Karen “Mulli” Mulligan is the star quarterback for the New York Sharks, a professional women’s football team that I tried out for last fall. While football wasn't for me, Mulli picked up the sport after playing collegiate basketball and she hasn’t looked back since. When she isn’t teaching phys ed at PS 65, she eats, sleeps, and dreams football. She has broken almost every passing record in Sharks’ history and has led the team to four division titles and three conference championships. Excelle Sports sat with Mulli in Oceanside, New York after a recent practice to talk about the growth of the women’s game, her thoughts on player safety and her favorite sports movies.You are now 38 years old and you’ve been playing football for 14 years. You’re just going to keep playing until you can’t huh?Mulli: I’ve been an athlete my entire life. It’s what I’m supposed to do. My body will probably tell me when it’s time to be done.So your body is good to go?M: Everything feels good. My knees are the only things that have declined in the past three to four years, but I take care of them. I’m on anti-inflammatories. I have these little knee sleeves that keep them compressed so there is not much swelling. In a couple of weeks I’ll be getting a gel injection just to put some more cushion in there. You do what you have to do. I still have to help my team succeed so there is no use in making excuses.You started out playing defensive end and defensive tackle. How did you become a quarterback?M: One season our quarterback left. My owner and another teammate of mine asked me, “Hey Mulli, do you want to try this?” I couldn’t throw a spiral to save my life.Did taking that position change you as an athlete?M: Yeah I matured. I am now a leader. I might not have been in my prime as an athlete in college. I feel like I was a kid. Am I past my prime now? I’d like to say no. That’s a firm no. As we get older, we find out so much more about ourselves.How has the sport changed since you started playing?M: At tryouts you are now getting more naturally gifted girls, yet you still get girls who don’t know anything about football. A lot of us started that way. But now—not to be a jerk or anything—you can almost weed people out because of the amount of athletes who really come with the desire to play.Speaking of desire: It cost me $13 and one hour on the train to get to this practice. I can only imagine how much it costs to keep training.M: Oh my goodness. When I started dues were $1,000 and that did not even include your uniform and traveling. Each year it’s varied according to the budget. Like this year I took on administrative duties so it cut the cost a little bit. There’s always going to be a way that I find that money. In the beginning, it felt weird asking my friends and family even though they supported me, and I saved money from working too.Did you get resistance from your parents when you told them you were going to play football?M: Initially, my mom said “No you’re going to get hurt,” and my dad didn’t believe I was going to do the contact. But they got used to it. Now I can watch football with my dad and we have something else to talk about.I would believe that the dream for the women’s game is to reach the level of the NFL. The fans, the amount of games, the paychecks …M: Yeah we want all of that.But what about the rate of concussions? You don’t want that.M: We are being taught how to tackle properly. But you know what happens? Sometimes you don’t have the time to make the proper tackle and unfortunately people get hurt. I can only imagine being paid millions of dollars to make that tackle however it’s gotta get done. I don’t know … We are really big on learning it properly because we have other things in our lives that we have to do.
[caption id="attachment_1829" align="alignnone" width="640"] "Mully" rallies her offense in the huddle. (Courtesy of Karen Mulligan)[/caption]
Have you seen that Will Smith movie, Concussion?M: I thought it was great! It was eye opening to see the amount of the players involved in it and the way concussions affect those guys. But the sport is progressing. People are taking the necessary steps and precautions to not allow these things to happen.Do they make special pads for women?M: They do! The ZENA football pads have a built in cup. A, B, C. Maybe there’s a D. You’re constantly hitting on the line. You have a job to do. You don’t care what you grab. Most of the time it’s boobs or the back of the arms and you see the linemen have these pinches and bruises. So a lot of the linemen wear them if they can fit their boobs.So the Sharks have been in the media here and there, but there is no consistent coverage on women’s football. What do you think about that?M: Obviously we want as much press and media coverage as possible, but it’s always, “Where is this going to go from here?” It’s almost like you have to convince people that this is something worth talking about.
[caption id="attachment_1830" align="alignnone" width="640"] (Courtesy of Karen Mulligan)[/caption]
But it seems like American football is growing all over the world. I mean you’ve been playing abroad with Team USA since 2010.M: It’s a great experience. You get to meet girls from different countries that love to play as well.That’s how you met your wife, Amy, who is now the assistant manager of the Sharks. Is it weird being on the same team?M: Not really. The great part about it is, we can always talk about football and what each other is dealing with. A lot of things in our lives revolve around football. Like any football movie that comes out, we buy it.Haha. Wait, what?M: I love The Blindside, The Longest Yard, Any Given Sunday, Gridiron Gang … I even have a VHS copy of The Quarterback Princesswith Helen Hunt. They don’t make it anymore.Wow, you really sold out to this sport.M: Absolutely.So what do you do when you are not playing?M: If we really have vacation time, Amy and I will sit and put puzzles together. We like going and visiting different breweries and trying new beers. Also we bought a new house so anytime we have downtime we like to make things with wood. Amy made a ping-pong table once.When you retire, do you think you’ll coach?M: Maybe for like a year or two because I may still want to be around it. But it also might be difficult to be around it. I know it makes it easier for Amy to coach because I’m still playing, but maybe when I stop we’ll feel like doing other things.