Friday, March 8, 2013

Tom Mullen: Athlete

February 3, 1954 – March 8, 1993
There are so many things that I could say about my brother, Tom, to mark the 20th anniversary of his tragic death at the hands of a drunken driver.  He was a brother, a father, a husband, a friend, a co-worker, and the undisputed leader of the family.  He had a tremendous intellect, a winning smile, and was respected and loved by all that knew him.   But you all know that.  What many of you might not know (or might not clearly remember) is that Tom was, in my opinion, the best athlete in the family. I know my sisters, Annie and Chris, might dispute this claim based on their participation in multiple varsity sports at Our Lady of Lourdes High School, but I’m sticking with Tom. Here’s why:

Speed: My memory is a bit hazy on this point, but I seem to recall that Tom was on the high school track team for a year or two. He couldn’t run for distance to save his life, but he had excellent 100-yard dash speed. I don't believe he ever clocked under 10 seconds, but he was damn fast. No way Dad could ever have caught him! 

Agility: Tom was the only family member with less flexibility than me, but he had very quick reflexes, great agility, and extraordinary hand-eye coordination. He and I played an unofficial “game” over the years where I’d throw something at him just as he was turning around – a spoon, a ball, an empty cup – whatever was handy. More often than not, Tom would catch whatever I threw without even thinking about it. To this day, whenever I drop something but manage to reach down and catch it before it hits the ground, I think of Tom.

Overall Body Strength: Inspired by his cousin, Steve Lucas, Tom started lifting weights at a fairly early age, possibly as early as 8th grade and definitely by the time he was a freshman in high school. Showing an early astuteness for Finance, he somehow got me to contribute to the purchase of a Joe Weider Weightlifting Set consisting of a bench, a barbell, a couple of dumbbells, and 110 pounds of weights. Lord knows why I contributed to this scam ... I hadn’t even hit puberty yet!  I rarely used it.  Tom did though, and rapidly outgrew it.  A couple of years later he was lifting at the Poughkeepsie YMCA and, eventually, at AllSport, a nearby fitness facility. For about 4 or 5 years, Tom was a dedicated bodybuilder, reading magazines like "Muscle & Fitness" and "Iron Man", and drinking “power shakes” laced with Crash Weight protein powder. He ended up with a strong, chiseled body which he used to great advantage in all of the sports that he played. 

Baseball:  In Little League, your best and most athletic players are pitchers, catchers, or first basemen.  Your worst players are right fielders.  That's just the way it is.  Tom and I both played in Little League for a team called Western Printing.  The coach (Sam Forman) took one look at Tom and made him a pitcher.  I was told to grab my mitt and head out to right field.  For the first year or so, Tom was a great pitcher.  He could throw the ball with decent speed and was very accurate.  He hardly walked anyone.  And that was great, until the kids started getting a little bit bigger and a little bit better.  And so, on one sunny day at Spratt Park in Poughkeepsie, it became clear that Tom's pitching days were at an end.  He threw one of his trademark belt-high, plate-splitting fastballs to Scottie Coleman, who promptly hit it over the fence and across Wilbur Boulevard, pound for pound the longest home run I have ever seen.  Tom's career didn't end that day, but I don't remember him playing baseball again after Little League.

Football: Tom’s athletic skills were best showcased on the football field as a running back. In grade school he played halfback for the Cardinals, a team in the Poughkeepsie Pop Warner Football League. I don’t remember Tom's statistics, but I do remember that his picture and name were in the Poughkeepsie Journal sports section almost every week! He ended up winning the league’s Most Valuable Player when he was in 8th grade. When I came along a year later, the coaches of the Cardinals chose me to play for their team.  I think they expected Tom's brother to have the same level of athleticism that he did. Sorry guys ... at 4’10” and 90 pounds, I was no Tom Mullen!  Tom continued to excel in football at the high school level.  By this time, he was 5’11” and close to 200 pounds of muscle, so he was moved to fullback. Lourdes won the Dutchess County Scholastic League championship his senior year, and Tom had a very good season as the starting fullback. Tom was proud of both his team and his own abilities. During that senior season, I remember him telling me, half joking, but half serious as well, “Nobody stops me inside the 5!” That remark would come back to haunt him in the Sectional playoffs that year when they lost a very close game to an undefeated team from Yorktown. Near the end of the game, Tom was stopped at the goal line on a 4th down run up the middle . Years later, when the two of us were having a few beers together, I casually worked his quote and that play into the conversation.  We had a good laugh.

After high school, I seem to recall Tom thinking about playing on the Marist College club football team but hurting his knee before the school year actually began. There’s no record of Tom being on the Marist roster back then and no one else in the family recalls Tom spending even part of a semester at Marist, so I could be wrong. At any rate, other than the occasional Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving, Tom never played organized football of any kind after high school.

Basketball: Tom was not a natural basketball player. His primary sport was football, so he had to bulk himself up so that he could absorb the pounding that his body would be taking. By doing this, though, he turned himself into what would now be called a small “power forward”.  He wasn’t a great ball handler and we laughed about his inability to make a driving layup, but he had a deadly medium range jump shot. Even more important, he was a force underneath. He rebounded extremely well and enjoyed nothing better than tipping in a teammate’s missed shot. To this day, whenever I manage to get a tip-in, I think of Tom. Tom probably would have started on the high school varsity basketball team when I was a senior, but he had no chance of even playing on the team when he was a senior. His class had one of the best basketball teams in Lourdes history. Instead, Tom played in the CYO and Church basketball leagues. One of the best decisions I ever made in my life was to play with him on those teams during my Junior year rather than play on the high school team.  It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball to this day. Tom was our team leader that year – scoring, rebounding, setting picks, and doing whatever was necessary to win. Surprisingly, though, my clearest memory of Tom that year involves a game that we lost. In the Church League championship game, we found ourselves down by two points with only seconds to play. I was at the line shooting a foul shot and was instructed by the coach to intentionally miss so that we could try and tie the game on the rebound. I did my part (I was good at missing foul shots) and, after a scramble, the ball bounced right to Gabe Welch (a teammate) about two feet from the basket. Somehow, Gabe missed the shot and we lost.  While the other team ran off the floor hooting and hollering, Gabe just stood there with his head down, the picture of abject despair. I felt bad for Gabe but had no idea what to say to him. Tom did. Well aware of Gabe’s penchant for theatrics, he walked by him and casually muttered, “Cut the crap, Gabe”. Gabe looked up with a big smile and said, “OK!

Tom and I played basketball together all the time at the Poughkeepsie YMCA and had a very high winning percentage against the “hatchet men” as we called them. We made a good team. I took care of the dribbling and the outside game, and Tom handled everything underneath. And we were both fast! I only wish I could remember more details about those games. 

Tom remained in good shape throughout college. He and I would lift or play basketball together whenever we could during the summer months. In the mid-80’s though, he cut back on his exercising and became stiffer and stiffer. After a while, it seemed like he pulled a muscle whenever we tried to play basketball. He finally stopped playing basketball altogether in his early thirties.  However, a few weeks before his death, Tom told me that he was going to embark on one of his famous “Programs”. He was going to concentrate on nothing but stretching and flexibility. “You watch … I’m going to become a rubber man!” I believed him. He was 39 and I was 37, and I couldn't wait to play basketball with him again. 

Tom Mullen, age 17