HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss senior quarterback Nick Mullens can smile about it now, and he did when he showed a visitor the still-swollen thumb of his right hand, the one attached to his throwing arm. A closer look showed five little stitch marks used to repair the skin where a dislocated bone broke through.
“It was gross, I’m not gonna lie,” Mullens said.
It happened on Oct. 8 in the third quarter of a game against UTSA in San Antonio. Mullens felt severe pain after throwing a pass and getting knocked to the turf. He looked down and saw the bone of his thumb protruding through his skin.
“Disgusting really,” Mullens said. “The most disgusting thing that ever happened to me.”
Mullens went to the sideline where trainer Todd McCall knew instantly that what appeared to be a broken bone actually was a dislocation. McCall applied some pressure and the bone popped right back into place. There was still the gash, but Mullens wanted to go back and play.
So McCall wrapped the wound in tape and Mullens played on. He finished with 370 yards passing and three touchdowns. Afterward, McCall cleaned and stitched the wound. Mullens practiced the following Monday and played the next game against LSU with a glove on his throwing hand. Yes, and he completed 25 of 37 throws against the Tigers.
“You do what you gotta do,” Mullens said on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Hattiesburg. “I wanted to play. This was my senior season. I wasn’t going to have that many more chances. I didn’t want to sit.”
So now, Mullens has one more opportunity to play for Southern Miss this Saturday night against the UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns in the New Orleans Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome. He will go into that game having surpassed Brett Favre and Austin Davis as USM’s all-time leader in passing yards (11,648) and touchdowns (85).
Those records would be considerably higher had Mullens not missed two games later in the season because of a concussion suffered when his head banged into the turf in a home game with Charlotte. It is a measure of his toughness that he badly wanted to play despite headaches and other symptoms following the concussion. Concussion protocol would not allow it.
“With the thumb, there was no reason for him not to play if he could stand the pain,” McCall said. “A concussion is different. You don’t mess with a concussion. I don’t care how tough you are and Nick is plenty tough. You don’t play if still show symptoms.”
The Birmingham native has made a mark much bigger than his passing records at USM. There have been several Golden Eagle quarterbacks who won more games, but precious few have meant more to the program.
Mullens signed with USM in February of 2013, one of the first recruits of coach Todd Monken, now with the Tampa Bay Bucs. The Eagles had gone 0-12 the year before. The cupboard, as they say, was bare. In an optimum setting, Mullens, not the biggest or strongest guy, would have been red-shirted, spent a year learning the system and in the weight room and played for the first time in 2014. He would still have a year to play now.
That wasn’t the case. He gave Monken and USM the best chance to win in 2013, and so he played. The Eagles finally won their first game in Mullens’ hometown of Birmingham in the last game of the season. In retrospect, it’s a wonder Mullens didn’t suffer multiple concussions or have an arm ripped off that season. He was under constant pressure, took more hard knocks than anyone should. He persevered.
In 2014, USM finished 3-9 and would have been better had injuries not caused Mullens to miss two games that season. Still, he completed 60 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns. By 2015, Monken and his staff had recruited linemen who could protect him, receivers who could catch and runners who could shoulder some of the offensive load.
Mullens responded with one of the most productive seasons of any quarterback, anywhere. He threw for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns. He threw only 12 interceptions. USM won nine games and played in the Heart of Dallas Bowl where Mullens threw for 331 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Washington.
His senior season has been a mixed bag, playing under a new coaching staff with a mostly new set of receivers and despite the injuries.
Mullens returned from the concussions to play in the season finale against nine-win Louisiana Tech. USM, 5-6 at the time, had to win to become bowl eligible, and Mullens played the game of his life, completing 29 of 33 passes for 342 yards and three scores. The Eagles won 39-24, setting the stage for the bowl game, which Mullens hopes will not be his last in football.
“It’s one more chance to play with these guys who have become like my brothers” Mullens said. “That’s what I will remember most about my four years here, the relationships I’ve made. It’s like I have 100 brothers.”
Pro scouts love that leadership quality about Mullens. They like his passing accuracy and his toughness, too. They wish he was taller than his 6-feet-1 inches and a bit more mobile. But they all say he’ll get a chance to play at the next level.
Mullins will earn his degree in marketing at USM, but any career other than football is on hold for now.
Said Mullens, the guy who has had seen and felt the bone sticking out of his thumb, “I love this sport, everything about it.”