Mullins quickly learned how to analyze the game. Then he learned to treasure it.
As Hurricane Katrina displaced Mullins and his family — sending them first to Brookhaven, Miss., then to Baton Rouge, La. — the 13-year-old's focus shifted. The sturdy concept of "home" became an abstract notion.
It was many months before Mullins could return to the area, starting over with his parents and brother in a new house. Many months before his passion could be a priority.
"Hurricane Katrina was definitely a difficult time for me and my family, and lots of other families in New Orleans," Mullins told Goal USA. "In terms of soccer, it showed me I should cherish the game, every moment, every day that I was able to play, because there was a time when I couldn't play, when there were a lot greater issues at hand."
It is gratitude Mullins, now 21, has carried with him ever since, emerging from Louisiana's low-key soccer scene to become the fifth male player to twice claim the Hermann Trophy.
After compiling 17 goals and 10 assists for his Maryland Terrapins squad in 2012, Mullins added 19 goals and eight assists during his senior season. Heading into the MLS SuperDraft on Thursday in Philadelphia, the forward is a candidate for the No. 1 overall selection.
"You don't find many players that have that knack for goal and are just pure finishers, and Patty is definitely one of them," said Real Salt Lake midfielder John Stertzer, Mullins' teammate at Maryland from 2010 to 2012. "He always found a way to score."
While Mullins, at 6-foot-1 with respectable strength and pace, was gifted his fair share of physical assets, his mind for the game is largely what sets him apart.
With a formidable left foot from long range and a poacher's instincts up close, Mullins has found an ideal to strive toward in Manchester United striker Robin van Persie. From Van Persie's tendency to drift wide left to his penchant for shooting from myriad angles, Mullins absorbs it all. There's a lesson in every touch, every movement.
Such is Mullins' diligent approach. Considering he graduated last summer with a double major in communications and American studies, it's not surprising that Mullins is extending his education to the field.
At that confluence of the classroom and pitch is "Mullins' Musings," a blog focused on "soccer, team building and leadership" in which he shares how influences from Frank Lampard to Machiavelli helped shape his game. Although he hasn't posted since July — that senior season with the Terps and fall semester were slight infringements on his free time — he hopes to resume soon.
"As a student of the game, it started out pretty young," Mullins said. "As you grow older, you realize you don't just watch the game — you're learning while watching the game. When you're around good people that want to talk about those things and different philosophies of the game, it makes it even more interesting."
One of those "good people," of course, has been Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski. When Cirovski first saw Mullins as a 10th-grader, he identified a talented athlete who had grown too cozy against inferior opposition. The workrate was subpar, and there were bad habits in need of eradicating. So Cirovski let him hear it.
A year later, the coach saw a different player. Once Mullins arrived in College Park, the evolution accelerated. Over the course of four seasons, Mullins added headers and right-footed strikes to what had been a limited arsenal. His hold-up play grew more reliable, as did his crosses. He added endurance. Confidence. Leadership.
"Last year, when he decided to come back to school, he really felt like he needed to get better and wanted to get better," Cirovski said. "I think it's that humility and that sort of grounded work ethic that has allowed him to improve every year. I've said this before: His best soccer is still ahead of him."
If there is a knock on Mullins among draft pundits, it's that his tools fall between the optimal skill sets of a striker and a winger. Deployed on the left flank as a freshman, Mullins alternated between the positions during his sophomore and junior campaigns, then almost exclusively played up top this past season.
As Mullins put it, "I truly think I'm a forward. But it's definitely not a bad thing being able to play a couple of different positions."
"That's an asset, not a detriment," Cirovski added. "Don't believe the garbage you read on the Internet. Patrick is a player, and he is going to make any team he plays on better. He will contribute, and the coaches will love him."
While Mullins looks ahead to the next stage of his career, he's not forgetting his New Orleans roots. He takes pride in being the third Hermann Trophy winner from Louisiana in the past decade — following Maryland's Jason Garey in 2005 and Notre Dame's Joseph Lapira in 2006 — and remains involved in the local youth development scene.
Wherever the draft does take him, he'll try to represent himself and his community the same way he always has: with hard-earned appreciation for his craft, and a thirst to hone it.
"I know it's going to be a test and a new challenge in my soccer career," Mullins said. "It's something that I'm looking forward to embracing. I think that's what most soccer players will say — that what they love about the game is having a challenge and taking those next steps to really prove yourself."
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