A miserable combination of morning fog and rain combined with heavy midday traffic make getting to Penn State’s Lasch Football Building in adequate time on a recent Monday a herculean task. A degree away from being jagged ice crystals, the raindrops pound outside of the football team’s sprawling complex, forming puddles on the sidewalk for team personnel and players to hurdle as they enter the building.
Mike Hull is already inside, 14 minutes early for a meeting that’s supposed to start at 11:15 a.m. He still runs on Paterno Time.
“You were probably 10 or 15 minutes early with Joe because the meetings started about five minutes early,” Hull says. “That’s definitely something that I’ve carried with me. I’d rather be too early than a little bit late or cutting it close.”
The senior linebacker strolls down the hall toward the players’ lounge, the hood on his blue raincoat pulled down to reveal his newest acquisition — an army green trucker hat, complete with a colorful outline of a trout on the front. Hull’s proud of the hat. When someone compliments it, he takes it off, glances at it and suggests a few different places to pick one like it up.
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But more serious matters have been on Hull’s mind lately. He’s about to play his final game at Beaver Stadium and the gritty 23-year-old has found himself in more introspective moods than normal. When the Nittany Lions square off with the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday, it’ll be the last time Hull runs out onto the field as a Penn State player.
As kickoff draws nearer, he’s thinking about it more and more and one important distinction that he’s considered again and again. He’s the last of a rare breed of Penn State player. He’s last linebacker to get a taste of what his dad and uncle experienced four decades before him.
Mike Hull is the last of the Paterno-coached legacy players.
His uncle John and father Tom both played for the late coach in the early 70s. A member of the 2010 recruiting class, Hull redshirted as a freshman and emerged as a special teams standout and player with enormous upside during Paterno’s last year on the sideline in 2011.
“I honestly do think about that a little bit,” Hull says. “Linebacker is a special position here. I think one of the things that sets Penn State apart, especially at the linebacker position, is guys that are coached a certain way and have the certain fundamentals and they pass that on to the guys that are younger in the program.
“I think that’s why the tradition has lived on for so long. And I’m here to ensure that it keeps going even after I leave.”
A Penn State home
A nearly three-hour drive from State College to Canonsburg yields an easy target destination. It’s not tough to tell which home of four at the end of an icy cul-de-sac in the Meadowbrook neighborhood belongs to the Hull family.
If the blue Penn State mailbox doesn’t give it away, the ‘We Are…’ wreath with blue flowers on the burgundy door does. Upon closer inspection, a Penn State flag in the yard has been rustled by wind and snow and is tangled up. A Nittany Lion blue GMC Acadia sits in the driveway, decked out in Penn State magnets.
Tom Hull opens the front door. He’s wearing a Penn State football shirt. He’s an imposing man who looks impossibly large inside the house’s small foyer. He walks into the kitchen where he pours a cup of coffee — into a Penn State travel mug. Hull sits down gingerly at the kitchen table. Only then do you notice he had been walking with a slight limp, no doubt a later-life effect for a man who played parts of three years in the NFL and another in Canada.
He looks out the large kitchen window where heavy snow is falling in the back yard. It took some getting used to again, he says, practicing in this type of weather in Green Bay after his first NFL season was spent in San Francisco in 1974.
After selecting him in the 12th round of the draft, the 49ers had high hopes Hull would compete for a starting spot right away. With veteran players on strike during the preseason, Hull played in every game and was poised to earn playing time behind the team’s starting middle linebacker. The game plan for the season opener in New Orleans was to play Hull in the second and fourth quarters. He got in on the second play of the game and avoided a block from the Saints center who fell to the ground. However, the center’s leg whipped back into Hull’s while he was firmly planted in the ground.
“I stretched ligaments in my left knee,” Hull says, sipping his coffee. It cost him a chance with the 49ers and he eventually signed with Green Bay, then played in Canada for a year, spent another out of football and played for the Buffalo Bills before calling it a career to focus on starting a family.
One thing sticks out to Tom about his injury in that season opener in New Orleans. It was nearly identical to what happened to Mike in Penn State’s season opener against Syracuse last season.
The injury robbed Mike of most of his mobility and cost him most of four games. Tom remembers a conversation he had with new linebacker coach Brent Pry shortly after James Franklin was hired to replace Bill O’Brien.
Pry reached out to the Hulls to let them know Penn State’s plans for their son. He’d play middle linebacker for the first time since high school. He’d also get plenty of rest as the coaching staff planned to rely on younger players more in games to augment the team’s future depth.
Tom was adamant that the 2013 Mike Hull wasn’t the real Mike Hull as he appeared on film.
