Then Mullen’s career finished quicker than it arrived. He never saw a four-year doping ban – he tested positive to anabolic steroid drostanolone – coming and without the anchor of football, routine and his teammates, he began to spiral downward. By the time he hit the bottom, he was dealing coke to finance his habit.
On the morning of December 2, 2018, he was still going strong when his phone buzzed with a text message from his parents, Leeann and Steve, who had been away for the weekend.
“We’re coming home and we’re going out for dinner tonight,” Leeann said.
Mullen raced home to their place, turned on the TV, plonked down on the lounge and shoved down some OxyContin and Xanax to straighten out.
“Which I now know if you mix together it can be lethal,” he says. “I didn’t know that at the time. When mum and dad got home four hours later I was unresponsive, grey, choking. If I was living by myself, I’d be dead. They dragged me off the lounge and called the ambulance. For my parents to have to see their son like that still kills me. And it kills them. They still won’t let me sit on that part of the lounge.
“They didn’t know how much I was using — or using at all. I didn’t realise how hard I’d been going. I knew I was taking hardcore drugs, but I still didn’t think I had a problem, which is amazing. It’s insane.”
When Mullen opened his eyes in the intensive care unit at John Hunter Hospital, he looked up at nurses yelling at him, but he couldn’t hear them.
It later emerged he’d inhaled so much cocaine that he’d damaged the cochlear nerve, which runs from the ear to the brain. A doctor told him he was one line away from being completely deaf.
After Mullen regained full consciousness, as well as his hearing, he discovered a woman at the end of his bed holding a clipboard and pen.
“Did you do it on purpose?” she asked.
“Hand on heart, I didn’t do it on purpose,” he said.
“You should go to rehab.”
The absurdity of addiction is the moment that almost ended Mullen’s life also saved it. It put him on a path to recovery, to a happy and clean life living in Wollongong with partner Tamara, six-month-old daughter Stevie, with a TAFE qualification in drug and alcohol counselling in his back pocket while he does labouring work on a construction site to pay the bills.
Football no longer defines him, but he owes it to himself, and those who have supported him, to attempt an NRL comeback even if he is 33.
“A lot of people thought I’d overdosed on purpose because my life had spiralled out of control,” he says. “I didn’t. When you’re in that addictive state, everyone else is crazy but you.
“I’ve overcome a lot. To be clean and sober for nearly two years is brave. It’s f—ing hard. I don’t want a sob story. I’m taking full responsibility for the road I went down, the people I was with, it’s all me. But I know I’m a good person.”
Mullen tells me this looking not much different to the humble and prodigiously skilful kid who first made his mark on the game 15 years ago.
There are a few scars, a few wrinkles. But what I mostly notice are the tattoos on his forearms.
On one, the word ‘FAMILY’ is written. On the other: ‘I am not what I have done. I am what I have overcome’.
In a game that hands out second chances like Opal cards, this guy deserves one as much as anyone.
Needle and the damage done
The intercom to Mullen’s apartment buzzed. When he saw a man and woman dressed in white, he figured they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were ASADA officers.
“You had a drug test on this date, and you’ve come back positive for drostanolone,” they told him in January 2017. “How do you think that got in your system?”
Mullen was stunned. He had no idea what it was, he says, let alone in his body.
“Can you take it orally?” he asked.
“No, it has to be injected.”
As soon as they said that, the penny dropped.
He was handed a provisional notice of a four-year ban but advised that could be reduced to two years if he provided “special assistance” by revealing who had provided the substance.
When the ASADA officers left, he texted the person he suspected had injected him with the banned substance.
“What the f— have you done to me?” he asked.
Mullen had battled hamstring injuries for a year. The worst came on Anzac Day in 2016 when he’d ripped the tendon off the bone.
He’d regularly visited a trusted physiotherapist, who was known to the Knights and used by other players, for dry needling. Over the space of a week, the physio gave him two “amino acid injections” to help with his hamstring problems.
Surely, at this point an alarm should’ve gone off in Mullen’s head. The peptide scandal that crushed Cronulla was a definitive warning for every footballer to ensure they know what goes into their bodies. They had also been told they were merely taking amino acids.
“If he’d said it was a steroid, I would’ve said no,” Mullen says. “He said it was an amino acid, it would help with the healing, and other players had been to see him. If the physio at the club didn’t how to fix a problem, they would send you to this bloke because he was very good at his job.
“I was 29, played all these games of football. I didn’t need to be bigger, faster, stronger. I just wanted to heal my hamstring. You do get a lot of pressure from the club, as one of the highest-paid players, to come back. I just wanted that to be dealt with.”
Why didn’t he “give up” his physio mate to ASADA?
“I didn’t because he was a mate of mine,” he says. “I still remember a few conversations with him about losing his job. I told him if he comes out in the media and helps me any way possible, I’ll take the rap. He failed to do that. I’ve learnt not to trust anyone.”
