UNIVERSITY PARK — Mike Hull is used to lifting up his teammates onto his shoulders even if he has just one good one at the time.
He’s used to carrying teams on his back even if he was born with an extra vertebra that can flare up and cause him stinging pain.
It has taken the Penn State linebacker a few weeks to get used to the prospect of having to play on one bad leg.
Hull entered his junior season with a full-time starting spot alongside Glenn Carson as the next premier defender at Linebacker U. ready for him. He had already earned the spot from making the most of his playing time as a redshirt freshman and sophomore. But that spot has been shared by other players for much of this season. Like he’s had to do before in his athletic career, Hull — from Canonsburg, Pa. — has had to battle through a nagging injury.
But with a showdown with the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus looming Saturday, Hull is as healthy as he’s been since he caught a Syracuse player’s foot on the side of his right knee and was felled by a cut block a few plays later in the season opener.
He was taped up and braced up in Penn State’s previous two games against Indiana and Michigan — when Hull led the team with 20 tackles. He will likely ditch the tape Saturday, he said, and have a greater range of motion.
He’ll be ready. This time he’ll be able, too.
It’s become one of the most storied nights in Canon-McMillan High School athletic history.
It was February 2010 and a win in the heavyweight bout at Fox Chapel High School would secure the Big Macs’ first WPIAL team wrestling championship in seven years. Hull had separated his shoulder in an all-star football game just over a month prior, and hadn’t wrestled since.
No one knew if he’d be available. No one was really expecting him to step onto the mat.
Of course, Mike — then a senior — brought his singlet and wrestling shoes. He wanted to compete.
Hull’s dad Tom, knowing his son was off to Penn State where he himself had lettered as a linebacker in the early 1970s, was apprehensive. He didn’t want Mike to jeopardize his football career. Tom told Canon-McMillan wrestling coach Chris Mary Mike would wrestle if the Big Macs needed him.
Although the Big Macs won six of the first seven bouts, their opponents, Kiski Area won five of the next six to cut the Big Macs’ lead to three with just the 285-pound bout to wrestle. Kiski sent big man Steve Calderone — who weighed in at 272 pounds — to the mat. A 215-pound Hull emerged from his team’s bench and stepped to the mat with the Class AAA team title on the line.
Hull scored first with an escape in the second period then took the bigger wrestler down and posted the 3-2 win.
Afterward, Hull was exalted as a hero by Canon-McMillan fans. He insisted he wasn’t.
“I can tell you that in my 23 years of high school coaching that Michael Hull was the toughest, most hard-working, team-oriented kid that ever came through our program,” coach Mary said.
That was the last match Hull wrestled. Although a few Ivy League schools expressed interest in him, Hull had already committed to Penn State to play football. Now, he tries to watch Penn State wrestling matches when he can.
‘Your mental game’
Every time he steps into Rec Hall, Hull gets the itch to wrestle. Every so often, he breaks out his wrestling shoes when he returns home to get a workout in the Canon-McMillan room.
“Wrestling definitely makes you a tougher person, mentally and physically,” Hull said. “Practices are brutal. It really helps out your mental game, just because you have to live it every single day.”
The shoulder separation was the final injury Hull had to contend with during his high school days.
It definitely wasn’t his first.
Born with an extra vertebra, Hull dealt with back pain for most of his high school football career. He ripped of more than 1,300 yards as a sophomore running back and also posted 117 tackles on the other side of the ball.
“It’s frightening to think what he might have rushed for if he was just an offensive player,” Hull’s former high school coach, Guy Montecalvo, said.
Or if he could’ve stayed healthy all three years. Instead, that back acted up and Hull missed a good chunk of his junior season, including the entire wrestling slate. Later, a calf contusion shortened his regular season before Hull made his return against Shaler in the playoffs.
But one carry in and that calf muscle flared. Hull went down. That was it.
“We got beat in that game by a good Shaler team but I would’ve liked our chances if we had Michael on both sides of the ball,” Montecalvo said. “You can imagine the effect losing a guy like him has on your team on both sides.”
‘Fires the team up’
The Penn State defense was the catalyst for a big first half against Michigan. And there Hull was, high-stepping and flailing his arms, smacking his teammates on their helmets after each tackle or forced turnover.
It was a much different sight than the weeks before, when Penn State’s defense was shredded by Central Florida’s passing attack. A week later, Penn State came out flat in the rain against an overmatched Kent State team. Hull was in the sideline in a raincoat.
The defense was sparked by Hull’s return in the Indiana game. The Nittany Lions forced back-to-back punts and got a big sack from Anthony Zettel on the Hoosiers’ first drive. But eventually, the defense wore down, mistakes piled up in all phases and Indiana left Memorial Stadium with a win.
Hull and Carson, along with guard John Urschel, were the first players who came out to face reporters. Taking on leadership responsibilities has never been tough for Hull to do. But he admits, he’s never been a big vocal force.
But the Michigan game was different. Hull was like his old self – the fired-up defender who wreaked havoc on the Buckeyes a year before with a sack to start a defensive series early on and a blocked punt that resulted in a Mike Yancich touchdown to end it. He seemed to be in on every other tackle or at least in the crowd of defenders who rushed to bring down Michigan ballcarriers.
Hull was emotional after every play. His leaping pass breakup on a Devin Gardner throw to big tight end Jake Butts helped keep Penn State alive in overtime.
“He plays a very gritty, instinctive style of football, so when he makes big plays like the pass he broke up against Michigan on the wheel route, that fires the team up,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “That's just the type of player he is. So yes, he has a lot to do with the enthusiasm that you see on defense.”
After the Nittany Lions pulled off the 43-40 win, Hull was the first player to arrive in the media room. He walked in with a huge grin on his face shortly after checking his cell phone where a congratulatory text from Montecalvo was waiting.
‘Our local hero’
During Penn State’s bye week after the Michigan win, Hull returned to Canonsburg.
The word was out quickly: Mike Hull was home and would be at the Muse Italian Club.
Hull spent time with his family, ate some fish and politely caught up with some fans who have followed his career since before that night at Fox Chapel and who will tune in to watch Hull take on the Buckeyes.
Mary was there.
“It was nice to see our local hero home on an off-week,” Mary said. “There was a lot of excitement. The ladies working there knew who he was.”
The Buckeyes know all about Hull, too, and he knows all about them.
He visited the Horseshoe for a game when he briefly considered attending Ohio State before committing to Penn State. Hull also visited West Virginia.
Could he imagine himself in a silver helmet on Saturday?
“No, not at all. I went to the game and it didn’t feel the same,” Hull said.
Hull now says he is as close to 100 percent as he’s been all season.
“I knew I’d be back and whenever I got back I thought I’d be myself again,” Hull said. “But it’s been a little bit longer than I thought. After the Michigan game, it’s starting to feel like things are picking up again.”