Patriots Week is always a special deal. And you can double that for the two guys from New England in the Jets locker room.
"For me it's an honor playing for the Jets, and it's a really cool experience being able to play against a team that's so coveted up there," said tight end Matt Mulligan. "The Patriots are looked at as like immortal."
"A regular NFL game, everybody's fired up. This week, Patriots Week, is so special, especially for me and Matt," said defensive tackle Mike DeVito. "It's always a huge game for us."
The two have been battling away at different obstacles to be in peak shape for Sunday night's latest Jets-Patriots armageddon at MetLife Stadium. DeVito has been fighting nonstop to return from two games on the sideline due to a knee injury suffered at practice last month. Mulligan has gotten flak for five penalties he's been flagged for in the past six games. But these guys are ready to rock and they'll take on the hurdles together.
"He'll come over and we'll pray together," DeVito said. "Anytime I have a problem, especially if there's stuff going on here, I'll go right to Matt. It's one thing to talk to your wife or your parents, but to talk to somebody who's your best friend going through it with you — he'll know what I'm feeling before I say anything."
If you sense that these big guys often located in the Jets' trenches are tight, you're onto it. It's not often in the NFL that two young men meet up in college, become best friends squared, go their separate ways to the pros, then wind up on the same team to take on the "immortal" rivals from their old neck of the woods.
"God's blessed us," Mulligan said. "We are legit best friends. Being on the Jets together, it's a crazy experience. It's a blessing."
Relationship Built on Strength
This pro football buddy story began, of all out-of-the-way places, along the I-95 "corridor" in southern Maine. That's where the University of Maine campus in Orono is located, about 15 minutes northeast of Bangor and 40 minutes south of Enfield. More on those towns shortly.
DeVito was born in New York into a family of metropolitan area Jets fans, but he grew up on Cape Cod. And when it came time for college, he became a Black Bear. He was definitely one of the big men on campus, especially in the weightroom, where he set a few school strength records while earning All-Atlantic 10 honors at nose tackle.
But then entered a strongman transfer who grew up in Enfield and was transferring in from Husson College in Bangor. They tell almost identical stories about first eyeballing each other during Maine's spring practices in 2006.
"Matt was standing on the sideline, this big Maine dude in a flannel jacket," DeVito recalled with a chuckle. "I said, 'Aw, man, this dude looks crazy.' He looked so tough. I'm trying to be 'the guy' on the team and I'm feeling maybe he's going to challenge me."
"The first time we really met was in the weightroom," Mulligan picked up the narrative. "At my school I was the strongest guy, but then when I got to Maine, Mike was the strongest. So it pushed us and we started to lift together."
DeVito said they realized they had so much in common: "We were best friends from the second we started hanging out." Mully moved into DeVito's offcampus apartment and they spent the '06 season together.
Then DeVito left school to join the Jets as an undrafted free agent after the 2007 draft, so Mulligan was on his own — until the next offseason, when DeVito returned to Orono to hang a little more. Because he was a paid professional now, he insisted on picking up the breakfast tab almost every morning at Johnny's, a diner in town.
"I'm a steak-and-eggs guy," DeVito said. "Matt's also steak-and-eggs, but then he'll get pancakes sometimes. He changes it up a little bit."
"Move Your Stuff into the House"
The two wild and crazy guys again parted ways as DeVito returned to the Jets and Mulligan began his pro odyssey, filling practice squad berths with the Dolphins and Titans but never making it to their active rosters. Then after final cuts in '09, the Rex Ryan Jets came calling. And after they called Mully, he called Mike.
"He said, 'Hey, you're not going to believe what's going to happen,' " DeVito said. "I didn't even answer that. I said, 'Just move your stuff into the house.' "
The two were roommates again, even after DeVito got married to his college sweetheart, Jessie, last year. Finally, 13 months ago, DeVito said so long but not goodbye to Mulligan, who found his own place near the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center but still drops in on the DeVitos for home-cooked dinner, oh, once a week or so.
But don't feel lonely for Matt, who just got engaged to his girlfriend, Stephanie, two weeks ago. The two are planning a February wedding.
"We pushed it back past the Super Bowl and the parade," Mully said with a smile. "It's all after that."
But first things first. The best friends are down here in the New York area girding for the big game ahead. DeVito today declared that his knee is "100 percent. I feel better than I did before it happened, from the treatment and the three weeks of rest." Mulligan is focused on having a muscular, flag-free game of blocking in the Jets' heavy packages and maybe even snagging a catch or two. And they'll be doing it against that rival that used to be one of their favorite teams back in college but now is the hated, heated rival.
"This is a totally different week," DeVito said. "Everything's so much more amped up."
Then come seven more regular-season games, hopefully two or three playoff games and Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis and a parade or two.
"The Way Life Should Be"
However the Green & White's season ultimately ends, eventually the two Black Bears will find their way back to the Pine Tree State. The DeVitos will stop in Bangor, where Jessie's family lives. And then, for some "guy time," DeVito may drive up to Enfield, where he'll meet Matt again at Matt's parents' house, where they've bonded before.
"My parents have a lot of land there, so we'll ride four-wheelers all over the place and I have some guns and both of us like to shoot," Mulligan said.
"That's one of the reasons Jessie and I want to move back up there, because of the experience of living up there," said DeVito, who has been looking for land in Bangor to build their dream offseason home. Asked what about Maine draws him back there, he didn't hesitate.
"It's the way life should be," he said. "You go across that line and the anxiety and everything just all drops away. You're so relaxed, it's easy-going, nice people, all that outdoor stuff. My wife's got her family up there. And my best friend's up there."
Those are the main things. Enough said.