By now, you probably know the backbone of it, the wild story of Travis Fulgham. Son of diplomats. Lived all over the planet. Didn’t play football until he was 16. Walked on at Old Dominion. Sixth-round draft pick/long shot. Waived four times by three teams, including once by the Eagles, who signed him again and put him on the practice squad. A couple of wide receivers get hurt. Fulgham gets to suit up. Catches the go-ahead touchdown one week. Catches 10 passes for 152 yards and another touchdown the next.
Those are the broad strokes. This is the small and private scene that they produced: a father at his home in northern Virginia, watching the Eagles play the 49ers on Sunday Night Football, watching his 25-year-old son go deep and Carson Wentz loft a spiral downfield to him.
“I stopped breathing when the pass went up,” Alonzo Fulgham said. “I mean, there’s no greater joy than watching your children succeed. That was priceless for me.”
He is not a man given to breathlessness. For 24 years, from the Reagan administration into the Obama administration, Alonzo did the sort of work that reshapes the world, often in its most dangerous places and sometimes through its most shadowy means. He was an officer and administrator with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), joining it during its most controversial era, the mid-1980s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and in the midst of the Cold War, when the agency was closely aligned with and sometimes served as a cover for the operations of the CIA.
Years before his son ever touched a football, Alonzo spent 2005 and 2006 overseeing the United States’ development and humanitarian-assistance programs in Afghanistan, then became USAID’s chief executive officer in 2009, with a charge to reposition it for the 21st century, and his instinct to watch his words and keep his own counsel extended to the topic of Travis’s career. When I reached him by phone, he agreed to speak on the record only during a conference call with his ex-wife and Travis' mother, Celeste, before cordially saying, “Lose my number, please.” When asked if he had worked for the CIA, Alonzo said that he had not. “And even if I did,” he added, "I wouldn’t tell you.” A CIA spokeswoman said Tuesday that she could neither confirm nor deny that Alonzo had worked for the agency.
Still, he can’t help but feel a father’s fierce pride over Travis' spectacular first two games with the Eagles. “To make it seem like he’s an international man of mystery is wrong,” said Alonzo, who would know. “It’s not like the guy walked in out of Subway. He was a sixth-round draft choice. He came from Old Dominion University. He went to the combine and the Senior Bowl. The system eventually caught up and said, ‘This guy needs a shot.’ ”
So how did he get that shot? No NFL player’s journey can compare. Start with his mom and dad – Alonzo growing up in Dorchester, Mass., playing peewee and bantam hockey; Celeste living in the house where she grew up, on the south side of Chicago, until she left for the University of Chicago, where she majored in biology and played volleyball and basketball. They volunteered with the Peace Corps – he went to Haiti, and she went to Ghana – but didn’t meet until they were at the State Department together. Their jobs took them to Jordan in 1992, and the only reason that Travis was born in the United States, in Alexandria, Va., in 1995, was that Celeste had returned to undergo a year-and-a-half of her own USAID training.
Soon enough, Travis and his older sister, Jacqueline, were ricocheting around the globe, from Jordan to Egypt to South Africa back to Jordan to India, and as her son grew up and took to sports – basketball, soccer, cricket – Celeste marveled at the difference between her childhood and his. She would take a school bus a few miles to one of her games. Travis would board a plane and fly to Lebanon or Syria for one of his.
“He was really shifting cultures, shifting languages, shifting religions,” Celeste said. “He and his sister always had each other. They were Americans by their passports, but they weren’t really Americans culturally because they hadn’t lived in the States. They’re kind of a blend of a whole bunch of different cultures now. When I listen to Jacqueline and Travis talk, they don’t get a lot of the American idioms or colloquialisms. But they might say something that’s India-based, and I just smile.”
Once he and his parents moved back to the States, Travis started playing football as a means to an end, to prepare himself better for basketball, transferring to Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Va., for his senior year. His coach there, Matt Griffis, called up a friend: Mike Zyskowski, who at the time was the special teams and running backs coach at Old Dominion.
I’ve got a kid for you, Griffis told Zyskowski, and he sent him video of Travis – more than 6 feet tall, wiry, leaping over defensive backs, dropping nothing.
“I watch two or three clips,” Zyskowski said, “and I call him back. ‘All right, what’s the deal? What’s the catch here? This kid’s got to have a ton of offers.’ And he told me the backstory. His quote, and I’ll never forget it, was, ‘If you can take this kid as a recruited walk-on, he might quit the first week of camp, or he’s going to the NFL. There’s no in-between.’ He was pretty dead-ass right.”
It took a week of training camp, of watching Fulgham burn ODU’s cornerbacks on end-zone drill after end-zone drill, for head coach Bobby Wilder to offer him a scholarship. But it took him a while to acclimate himself to the ethic and intricacies of football, since, unlike his teammates, he had not immersed himself in the sport from the time he was a child. ODU’s coaches had to work with him more on the technique, terminology, and fundamentals of playing wide receiver – how to run a route properly, how to decipher the jargon of creating separation at the top of your stem – and he had what Zyskowski described as a “West Coast surfer” approach to the entire exercise. He had been to places and seen things that his peers had not – the pyramids and the poverty, deserts and the Taj Mahal – and it was hard for him to know where Division I football fit in that perspective.
“It was never anything malicious, no drugs or alcohol or girls,” Zyskowski said. “It was never that. It was more like, you’d get so frustrated because it was little minute stuff that he didn’t pay attention to. ‘Travis, you missed your tutor.' 'Travis, you missed your academic adviser appointment.’ He’s like, ‘Yep. I did.’ No, that’s not OK. The next day, ‘You missed your lift!’ ‘I was tired. I slept in. I missed my alarm.’ That’s not how this works.”
Come his senior season, he had figured out how it all worked. He finished with 63 receptions for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns, and he was at his best in the Monarchs' biggest victory: a 49-35 upset of nationally ranked Virginia Tech. Covered by prospective first-round draft pick Caleb Farley, Fulgham had nine catches, 188 yards, and a touchdown – the clearest indication of what he might be capable of on a bigger stage, with more experience.
“He’s probably eight-to-10 years behind everybody else on his team,” Wilder said. “My point being, he’s still just scratching the surface. He’s soaking it in. He’s learning, trying to understand how to run routes and understand concepts and defenses and what coordinators really mean when they speak. It’s still all new to him right now, and I just think he’s going to get better and better.”
He has the rest of this NFL season to prove it. The Eagles aren’t going to win the Super Bowl. They’ll be fortunate to win the NFC East, which has the potential to be the worst division the league has seen in some time. For them, the primary point of these next 12 weeks should be to learn what they have in the younger players on their roster. Travis Fulgham already has shown them something, and so far, it has been remarkable. Now comes the true test for him. He isn’t a secret anymore. His father will have to get used to it.