“I said, ‘I think Mike can have the type of year, if he stays healthy, he would have probably have had his junior year had he not missed most of four games,” Tom says. “Then coming back from that he still wasn’t 100 percent by the end of the year, I don’t know if he ever was. I said he could have a 135-tackle year. He said, ‘Ohhh.’ I said, ‘I just know the way Mike plays.’”
Tom raises his eyebrows and nods over to a bookcase next to the big flatscreen TV in the living room. He’s eager to show off some of his football keepsakes. Although Tom enjoyed a solid career at Penn State and played in the NFL, it’s clear he’s not the star of the family.
That distinction belongs to Mike.
Game balls from Penn State’s 2013 games against Purdue and Illinois sit on the topmost shelf, so high even the 6-foot-3 Tom has to strain to reach them. They’ve been retrofitted with all-white panels, marking the date, score and Mike’s in-game accomplishments. A ball from the 2013 game against Purdue is nearby, too. All three are sitting in front of old, weathered pigskins with signatures on them. Tom shrugs. There’s one commemorating the Packers’ 1975 win over Dallas.
“That one’s mine,” Tom says with a chuckle. “It’s so old the ink’s wearing off!”
He picks up another one, this one is clearly special to him. It’s partially deflated, marked with faded signatures. A commemorative ball for the 1973 Penn State team’s 25th reunion. He pulls it off the shelf carefully and points to a signature just below the laces.
“There’s where Joe signed it,” Tom says.
Tom lets out a long breath when asked about the days he spent with Paterno’s hawkish eyes on him. It wasn’t easy playing for the man, he said. In the early going, young players were put through the ringer — fundamentals were the most important aspect of the game.
Paterno’s constant harping on academics — he demanded excellence — was also an added burden for rookies not experienced in Paterno’s ways. Players had to be early, too. Then there were the position switches Paterno would come up with, seemingly out of the blue.
“There were some rough points,” Tom says, remembering when he was bumped from linebacker to defensive end to make way for standout Jim Laslavic — who had played up front on the defensive line — to linebacker in the spring.
“I was only a defensive end for a few days and they moved me back (to linebacker) but they didn’t move Jim back, they put me behind Jim my junior year,” Hull says. “Going into the fall, everything was back to normal. (Laslavic) was a d-end, I was back at linebacker at meetings and the first day of practice I come in to practice and I’ve got a second-team jersey on my hangar. I don’t know why they did it, but I played second team my whole junior year which was not my best time.”
Tom started as a senior but is still bewildered by Paterno’s experiment during his junior year.
“That junior year would’ve been critical,” Tom says. “But that’s the way Joe was.”
The first and last conversations
The first time Mike Hull spoke with Paterno about attending Penn State was when he committed as a high school sophomore.
Mike and Tom met with Paterno and then-defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who had acted as the point man on Mike’s recruitment. It was 15 minutes before kickoff before Penn State would play Michigan State at Beaver Stadium and Paterno invited the Hulls into the locker room.
As soon as Mike told Paterno he would accept the team’s scholarship offer, Tom teared up. So did Paterno. Legacy players were always special to him.
“Joe was even a little emotional at that time,” Tom says.
The last time Mike talked to Paterno, it was just as emotional but for different reasons. Engulfed in the immediate inferno of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Paterno announced his intention to step down at the end of the 2011 season. He told his players first in a squad meeting. As fate would have it, Paterno wouldn’t get to stick around. He was fired shortly thereafter and passed away from lung cancer just a few months later.
“After the team meeting, everyone went up to him and said a few words,” Mike says. “We just said we appreciated everything he’s done for us.”
A complete player
When Jack Ham hears two words — “Mike Hull” — two more come to mind right away.
“Complete player,” Ham said. Ham would know, his own playing career aside, he provides color commentary for Penn State’s games on the radio and watches Hull intently every Saturday. To listen to Ham talk about Hull, it sounds like he’s almost reading from a list of to-dos in order to be considered a great at Linebacker U.
“He’s an outstanding tackler in open field. He times up the blitz very well. He’s great in coverage, in zones, he’s great in man-to-man coverage. He’s a smart player. He gets those guys in and out of blitz packages, in sometimes and out if they’re giving it away and timing up things. He’s almost kind of like an assistant coach on the field.
“I think people underestimate how strong he is,” Ham continues. “He plays with great leverage, is one of the strongest guys on that team and that’s why he’s able to get away from blockers at times, cause separation and get to the football. And he takes good angles.”
Indeed, Hull learned plenty of what he knows from Paterno and longtime Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. But Hull describes himself as “lucky” to have had plenty of voices in his ears over the past five seasons.
Hull’s taken his cues from Paterno, Vanderlinden, Bradley, Pry, Franklin, Bill O’Brien, Ted Roof, John Butler and Bob Shoop since 2010.
