Before he played under the bright lights at ‘The Rock’ or shattered records at Spain Park High School, Nick Mullens was just like any other child with an early childhood dream. For Mullens, one simple principle gave him the ultimate blueprint for his success in life: persistence.
Children have big dreams of what they aspire to be in life. Many dream of being a doctor, a lawyer, a firefighter, a police officer, the president of the United States of America or a professional athlete. As kids, dreams come and go just as the days start and end. Luckily for the University of Southern Mississippi, Nick Mullens did not give up on his childhood dream of being a football player.
Mullens grew up in Hoover, Alabama, roughly eight miles outside of Birmingham, Alabama. He began playing football in the first grade. His parents, Suzanne and Mark Mullens, and his grandfather, Ernie Tabor, threw the ball with him as a child and took him to practice daily.
After finishing the first grade and his first year of playing football, however, Mullens decided to quit all of a sudden. Mullens’ father, who was very instrumental in his dream to play football, gave Nick an ultimatum that he would never forget.
“He told me if I ever decided to go back and play football again, I could not quit,” Mullens said.
From that moment on, Mullens never quit. He would go on to make only minor adjustments to his ultimate dream in the years to come.
Before he knew his football destiny, Mullens grew up playing the fullback, linebacker, tight end and wide receiver positions. It was at Berry Middle School where he began to hone in on his skills as a quarterback.
While chasing his dream on the gridiron under the bright lights, it was not uncommon to also find Mullens at the pitcher’s mound on the diamond of a baseball field.
“I played baseball all growing up,” Mullens said. “Not only was I a good pitcher but baseball helped me with my hand-eye coordination. More importantly, playing multiple sports is a good thing for young athletes.”
Throughout middle school and up until his sophomore year in high school, Mullens was a two-sport athlete. During his sophomore year, he suffered an arm injury that ultimately made him to choose football over baseball as his main sport.
Young, full of energy and the desire to win at the core of his persona, Mullens dedicated himself to perfecting his craft in football at Spain Park High School, a dominant Class 7A football program in the state of Alabama, under head coach Chip Lindsey.
“Spain Park gave me all the opportunities for success. They helped me develop my work ethic and I made some great relationships,” Mullens said. “Chip made me the quarterback I am today. He taught me everything I needed to know.”
But unlike other athletes with grand dreams, Mullens did not start off imagining himself playing football or being in the position he is in today.
“I always thought it would be cool to play football, but I never really thought I could do it [at a high level],” Mullens said. “I am proving myself wrong each day.”
Mullens went on to write his name in the history books of Alabama high school football, recording over 8,000-plus career yards. He then decided to attend Southern Miss.
Despite the fact that the Golden Eagles finished 0-12 prior to Mullens’ arrival in 2013, he knew the team would provide him with a place to be successful.
“I knew that USM had a good tradition, so winning was going to come back,” Mullens said. “They had a good program and a good business school.”
However, with new coach Todd Monken and players wracked with injuries, the Golden Eagles struggled to win games.
Mullens, who played in nine of 12 games, started the final six games of his freshman campaign. As the losses continued to pile up, Mullens and the Golden Eagles grew weary of losing. But they continued their fight to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
A bright spot was indeed on the horizon for Mullens.
In the final game of his freshman year, the 6’ 1”, 196-pound quarterback torched the University of Alabama Birmingham for 370 passing yards, recording a season-high five touchdowns and a rushing touchdown as the Golden Eagles routed the Blazers 62-27, giving Southern Miss its first win since defeating the University of Nevada in the 2011 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
Mullens said his freshman season was a struggle but the team stuck together and it paid off in the end.
“It was relieving to win a game,” Mullens said. “We were tired of losing and tired of hearing about the losing streak.”
With his first victory under his belt, Mullens survived his first test of remaining persistent through difficult times and gained confidence heading into his sophomore year.
Johntre Goudy, a former teammate of Mullens, said Mullens served as a true testament of someone who stood tall in the face of adversity.
“He is inspiring. He doesn’t just talk the talk,” Goudy said. “He is a great, hardworking guy who lives what he preaches.”
Following spring training and summer camp prior to the 2014 season, USM fans were rejuvenated with school spirit. Students were excited about coming to ‘The Rock’, as the stadium was dubbed, to watch games again, and the city of Hattiesburg was eager to see its Golden Eagles take the field in 2014.
However, Mullens and the Golden Eagles still faced some growing pains and inexperience issues that kept them from having a winning season.
Despite winning more games — finishing the season 3-9 — injuries and youth limited Southern Miss on the field. Mullens, who would otherwise have played in all 12 games during his sophomore season, missed games against Marshall and the University of Texas El Paso due to injury.
Mullens said his sophomore season served as a major learning curve for him and his teammates.
“Success isn’t easy. We realized that we had to work harder,” Mullens said. “When you lose a lot, you lose confidence. But being a smart player, I realized that I had to work hard and remain consistent.”
Cameron Tom, an offensive lineman who came in with Mullens, said he can still remember what it felt like to block for Mullens during the 2014 season.
“You felt like you had to fight every snap for him. I knew every time he got hit he was going to get back up, so that made me want to block even harder,” Tom said. “This was inspiring and it gave me hope for the future.”
