BUFFALO, NY - Byron Mulkey has always been working hard to get his shot. After walking on to the University at Buffalo men's basketball team in 2006, the waterbug point guard earned his way into not just the program's record books, but into the heart of Bulls fans everywhere with his performance on the court and his charisma off it.
Now almost a year after his playing career at Alumni Arena has ended, Byron has been given another shot to prove his tenacity and will to succeed thanks to an invitation to come and attend a training camp.
The one catch?
It isn't with a basketball team.
The Wheatfield native has received a formal invitation to participate in the upcoming Buffalo Bills rookie camp. Though he has not played in an official football game since his outstanding high school career at Niagara-Wheatfield High School, Mulkey has been working out feverishly to transition his skills from the hardcourt to the gridiron.
Byron hopes to join an impressive group of Mid-American Conference basketball players who have made the NFL. Some are well known (former Kent State Golden Flashes standout Antonio Gates) while others (Western Michigan's Joe Reitz) fly more under the radar. No matter what his future holds with his hometown team, all Byron wants is a chance.
He will get that opportunity for the Bills, where he will likely try out to be either a defensive back or slot receiver at the team's rookie mini-camp May 11-13.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in business administration, Byron had an offer to play professional basketball in Morocco, but after a stint with the team he returned to campus. He kept in shape hoping to get another shot to play professional basketball, but his first true sports love was rekindled instead.
"At the beginning of the second semester, I had an itch to play football," Mulkey said. "It's been a while, but to be honest, football came more naturally to me growing up than basketball did."
While he returned to school to complete his master's degree in higher education administration, he asked around to see if there was a way to scratch that itch, and found a supporter in his former head coach Reggie Witherspoon, who was able to get him in contact with the Bills. Though his former coaches at UB were surprised by the request, no one is counting him out.
"Byron is the type of person that, when he puts his mind to something, he goes after it," Witherspoon said. "I definitely think that he will give them every reason to be staring at him. I'm really thankful to the Buffalo Bills for giving Byron this opportunity. It speaks to the importance of their presence in our community."
Coming out of Niagara-Wheatfield, Byron was a quarterback and defensive back for the Falcons and was an All-WNY honoree as a defensive back in 2005. Though schools such as Princeton, Brown and Harvard recruited him for football, the financial strains of playing at an Ivy League school with little to no financial aid proved to be enough to make him shy away.
The cyclical nature of Mulkey's career is a fascinating one: an opportunity to play Division I basketball drew him from his first love of football, and a chance to play professional football is now drawing him away from basketball, a sport where he has shined over the past five years.
Despite this new step in his athletic career, Byron is confident in his ability to transition to the speed and pace of a football game and is still working out to try and bulk up for the role.
"I'm trying to put on as much weight as I can, but it was more just working with the weights," Mulkey said. "My footwork translates pretty well from basketball, and I've been doing some catching to get my hands used to catching a football again."
Buffalo Bills Defensive Quality Control coach Eric Thatcher came out on a few occasions to work on the footwork the Bills coaching staff will be looking for at the upcoming tryouts, and offered positive feedback and tips that have boosted Byron's confidence heading into the weekend.
That confidence also comes from the adversity he has already endured; starting from the moment he approached Coach Witherspoon about walking on to the team, through his senior season, when the budding star accepted a redshirt and sat out the entire year. Mulkey credits his mental toughness as a main driving factor in his attempt to break camp as a Buffalo Bill.
"I know what I've been through to get me to this point and I know what I'm capable of managing when it comes to adversity," Byron said. "Who knows what could happen? I'm expecting the best and prepared for the worst and that has been the case all along."
That confidence has rubbed off on Witherspoon, who will be one of the many Byron Mulkey fans pulling for him at camp.
"Byron will give them every ounce of his energy and his effort, and I would not be surprised to see him make the team."