Mike Hull said he learned a lifetime of lessons in just one game as a Penn State football player.
October 12, 2013. Penn State 43, Michigan 40. Quadruple overtime.
“I learned so much of the ups-and-downs perspective of football (from that game),” he said. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack during that game. Seriously. I think there was like, four minutes left in the game, and we were down by 10 points and we’re just trying to do anything for it to work. We hit the lowest of lows right before the end of the game, and then we come back and we’re feeling good about ourselves. ... Then we miss a field goal in the first overtime, and it’s just a roller coaster ride the whole way.
“You learn so much through the game of football and there’s so many life lessons taught that you can’t even explain it all. That was the game, right there, that did it for me.”
Hull thinks it was a coming-of-age moment for him.
It’s a good thing he had that moment, too. He went on another roller coaster earlier this year, sitting in his house with his family.
Hull was the best linebacker in the Big Ten last season, and a leader on Penn State’s solid defense. He had 140 tackles as an every-down guy in 2014, and did it at 6-foot, 232 pounds.
So when he saw the fifth round (where he thought he may get picked up) of the 2015 NFL Draft roll by, then the sixth, and then the seventh, he was naturally disappointed — and a little surprised.
Many scouts were not.
“Small for an inside linebacker,” his draft profile reads. “Nothing special athletically.”
His parents, he said, were shocked.
After the season he’d had, and the kind of player they’d watched him become, the last thing they were expecting that weekend was to not get a call. Nothing special athletically? The guy who recorded 19 tackles and an interception against eventual national champion Ohio State last season? That guy?
Then the madcap flurry of undrafted free agent signings began, and the Miami Dolphins called.
Dolphins writer Andy Cohen said linebackers coach Mark Duffner joked that he “kept a candle lit in the church” in hopes Hull wouldn’t get signed anywhere, and as soon as the draft ended, Duffner was on the phone with Hull.
See, the Dolphins love their productive players, their blue-collar linebackers, and Hull fits the bill — and build — of a guy the team holds very dear: Nick Buoniconti. The Hall of Famer and two-time Pro Bowler helped lead Miami to three consecutive Super Bowl appearances...as a guy scouts originally thought might be “too small” for the position.
They offered Hull a contract. He accepted immediately, and less than a week later he was at rookie camp in Miami.
“That’s all you can ask for, is a good opportunity to make a team somewhere,” he said.
“You can’t really change your situation. It’s obviously going to be harder to make it as an undrafted rookie. But you go out there and take care of your business every day and take it one day at a time, and just keep getting better, everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.”
Those are wise, worldly words from a 24-year-old.
“That’s kind of how I’ve always been throughout my whole life,” he said. “I believe there’s always a plan, good or bad, and whatever’s going to be will be, and you just have to make the most of the opportunity and go out there and give it your all.”
He said trying to officially make the team has been a humbling experience, and one he’s taking day by day.
“It’s basically like starting all over again as a freshman in college,” he said. “You have to prove yourself and you start at the very bottom. And it’s just back to square one again.”
He’s begun from the bottom before. He wasn’t always the leader on the field that Penn State fans remember.
Hull started out as a safety. Then, he switched to weak-side linebacker. Then strong side linebacker. Then middle linebacker, and it was there that he thrived. He proved himself, as he said. Others said he became the heart of the team.
Mike excelled at being “Mike” — the Nittany Lions’ middle linebacker. How about that?
It was there he learned the most about himself, in the spotlight as a leader of “Linebacker U.” In games like the win over Michigan in 2013 and in last year’s close loss to Ohio State, he learned who he was as a player, and solidified who he was as a person.
“It kind of made me realize, ‘Hey, I can do this at this level. And I can do this at the next level too,’” he said. “Everything I had earned was not given to me. I had to work for it every single day and prove to the coaches that I could be dependable and reliable.
“And I think that’s what I’m going to have to do at this next level, is prove that I belong there. And I’m going to do anything it takes to get on the field and make an impression.”