LOWELL -- At Shy Cullen's initial practice as a freshman with the Lowell High School football team he made a first impression that has proven to be a lasting one.
Cullen arrived at training camp hoping to play running back and cornerback. The Red Raiders' coaching staff had other ideas.
"Coming into high school, it was pretty much my first year playing football," said Cullen, who is entering his senior year at LHS. "I wanted to be a running back and corner. At my first practice we were told to go to our defensive positions and I went over with the cornerbacks. And then a coach told me, 'Nope, you are going to be a linebacker.'
"I remember thinking to myself, 'Linebacker? Are you serious?' I really didn't want to play there. But over time I grew to love it. The coaches put me there for a reason. Where the coaches tell me to play, I play. It definitely worked out for me."
It most certainly did.
Cullen, who plays inside linebacker for the Red Raiders, emerged as one of the premier defensive players in Massachusetts in 2013. He finished his junior campaign with 60 total tackles, including 12.5 sacks, helping Lowell post a 7-4 record while earning its first-ever MIAA postseason berth. Cullen was named the Merrimack Valley Conference Division 1 Defensive Player of the Year.
His standout play at linebacker caught the attention of several Division 1 programs. Cullen recently verbally committed to attend Syracuse University on a football scholarship, where he will likely play outside linebacker. Boston College, UMass, Rutgers and Miami were among the other Division 1 schools who contacted Cullen.
"I didn't expect it to happen so fast," said Cullen. "Syracuse was the only school that offered me. I thought I'd wait and see what I would get for offers from other schools. But after I went to the campus and met with the coaches I knew it was the school for me.
"It was a real comfortable fit. I can't wait to go there. The Carrier Dome (Syracuse's home stadium) was amazing. At the time I was there they only had the basketball court up (in the Carrier Dome). It's going to be a great place to play. You can tell it will get real rowdy during games."
Cullen stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 210 pounds. He runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, and has a maximum bench press of 310 pounds.
When it comes to what coaches look for in a linebacker, Cullen is the total package. He possesses the speed needed to hunt down ball-carriers, and the size needed to deliver a punishing blow.
"The college coaches were really impressed by the way he pursues the ball and the way he arrives with a purpose," said Lowell High head coach John Florence. "He plays with his pad level so low a lot of coaches questioned his height. On film he's so low to the ground you don't see that he's over 6 feet. His overall athleticism and strength are what set him apart."
Cullen, 17, is an intense competitor. When he squares up someone on a tackle, the sound resonates all over the field like summer thunder.
"I love the contact," said Cullen. "I like to hit. I always wanted to be a football player who everybody looks up to."
Cullen certainly has the respect of his teammates and coaches.
"He's quiet and humble," said Florence. "He's one of those kids who when he does say something all the other kids kind of freeze and stop what they are doing and make sure to listen.
"He's very respectful. He's a 'yes sir, no sir' type of kid. He's very good with the young kids. He helps the incoming freshmen out. He has no type of ego to him at all. He's just a great kid."
Not one to rest on his laurels, Cullen is training harder than ever this summer. He works out three mornings a week at Lowell High. He typically gets up on training days at 5 a.m. and arrives at the high school before his teammates in order to get in some stretching and jump rope. After lifting, he runs sprints or does agility drills.
"Getting a scholarship has pushed me to work even harder," said Cullen. "I want to be even better than last year. Every day I feel I have something to work for no matter what. Even though I've committed to Syracuse, I'm still working at becoming a better football player. I'm going to give my best every play. I'm not going to change."
Cullen hopes to make his presence felt on both sides of the football this fall, as he will be more of a feature back on offense.
"You could see back when he was a freshman that he had the potential to be really, really good," said Florence. "Sophomore year he had a huge jump from his freshman year. And then last year he kind of just exploded onto the scene. He had some monster games. He's definitely one of the best players I've coached."
Now that Cullen has his college decision out of the way, he's totally focused on helping the Red Raiders post another winning record this season.
"Everybody on the team is working hard," said Cullen. "We're building a strong foundation and it's a great feeling. We want to build off last year.
"It was our first time going to the playoffs ever. It was a great experience, but we didn't win it all. I'm confident we can get back to the playoffs. That's our goal."
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