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One-on-One Coverage: Mike Mamula on Combine star turn, Lackawanna and life after football

Mike Mamula’s considerable athletic prowess began turning heads when he was 13 to 14 years old. Those heads belonged to the 18- and 19-year-old guys he was outperforming on the basketball court in his native Lackawanna.

“Then, we would have pickup football games behind the Lackawanna Library,” Mamula recalled. “I was the same age, playing against 25- and 30-old guys and taking them to school. I knew that there was something there back then.”

That “something” took hold at Lackawanna High School, where Mamula starred in football, basketball and track and field as a shot put and discus thrower. The only sport he couldn’t seem to master was baseball; he was cut from the team in ninth grade.

It was during the 1995 NFL Scouting Combine, however, that Mamula redefined athleticism as it pertains to football. He had been a standout defensive end at Boston College and was forgoing his redshirt senior season to go pro. He had been impressive at BC, with 17 sacks as a junior after notching 12 the previous year.

But nothing did more to cause Mamula’s NFL stock to soar than his amazing showing at the Scouting Combine, the 2019 version of which begins Tuesday in Indianapolis. Thanks largely to what continues to rank as one of the most impressive displays in the event’s history, he went from a prospect whom prognosticators widely saw as a third-round pick to the seventh overall choice, of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Mamula’s Combine numbers were staggering:

• Twenty-six reps of 225 pounds in the bench press. That was more than offensive tackle Tony Boselli, whom the Jacksonville Jaguars made the second overall selection.

• A 4.58-second clocking in the 40-yard dash, which seemed almost incomprehensible for a 6-foot-4, 250-pounder.

Bills director of college scouting Terrance Gray. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

• A 38.5-inch vertical jump, higher than cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock.

• A 10-foot, 5-inch standing broad jump.

• A 20-yard shuttle of 4.03 seconds.

• A 4-square run of 7.82 seconds.

Additionally, Mamula scored 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test, the second-highest score ever recorded by an NFL player.

The Eagles originally owned the 12th pick, but they traded it and two second-round choices to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the No. 7 spot and a third-rounder. The payoff fell well short of the price.

Struggling with chronic injuries that ultimately forced his retirement after six seasons, Mamula had a solid, though unspectacular, career. He had 209 tackles and 31.5 sacks in the 77 games he played from 1995 to 2000. His best years were 1996, when he had eight sacks, and 1999, when he came back from missing the entire '98 season to a knee injury with 8.5 sacks.

The Buccaneers used the 12th pick on Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp and traded the two second-round choices for the 28th selection, which they used for Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks.

Mike Mamula during his Philadelphia Eagles years.(Rick Stewart/Allsport/file photo)

Today, Mamula co-owns and is director of business development for Comprehensive Screening Solutions, an employment screening company in Gibbsboro, N.J. He and his wife, Chantal, have twin 19-year-old children. Daughter Luca is a freshman starter on Catholic University’s basketball team, while son Milton is a redshirt outside linebacker at the University of Montana.

Mamula, 45, has fond memories of his Western New York childhood.

“It was a great upbringing,” he said. “We had a great neighborhood, a lot of kids running around. It was just like a homey atmosphere in Lackawanna.”

Mamula’s parents — his father, Milt, who retired from his jobs of handling lunch and mail delivery in Lackawanna High School and maintenance when school wasn’t in session, and his mother, Maryann, a retired secretary — live in Hamburg.

In this latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, Mamula spent time on the phone with The Buffalo News, talking about the making of his NFL career, being more of a fan in his youth of individual Bills players rather than the team, and life after football.

Buffalo News: What was your earliest experience with organized football?

Mike Mamula: I played Lackawanna Little Loop from 7 to 11, and then I broke my arm when I was 11 and couldn’t play. I didn’t play again until I was a freshman in high school. I was always an end. In high school, I played tight end, defensive end.

The first play of — I think it was my senior year — I was playing tight end and the coach calls for a streak – me streaking down the field. So the quarterback threw the ball and it was kind of archaic the way film was done at that time. They had the quarterback on the film and then by time the ball dropped, the guy had to pan it like three times see me by myself. The ball hit me in the hands and I dropped it. I don’t think they ran that play anymore.

BN: What sort of attention did you get from colleges?

MM: My high school coach, Bill Pukalo, was really instrumental in giving me the confidence that hey, you can you can do this at the next level, meaning college. I was just trying to find a way to pay for school through sports at that point. There were two scholarships that were offered to me, both I-AA, from UConn and New Hampshire.

I had also gone on a recruiting trip to Rutgers, but it was kind of like a slap in the face because all the other kids that were there were all offered, it seemed, except me. So it was kind of a waste of my time, but it was a learning curve for me during that process.

Then, a week and a half before signing day, the recruiter from Boston College came to see me at basketball practice and then after practice, he’s like, “Hey, we want you to come up for a visit.” I told him, point blank, “I'm not going unless I’m offered.” And he's like, “Well, what if we offer you?” I would have signed the paper right there without the trip, but I was like, “Then I’ll definitely come.”

BN: As great an athlete as you were, how was it that you got cut from the baseball team?