Frustrated with back-to-back losing seasons for a program that held a streak of 18-straight winning seasons prior to 2012, Mullens geared up for his junior season. History was about to change, because this season would be a breakout year for him.
“As a team, we worked harder, we believed in ourselves and we made plays that we needed to make,” Mullens said in recapping his junior season.
Michael Smith, an outgoing senior defensive lineman, credited Golden Eagles’ Strength and Conditioning Coach Zac Woodfin for re-establishing a sense of will and positive morale for him and his teammates.
“It started with Woodfin and the training staff. They brought in a good program and helped us believe that we were the best again,” Smith said. “As players, we had not worked that hard in nearly three years and it all paid off in a big way.”
Despite losing to Mississippi State in the 2015 season opener, 34-16, losing to another high quality opponent in Nebraska but going 3-3 through the first six games of the season, Mullens knew the Golden Eagles were now onto something great.
“[I knew] it was important that I start the season good and that I make it clear I would be the starting quarterback,” Mullens said. “As a team, we knew that we were good.”
And Mullens was right.
After the Golden Eagles earned their fourth victory of the season, the largest record of wins for them since the 2011 season, Mullens and the USM football team kept to their winning ways.
The Golden Eagles went on a five-game winning streak that included a route over rival Louisiana Tech, 58-24, to earn a spot in the Conference USA Championship game.
Tom said the winning was a ‘great feeling’ for him and his teammates.
“All the tough times we experienced the first couple of years and how much we worked, it felt really good to see it all materialize into wins,” Tom said.
The C-USA Championship game was not just a game that showcased the two best teams in the conference. For Southern Miss, a win in the championship game would mean a greater chance at securing a higher postseason bowl game appearance.
Playing for a conference championship had been one of Mullens’ major goals. After two rough seasons at the beginning of his collegiate career, he continued his journey of persistence and earned a shot to play on one of the biggest stages of his life.
However, Mullens did not get the perfect ending to a stellar midseason run by the Golden Eagles. USM lost to Western Kentucky, 45-28, in the C-USA Championship game.
“That game hurts. We were so close to the championship,” Mullens said. “I think about that game every day. It motivates me on a daily basis.”
Refusing to give up and end the season with a loss, Mullens got one more chance at a victory in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against the University of Washington to wrap up his junior season.
Southern Miss lost the bowl game, but Mullens learned a lot, made some memories and allowed this game to serve as a blueprint for his senior season.
“The bowl game was awesome,” Mullens said. “This is why I came to Southern Miss, to compete for championships and win bowl games.”
Mullens also credited the offensive line for allowing him to be successful last season.
In return, Tom said Mullens makes his job as an offensive lineman worthwhile.
“Going through practices and training with Nick is great because you know he is going to bring energy everyday,” Tom said. “He is always there to lift someone up and always plays with a sense of urgency.”
Mullens, who had spent three years under Monken, would now have to adapt to a new head coach. After all, this was the very same advice Mullens would use from Coach Monken to adapt to the new Southern Miss head coach, Jay Hopson.
“The best athletes adapt,” Mullens said in referring to his advice from Monken. “He always told me that everybody is different and that it was important for me to be consistent as a player and as a teammate.”
In what started as a childhood dream of persistence, Mullens now prepares to start his senior season, taking the lessons that he has learned along the way to guide and prepare him for the last chapter in his Southern Miss football career.
With spring training coming to an end and the annual “Black-and-Gold Game” on Saturday, Mullens said learning from and adjusting to Coach Hopson and the new coaching staff have been great.
“The new coaches are great communicators, so that has been good,” Mullens said. “We have great new leadership. Practices have been intense and up-tempo.”
Mullens also said that his perspective on the game has changed for the betterment of the team.
“Coach Hopson expects me to lead, motivate and make plays for our team. I am more confident in my abilities,” Mullens said. “I have gained more respect from my teammates because I have practiced what I preach: hard work and consistency.”
Beyond his goals of winning a C-USA Championship, winning a bowl game and leaving a legacy, Mullens has already begun to prepare himself for the possibility of playing in the NFL.
“I plan to continue to watch film and gain weight so that my size does not hinder me,” Mullens said.
First grade Mullens may have wanted to quit football, but 21-year-old Mullens cannot quit now because football is no longer a game for him. It’s a way of life.
“Football has given me so many opportunities I never would have had,” Mullens said. “It has allowed me to build relationships and develop my work ethic of keeping a consistent attitude, never quitting and striving for success.”
While Mullens prepares for a highly-anticipated senior year, Tom often thinks about some of the funny moments last season that defines the close relationship Mullens has with the offensive linemen on the team.
“Throughout the whole football game against Old Dominion University, Nick kept telling the O-line to “pipe up”. The O-line as well as myself thought it was pretty corny because we thought he was playing off the popular Migos song ‘Pipe It Up’,” Tom said. “It is times like this where we can appreciate his personality beyond just being his teammates in the trenches.”
Mullens, like many others, fears the uncertainty of the future. But with his desire to win, his unselfish personality and his greed for success, fear will become a nonfactor for the Alabama native who once thought he would not play football on the collegiate level.