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Time Bomb
Peter King
April 24, 1995
After they stopped gaping at the stopwatches scouts said Mike Mamula should be a top pick
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April 24, 1995

Time Bomb

After they stopped gaping at the stopwatches scouts said Mike Mamula should be a top pick

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Then every scout worth his stopwatch went back to the videotape to find out just who this kid was. One thing was certain. "Mamula's no secret anymore," said new Seattle Seahawk coach Dennis Erickson, who was hoping to grab him in the second or third round.

He was never a secret in Lackawanna, a hardscrabble mill town tucked along the shore of Lake Erie. In the two decades since Bethlehem Steel curtailed its operations in Lackawanna, life there has not been easy. The homes on Mamula's street, so close they almost touch, used to be owned by the steelworkers. Now they're rentals mostly. Milton and Maryanne are looking forward to escaping. They'll move to Tucson this fall after Milton retires.

The town has declined, but some constants remain. The bars (four within a block of the Mamula home), churches (seven Catholic parishes within a bike ride) and sports continue to thrive. One recent Saturday afternoon, two nine-year-old boys were playing one-on-one football on the paved street in front of the Mamula house, swearing like sailors all the while.

Driving around Lackawanna recently, Mamula stopped abruptly and threw his dad's Ford Explorer into reverse. "Look at that," he said, shaking his head as two police officers chased and caught a man fleeing through a courtyard of some apartments. "The loss of the mill has really changed this place."

Still Mamula retains a sense of pride about his hometown and upbringing. "It was good to grow up here," he said. "Things weren't handed to me. I had to work for everything. I think what I lacked in money and privilege I made up for with hard work and the values my parents taught me."

Mike began little league football at age seven, but Apple Street is where his sports career really got going. Kids would spill out of the homes after school for coed pickup games of two-hand touch. The distance between each telephone pole was a first down, and the fourth pole was the goal line. "One time—I think Mike was in fifth grade—he was covering me because we were about the same size," Nickole says. "He stopped suddenly, and we banged our heads together. My front tooth broke off on the top of his head."

Nickole was a tough kid, but her parents can't remember any other time that she cried as much as she did that day. She needed dental surgery. Mike didn't cry. He needed stitches for the hole in his head.

"Thank god for sports," Milton says. "It kept him straight and made him work hard for everything he got."

Not that Mike didn't get into occasional trouble. At age 11, on Father's Day, he got caught shoplifting a 99-cent box of fishing lures he was going to give his dad as a gift. Someone at the store called Milton, who drove over and got Mike and his bike. When they returned home, Milton lifted the bicycle over his head and threw it against the house, bending the frame badly. Once they got inside, Milton ordered, "No one call him by his name for the next month! When you talk to him, call him the Thief! That's what he is." One day Nickole mistakenly called him Mike. She was grounded.

At Lackawanna High, Mike was all-state in football, as well as MVP of the Steeler basketball and track teams, but he didn't attract much football recruiting interest. Boston University, Rutgers and Youngstown State recruited him but ultimately none of them offered him a scholarship, so he figured he would take a partial scholarship from Division I-AA New Hampshire. Then BC assistant Mike Maser came to Lackawanna to scout him. He liked Mike's quick, reckless style, and he asked him to visit Boston College. Mike said he would visit only if BC offered him a scholarship. Surprisingly, Maser delivered. "I figured I'd be a small fish in a big pond, but that was fine with me," Mamula says.

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