MM: One of the reasons I got cut was that a fly ball was hit to me in April in Buffalo. It was like 30 degrees out, it got caught in the sun, and it hit me in the chest. But it was a blessing in disguise because the track season parallels baseball, so then I moved into track. That’s when I really started lifting weights, so it was like kind of like a means to an end.

BN: Were you much of a Bills fan growing up?

MM: I was a fan, but I was more of a fan of the players rather than any specific team, per se. Growing up, I was a fan of Fred Smerlas, who was actually a BC guy, too. I just liked the way he played as a kid. I actually took his number, 76, when I was in Little Loop.

I didn’t go to hardly any Bills games. I would watch them on TV when they weren’t blacked out. But I would love when the Bills won, because obviously everyone’s in a good mood. And that applies to any city about their team. The one game I went to was when those of us on the All-Western New York team for football were introduced at a Bills game. Who were the Bills playing? The Eagles. We were sitting 20 rows behind the end zone where Bruce Smith was chasing Randall Cunningham, and Randall throws it to Fred Barnett for a 95-yard touchdown. Four years later, I’m playing on the team with those guys.

Mike Mamula sacks the Bills' Rob Johnson during a 1999 game at then-Ralph Wilson Stadium. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

BN: The most dominant game of your college career was a 31-0 victory against Syracuse, in 1994, when you had nine tackles – including five for losses – and a pair of sacks. Did you feel, as others did, that that game did the most to raise your profile with NFL teams?

MM: I wasn't really worried about any of that, to be honest. I was just doing my thing. I specifically wanted to demolish Syracuse because they didn't even look at me. I personally hit the quarterback (Kevin Mason) like seven times, I got two sacks. After the game, our D-line coach, “Deek” Pollard, spoke like Mick from Rocky and he was like, “That quarterback left here, he had a bandage around his head, he was walking with a cane. It looked like it was Patriots Day.”

BN: You did do some research, though, about your draft standing that actually impacted your decision to leave Boston College after graduating with a degree in sociology with a year of eligibility left.

MM: I had an inside person within Jacksonville (a member of the staff of Tom Coughlin, Mamula’s former coach at BC), which had the second and 19th picks in the first round, that I had asked, “If I was to leave early, you’ve got to tell me, if I’m around at 19, would you take me?” And they said, “Yeah, we will take you.”

There were stories written that I wasn’t going to be drafted until the third round, so I was just trying to do all my diligence. So that was another reason that I was able to make the decision to leave early.

BN: How did you get to be so well prepared for the Combine?

MM: Tom Coughlin’s strength coach, Jerry Palmieri, had winter workouts, and the winter workouts that he put together were all Combine drills. So for a month and a half straight for like two years, I was doing Combine drills and nobody knew it, including me.

Like anything with sports, you turn it into a competition and through all those drills, there was nobody that was beating me. There were two or three separate cone drills, the 40, vertical jump, just all of the specific agility drills that were definitely being done at the Combine. My best 40 time in college was 4.49.

BN: How confident were you that you were going to help your draft stock at the Combine?

MM: I knew that I would do well because I already knew my numbers, so that was all part of the equation, along with leaving early and the fact I had 17 sacks my redshirt junior year. I had the tape. I needed just to have somebody actually look at the tape, so the Combine allowed more eyes to look at me.

The big thing that my agent, Brad Blank, said to me was, “If you run a 4.5, I’ll buy you a TV.” He bought me the TV.

BN: What was your reaction when the Eagles picked you seventh overall?

MM: I was elated. It was exciting. It was everything that I had wanted. I watched the draft from Brad’s house in Boston. I had a nice contingency from Lackawanna. I didn’t know anything about Philadelphia, but I was ready to go.

BN: Is there much else to say about all the health issues you had beyond, “Stuff happens?”

MM: Oh, yeah, stuff happens. I blow my knee out, the shoulder, my foot at the end. I mean, it’s a rough game. I still can't believe I did that (for a living).

BN: How much frustration or anger did you feel?

MM: It’s humbling when you get hurt and you’ve got to fight to get back. You’ve got to fight to maintain your position.

BN: There’s been a lot of debate, largely because of how your career turned out, about the Combine’s worthiness when it comes to judging NFL talent. Where do you stand on that?

MM: I think it’s a great way to judge talent. But you’ve also got to look at film from the previous season and track record. You can’t just look at someone and they do nothing during their college career, then they go out and blow things up at the Combine. I mean, it makes no sense. That’s just one thing that you’ve got to look at.

BN: How did you get involved in Comprehensive Screening Solutions?

MM: Once I retired, another D-lineman that I played with on the Eagles, Mike Chalenski, started the business up in ’99. I kept in touch with him, through mutual connections and whatnot, and he asked me to get involved in 2003 and it’s going great.

What’s exciting to me about it is that you can have anybody be a customer. I’m in business development, so I go out, I meet folks and it translates from industry to industry to industry to industry. And it’s twofold, the background check and then most people do drug testing as well, so there's a lot of opportunity there. We have some sports teams that use our service, including a few in the NFL (that Mamula said he would rather not divulge). We do a lot of work around the country as far as sporting venues.

The whole football (background) really helps, but then the service that we provide really seals the deal. We’re one of the top providers in the country. We’re an accredited, global organization. What I do is open the door, but everything that we do behind the scenes is our bread and butter.

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