He learned about personal accountability from Paterno — on time wasn’t good enough. It’s why Hull stood outside the Beaver Stadium media room with his hands in his pockets, in position to say ‘Hi’ to every reporter who walked in before his final midweek press conference on Tuesday.
He said Paterno taught him that classes were more important than practices. It’s why Hull busted his rear end to raise his GPA to 3.5 as a sophomore in order to gain admission to Penn State’s highly competitive finance program. It’s why he had his degree well in-hand before his senior season.
He learned the fundamentals from Vanderlinden. When you watch Hull on film, he’s almost never out of position.
He learned how to channel his aggressiveness from Roof and Shoop — two defensive coordinators who have drawn up dizzying blitz schemes to finally make use of Hull’s speed and that of his teammates. Ask Hull a question about his team’s blitz-happy schemes. It’s a way to make a normally quiet, reserved man perk up and well with excitement immediately.
Hull’s eyebrows climb his forehead quickly as he responds to one such question.
“I’ve definitely blitzed more this year than I have in my entire career,” Hull says. “I still think (Brandon) Bell and Nyeem (Wartman) blitz more than I do. So that just goes to show the attacking scheme of the defense. It wrecks the front and helps guys make bigger plays and it helps the defense as a whole if you fit up the blitz package the right way.”
The Butkus snub
Ron Arp, a representative of the Butkus Foundation, gave a glowing review of Hull.
“I think he’s a fantastic linebacker,” Arp said from the West Coast where selection committee members recently trimmed their list of 15 semifinalists for the nation’s top linebacker award down to five players. Hull isn’t one of them. He wasn’t one of the 15 on the semifinalist ballot, either.
Franklin, Ham and even College Football Hall of Fame linebacker Pat Fitzgerald have all challenged those voters to point out 15 linebackers better than Hull. Fitzgerald said he would write Hull in on his ballot. Arp is quick to point out that he doesn’t vote and that those who do are asked to choose just three, not 15. Votes are tallied then and Hull wasn’t on enough Top 3s to make the semifinalist cut.
“I really don’t care about it at all,” Hull said. “If you play for awards, you’re doing it wrong as a player. I just love the game so much all I care about is being out there every Saturday and getting an opportunity to play with my teammates and just play the game that I love.”
Hull was dejected, disgusted, down right angry following each loss Penn State endured during a four-game skid earlier this season.
As he sat in the team’s locker room, he got up and started to get dressed after a shower. He packed some stuff in his backpack and looked around at his teammates. Some of the younger guys still sat, dressed in full gear, hanging their heads. Others were wide-eyed, unable to pack up.
A media go-between came in, asked a few of them if they would speak to reporters. Hull hollered out, “I’ll do it.”
Unless he’s needed treatment after a game, Hull has come out and done 20 to 30 minutes of post game scrums with reporters after every win or loss.
“Obviously, I feel bad,” Hull said. “So I’ll do it. I’ll take that responsibility so the other guys don’t have to.”
Sometimes Brad Bars will come home to the apartment he shares with Hull, Jesse Della Valle and Miles Dieffenbach and find Hull scouring YouTube.
Maybe Hull’s got a pen and pad. Maybe not. He’s definitely watching intently, desperate for any and all information about how to tie a certain kind of fly or how to rig up a new fishing lure.
“He likes to prepare for fishing like he does for football games,” Bars said. “We’re always bouncing ideas off of each other. It’s kind of competitive, too. Sometimes we’ll go out there and be like, ‘Who’s going to catch more fish today?’ Jesse and Miles will try to egg it on when we come back. It’s always fun.”
For the future that he waits
Mike Hull doesn’t know what the future will hold. He hears plenty about the violence of the sport, how concussion studies have revealed the true dangers of playing the sport. He’s had his own injury issues and knows how tough it can be to recover.
He still wants to play in the NFL like his dad.
“I don’t think about the future because you never know what is going to happen,” Hull says. “I might have three more games left in me. Nothing is ever guaranteed. But I just try to learn as much as I can and be as versatile as I can so I can play as many positions as I can at this level or the next.”
Growing up in Canonsburg, he idolized those who came before him. Paul Posluszny and Sean Lee, primarily. He’s seen them go on to the NFL and he’s seen his close friends — Josh Hull and most recently Glenn Carson — have to fight for every snap and the right to put on a professional helmet.
Hull said the fight is worth it, even if it can be emotionally draining and physically taxing.
“I just love the game and I want to play it as long as I can,” Hull says. “I just want to cherish what I know is in front of me and that’s this next game.”
The last one for the last of a special breed of player.