Then Mullen checks himself. He can’t heal himself unless he lets his resentment go.
“I’m responsible for everything that’s happened in my life,” he says. “I’m sick of blaming other people for what happened. Everyone has a decision to make. I had the option to say no. It’s still my fault that it was in my system.”
Conspiracy theories have floated around about how the substance got into Mullen’s system. I tell him people will always think he’s guilty, regardless of what he says.
“I know the truth,” he insists. “My family knows the truth. That’s all that really matters to me. But it was in my system and I’m responsible because I didn’t check what was going in.”
As soon as he tested positive, his teammates were ordered to not talk to him. Then chief executive Matt Gidley was supportive while coach Nathan Brown just wanted to know if other players were involved.
“My purpose in life was rugby league,” Mullen says. “It’s taken me a long time to realise it’s just a by-product of who I am. You’re a person first, then a rugby league player. But at the time it was all I knew. When it was taken from me, there was nothing left. And that’s when I went, ‘f— it’.”
The descent was quick. Mullen fell in with the wrong crowd and dealt cocaine to cover a habit costing him $1000 a day.
“I had nothing else to do. I wasn’t working. I had some money in the bank,” he says. “My close mates knew what was going on and tried to help me. Only now that I am clean and sober do I realise I was absolutely out of control. I couldn’t face people without being off my head on OxyContin or Xanax or anything I could get my hands on because I couldn’t handle what happened to me. And I never fully dealt with it until I got into rehab.”
Long road to redemption
“I’m a hard woman,” says Jan Earl, the mother of Storm winger Sandor, a counsellor of 40 years and “a keeper of secrets”.
She works with athletes seeking a second chance. She did it with Sandor, who was harshly banned for four years for his own anti-doping violation, as well as Broncos veteran Darius Boyd.
“I run an intensive program,” she says. “It’s all about accountability then commitment. What I want from these young men is not to fall down, not to forget what they once had, not to forget where they come from and what they’re all about. There are second chances, but you have to work damn hard. To redeem yourself, you have to keep working. It never stops.”
She facilitated Mullen’s move to a rehab in Western Sydney, and since then has kept him on the right path. She calls in random urine tests and checks in with him once a week. His support also includes Narcotics Anonymous meetings and seeing a psychologist.
“She tells you how it is,” Mullen smiles. “Tough love.”
Earl also nudged him towards doing a TAFE course in alcohol and drug counselling, which he’s completed. Three times a week, Mullen would get up at 3am, hit the gym for two hours, then take the train to Mount Druitt. He’d get home at 7pm that night exhausted, but now wants a job working with clubs advising young players.
“My story is a really powerful one,” Mullen says. “If I can get my body clean and sober, which I have, anyone can. People come in and talk to clubs who haven’t done it. But they haven’t lived that life. I have.”
Nearly two years of sobriety have delivered many gifts of recovery, but perhaps the greatest is avoiding jail.
When police surveillance revealed he bought 39 grams of cocaine over a seven-day period from a residence in Newcastle, he was charged with drug supply.
He pleaded guilty and, in February this year, his lawyer Paul McGirr successfully argued Mullen was turning his life around. He was sentenced to 300 hours of community service.
Mullen doesn’t want to go into details – let alone mention names – about his court case, and that’s fair enough.
“You think you’re invincible and you won’t get caught, and then you do,” he says. “That’s going to be hanging over my head for the rest of my life, but I’ve made significant steps not to go down that path again.”
He’s convinced the justice system that his life has changed. Now he needs to convince the NRL integrity unit.
Earl directed him towards Christian Woodford, a sports science consultant in Melbourne who has helped sharpen his body for an NRL return.
Mullen’s doping ban ends in January. He’s knocked over nearly 190 hours of his community service, although that’s slowed because of COVID-19.
The NRL has told him his path back is through a season with a NSW or QRL Cup team in 2021, before an NRL club can register him. It remains unclear if there will be any second-tier football played next year, however, after all 2020 competitions were cancelled due to COVID-19.
“It’s never forever — the door is open,” NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo says. “But it’s not a given that he can return to the NRL.”
Mullen was initially gutted when told he would have to play a year of second-tier football.
“But I now see it as a blessing in disguise,” he says. “If I was thrown to the wolves in the NRL, and failed miserably because my body couldn’t handle it, everyone will ask, ‘Why did you even try?’. But I haven’t trained my arse off for two years to play in the local league. I’ve backed myself to play NRL again. I don’t care how old I am.”
The fear, of course, is the pressure of being back in the footy environment. The pressure, the partying, the temptation of reward.
“Why would I try one drink and everything that follows?” Mullen asks. “Tamara has stuck by me through my darkest times and helped me get through all of this. I can’t put into words what that means to me and now to have a perfect daughter in Stevie who has shown me what real love is. There is just too much to lose.”
Sports news, results and expert commentary delivered straight to your inbox each weekday. Sign up here.
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.