FOXBORO -- Matt Mulligan was expecting the pass.
Ever since he started playing football eight years ago as a sophomore at Husson College in Bangor, Maine, he has been told the same thing: "Act like you're going to catch the ball every time you run a route," he said on Thursday. "No matter if you're the guy that catches four passes a year or 100. You want to make sure you're ready."
Even though the Patriots tight end has caught a grand total of 15 balls in five professional seasons, even though no one was expecting him to be on the receiving end of a one-yard touchdown throw from Tom Brady on Sunday night in Atlanta, he was ready.
Brady threaded a pass between two Falcons defenders, and when Mulligan snatched it out of the air, he gave the Patriots their first of three touchdowns in what was eventually a 30-23 New England victory.
"Any time you can make a play for the organization that you play for, it's big," Mulligan said. "For me, it's generally blocking, and I pride myself on that. I try to do the best I can to try to help the team win. But when your number's called in whatever facet it could be, you try to step up and do what you can to help the team win."
After the game, the messages on Mulligan's cell phone began to flood in. Friends and family from his hometown in Enfield, Maine, sent their congratulations. His college coach at the University of Maine, Jack Cosgrove, also dropped him a line.
Other NFL coaches and staff members that Mulligan has become friends with in his well-traveled career were heard from as well.
Mulligan has been a member of the Dolphins organization, where he first signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He's spent time in Tennessee, and three seasons with Rex Ryan and the Jets. Last season he was with the St. Louis Rams, with whom he scored his first professional touchdown. He was with the Packers this summer until he was released after training camp.
Of all the people he has met and the good relationships he has developed at those various stops, he was most proud to discuss how he heard from the folks of the Pine Tree State who haven't forgotten him.
"I'll tell you what, the state of Maine is a tremendous state," he said. "They've always supported me. Regardless if it's just blocking like I've basically done my whole career, or catching a touchdown pass, they've always always been supportive of me. I'm really thankful to be part of a state like that. They take to you and every time I go home they always want to talk to you about whatever it may be. It's a good place to be, and I got a lot of nice congratulations."
Those are the people who remembered Mulligan as a standout soccer and basketball player, a kid who probably would have flourished at football at Penobscot Valley High School -- if it had been offered.
As part of a high school graduating class of 38 students, "there was just no funding for football," Mulligan said.
He played some at Husson and then transferred to Maine for his junior season, where his talent was readily apparent. Phil McGeoghan was Mulligan's tight end coach, and he was struck by the 6-foot-4 athlete who was new to the program. McGeoghan played four seasons in the NFL as a wide receiver and he knew Mulligan had NFL ability.
"He was telling me right off the bat, he said 'Look, I'm going to tell you, you have a shot,' " Mulligan remembered. "He played for four years. He said 'I know the types of guys that play, I've been in the league, and you have a chance.' He really mentored me.
"He and I still stay in contact. I owe a lot to him. I tell him all the time it's a huge blessing. I feel like the Lord put him in my life because without him, I don't know if I would've been able to understand what it would have taken to progress as a college athlete. You come out of Maine and you don't always know. My buddy [Chiefs defensive lineman and University of Maine product] Mike DeVito has done a great job, but he's a d-lineman. Phil played a skill position so I could really buy into what he was saying. He taught me a lot."
Since joining the NFL, Mulligan has played in different systems and under several different coaching staffs. He's caught on in New England for his blocking skills, and his offensive snaps have gone up with each passing week. He played a season-high 13 snaps in Atlanta.
While the Patriots playbook has been famously difficult to grasp, Mulligan feels comfortable in the offense despite not having even a few weeks of camp to pick it up.
"It's just trying to get in the playbook," he said. "You just really put an effort into studying what they expect you to know. It all comes down to being a professional. In everybody's profession, you're required to make sure you understand your line of work and what you're doing and you're expected to know it, basically immediately. I understand that, especially in the NFL, they have high expectations here as they should because it's a great organization so I've just tried to dig in as much as I could so that when my number's called I can make sure I'm ready to go."
The Patriots are seemingly in a state of some flux at the tight end position: Rookie Zach Sudfeld was released on Thursday and Rob Gronkowski is progressing toward a return from back and forearm injuries, though it is uncertain when Gronkowski will be back on the field.
Mulligan understands his role could shift when Gronkowski becomes available, but he's focused only on staying ready, which is all he's done since he picked up football at Husson in 2005.
"The biggest thing that I try to do is worry about myself and take care of myself," he said. "I love Rob. He's a great man, great teammate. I try to take care of what I can do every day to put myself in a position to help the team win, and that's all I can worry about."
FOXBORO -- Matt Mulligan was expecting the pass.