tucked along the shore of Lake Erie. In the two decades since
Bethlehem Steel curtailed its operations in Lackawanna, life there
has not been easy. The homes on Mamula's street, so close they
almost touch, used to be owned by the steelworkers. Now they're
rentals mostly. Milton and Maryanne are looking forward to
escaping. They'll move to Tucson this fall after Milton retires.
The town has declined, but some constants remain. The bars (four
within a block of the Mamula home), churches (seven Catholic
parishes within a bike ride) and sports continue to thrive. One
recent Saturday afternoon, two nine- year-old boys were playing
one-on-one football on the paved street in front of the Mamula
house, swearing like sailors all the while.
Driving around Lackawanna recently, Mamula stopped abruptly and
threw his dad's Ford Explorer into reverse. ``Look at that,'' he
said, shaking his head as two police officers chased and caught a
man fleeing through a courtyard of some apartments. ``The loss of
the mill has really changed this place.''
Still Mamula retains a sense of pride about his hometown and
upbringing. ``It was good to grow up here,'' he said. ``Things
weren't handed to me. I had to work for everything. I think what I
lacked in money and privilege I made up for with hard work and the
values my parents taught me.''
Mike began little league football at age seven, but Apple Street
is where his sports career really got going. Kids would spill out
of the homes after school for coed pickup games of two-hand touch.
The distance between each telephone pole was a first down, and the
fourth pole was the goal line. ``One time -- I think Mike was in
fifth grade -- he was covering me because we were about the same
size,'' Nickole says. ``He stopped suddenly, and we banged our
heads together. My front tooth broke off on the top of his
Nickole was a tough kid, but her parents can't remember any other
time that she cried as much as she did that day. She needed dental
surgery. Mike didn't cry. He needed stitches for the hole in his
``Thank god for sports,'' Milton says. ``It kept him straight and
made him work hard for everything he got.''
Not that Mike didn't get into occasional trouble. At age 11, on
Father's Day, he got caught shoplifting a 99-cent box of fishing
lures he was going to give his dad as a gift. Someone at the store
called Milton, who drove over and got Mike and his bike. When they
returned home, Milton lifted the bicycle over his head and threw
it against the house, bending the frame badly. Once they got
inside, Milton ordered, ``No one call him by his name for the next
month! When you talk to him, call him the Thief! That's what he
is.'' One day Nickole mistakenly called him Mike. She was
At Lackawanna High, Mike was all-state in football, as well as MVP
of the Steeler basketball and track teams, but he didn't attract
much football recruiting interest. Boston University, Rutgers and
Youngstown State recruited him but ultimately none of them offered
him a scholarship, so he figured he would take a partial
scholarship from Division I-AA New Hampshire. Then BC assistant
Mike Maser came to Lackawanna to scout him. He liked Mike's quick,
reckless style, and he asked him to visit Boston College. Mike
said he would visit only if BC offered him a scholarship.
Surprisingly, Maser delivered. ``I figured I'd be a small fish in
a big pond, but that was fine with me,'' Mamula says.
Freshman year was not so fine. ``I hated it,'' Mamula says. Too
light to play but not too light to be a practice-time punching
bag, Mamula struggled to learn his place. And that place was in
then coach Tom Coughlin's version of the penalty box. The Dawn
Patrol, BC players called it.
``Miss a meeting,'' Mamula says, ``and you'd have three days of
workouts at six in the morning. Miss a class, and it was the
same thing. I wasn't very disciplined at the time, so I spent
most of the year on the Dawn Patrol.'' One Dawn Patrol exercise
was to lie on one sideline of the artificial turf of Alumni
Stadium and roll to the other sideline. Rolling back and forth,
back and forth, getting dizzy and soaked with near freezing dew.
``There was this other thing we'd have to do sometimes in the
gym,'' Mamula remembers. ``You'd get a folding chair, set it up
and put your feet through the back of it. You'd put your hands on
the floor, so you were stretched out over the chair. Then you'd
have to walk the chair all over the floor for 45 minutes. It was
so incredibly stupid. I thought, What the hell am I doing here?''
He found out the next year -- ``my responsible-citizen year,'' he
says -- when Coughlin made him the starter at outside linebacker
as a 232-pound redshirt freshman. Though he hurt his shoulder on
the first snap of the season and missed three games, Mamula soon
started contributing. As a sophomore he had an 11-sack season as a
228-pound defensive end. In the Eagles' 41-39 upset of Notre Dame
that year, he eluded tackle Aaron Taylor, who would later be the
first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, for two sacks and made
14 tackles to earn NBC Player of the Game honors.
At 242 pounds at the start of last season Mamula was the most
productive tormenter of backfields in the country, with an
amazing 3.2 tackles for loss (including sacks) per game. He
finished the season with 13 sacks and 22 additional tackles for
loss, numbers good enough to get him selected to the Big East
all-conference team. ``Every time I looked up he was there,''
said Kansas State quarterback Chad May after Mamula's four sacks
and four quarterback pressures keyed BC's 12-7 Aloha Bowl win.
Watch Mamula on tape, and two words come to mind: fluid and
relentless. Against K-State he would glide between the tackle and
tight end, slapping blockers out of his way. When he had to, he
would overpower one lineman or sprint around another.
Now the pros have to figure out which position Mamula is best
suited to play in the NFL. The conventional wisdom is that at his
current weight he would be a linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and that
bulked up to 260-plus, he would be a defensive end in a 4-3
alignment. ``He's a puzzle because he's linebacker-sized and he
played defensive end in college,'' says Dolphin director of
college scouting Tom Braatz.
Top pass rushers in the NFL are as rare as Buccaneer playoff wins.
Last season only five players had 12 or more sacks, and only two
of them -- 265- pound defensive end Leslie O'Neal of the San Diego
Chargers and 275-pound John Randle of the Minnesota Vikings --
weighed more than 250. Mamula is essentially the same size and has
the same speed as Charles Haley, the Dallas Cowboy All-Pro
defensive end. Furthermore, as the combine showed, Mamula may be
one of the most gifted pass rushers to enter pro football in the
past decade. His BC coach, Dan Henning, recently told a Kansas
City Chief scout that he compares Mamula favorably to Lawrence
The best guess around the league now is that Mamula will be
drafted in the top 10, perhaps by Tampa Bay, the New York Jets or
the Browns. Or Philadelphia might try to trade into the top 10 to
Mamula is content to wait. ``I've always believed if you make
plays, you're a good player,'' he said. ``I don't understand how
teams could have many doubts about me.''
Or any at all.