In his years of wearing a Bulls uniform, Brian Mullins had more knee surgeries than goals scored.
Granted, three goals in four seasons is a decent output for a defender, but four surgeries on the same knee is excessive, even for the most hardened athlete. Mullins, 22, belongs to the small minority of athletes who have recovered from two anterior cruciate ligament tears and continued playing at a high level.
Mullins completed his career Nov. 14 at the Conference USA Tournament in Saint Louis with a close 3-2 overtime upset loss to Cincinnati. The mere fact that he could complete four seasons of rough-and-tumble collegiate soccer on a delicately reconstructed right knee is remarkable in itself.
“He’s a warrior, an absolute warrior,” USF assistant coach Jim Felix said. “You love having a guy like that on the field. You know he’s going to give you everything he’s got.”
His woes began in his freshman year on Friday the 13th of November, 1998, during the C-USA Tournament semifinal pitting his host and top-seeded Bulls against Charlotte.
“A kid was dribbling at me, and I was backpedaling, and then he cut inside, and I planted,” Mullins said. “As I was going to tackle, my cleats kinda slipped out because it was kinda wet that night. My cleat slipped, and I just went down, and my leg just gave out and went to the right, the bottom half (of the leg).”
The Bulls won the tournament, but Mullins took no further part after his injury and was sidelined for about six months following surgery in December that year. He returned to the lineup in 1999 and played through the season. But then the subsequent spring, a freak accident in a scrimmage against walk-ons led to the unthinkable — a second tear of his right ACL, and more months of rehab. Surgery ensued in January 2000, followed by a second “cleanup” surgery in June that year.
Mullins said the thought of abandoning his comeback never entered his mind.
“It’s pretty hard to stop doing something that you’ve had for 20-odd years. All of my friends who I concern myself with are on the soccer team anyway, so it’s kinda hard not to be around all my boys. It’s hard sitting around watching them.”
After testing his form in the 2000 preseason, Mullins decided to redshirt that year but stayed involved with the team by watching practice sessions and juggling on the sidelines. He credits then-coach John Hackworth with encouragement during that time.
“Coach Hack was always really supportive,” Mullins, an Ohio native, said. “He was always letting me know that even if I couldn’t come back, the financial support and emotional support would still be there for me no matter what. So that kept me at ease. Other than that, he just talked to me once a week at training to let me know that it was still planned that I would play if I could, when I could.”
With Mullins sitting out the year, the Bulls suffered through their worst season in his five years, missing the conference playoffs amid disciplinary problems and a lack of team chemistry.
“I was disappointed to see some of those guys go out the way they did, like (defender Ryan) Anatol. I was such good friends with him,” Mullins said. “I wanted to see him do a lot better and play with him for another year. But after a while there were so many problems that season I was glad I wasn’t in the mix because I would have probably have been in the trouble side sometimes.”
Having earned the right back position before the 2001 season, a position he retained in 2002, Mullins signaled his return in the season opener by booting the game-winning goal from the penalty spot against Florida Atlantic in a 1-0 win. The Bulls ended the season 15-7 and only bowed out after a triple overtime loss at Penn State in the second round of the NCAAs.
“At Penn State in 2001 in the (NCAA) Tournament, three overtimes, and he was just unbelievable,” Felix said. “Even up in Saint Louis this year, when we got knocked out in the cold steady rain (vs. Cincinnati), he just battled. You’ve got to admire a guy like that.”
Thoughts of quitting
But the following spring, Mullins’ knee did not respond well after his fourth surgery, a simple cleanup operation, and he contemplated quitting for the first time.
“Following that surgery, it was kinda rough to get back into it,” Mullins said. “And then I had a pretty rough spring playing-wise. I couldn’t get fit, and it was bothering me more than it had, so I was about ready to hang it up there.”
Like he did all the other times, however, Mullins, though dogged by pain, willed himself to take the field again and played through to the end of his fifth and final year — though not without incident. Mullins was benched for a few games as coach George Kiefer changed his formation from four defenders to three. Then, because of an undisclosed violation of team rules following a game in Chicago against DePaul, he was suspended for the crucial regular-season finale along with fellow seniors Kevin Cowan and Jeff Thwaites, who he considers his best friend during his time at USF. Mullins insists the trio did not know the rule, or they would not have not broken it.
“For the reasons up in Chicago, I understood why he (Kiefer) did it, so it didn’t really bother me. I needed the rest anyway,” Mullins said. “It was upsetting to not be able to play in your last game, but it was OK because we got to play Cincinnati (in the tournament).”
The Bulls finished 11-7 and narrowly missed out on a possible NCAA berth, but Mullins’ continued play has come with a price. Stemming from the first ACL tear, Mullins now has a degenerative condition in his right knee and is faced with the prospect of undergoing a knee transplant, in which he said cartilage will be taken from his knee, cultured and grown, then implanted back into the knee. But he is unsure if he wants to go ahead with the procedure.
“It’s still up in the air whether or not I’m going to have that done,” Mullins said. “It’s a full-year rehab. I’m not really planning on spending any more time doing that kind of stuff right now.”
Contact Khari Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org