The ball left quarterback Carson Wentz‘s hand and began sailing down the left sideline late in the Philadelphia Eagles‘ Week 4 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, and Alonzo Fulgham said that’s when he stopped breathing.
A Boston native, he’s the kind of rabid sports fan who used to watch the Celtics and New England Patriots with the lights off, by himself, when a game was coming down to the wire. Now here he was, watching his son, Travis Fulgham, streak down the field, chasing after a pass that would decide the game.
“I didn’t start breathing until he caught it,” Alonzo said. “When he did his Fred Astaire [touchdown celebration] down the sideline, I just went berserk. …I’m just happy they didn’t call 911 on me. That’s how loud it was.”
A similar scene was transpiring in Washington, about 40 miles southeast of Alonzo’s Northern Virginia home, where Travis’ mother, Celeste, and sister Jacqueline were watching from Jacqueline’s apartment. The windows were open and all the yelling startled the neighbors until they realized they were cheers.
“I lost my voice,” Celeste said. “I still don’t have my voice back fully.”
“Oh my God,” Alonzo added. “Talk about a storybook ending for this kid, you know?”
Or, maybe it was just the beginning. Fulgham followed that game-winning TD grab against the Niners with a 10-catch, 152-yard performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday that has the city of Philadelphia buzzing and NFL devotees scrambling to learn his story.
What they’re finding is that it’s unlike many others.
Travis, 25, came late to football because football wasn’t available to him when he was a boy. With both of his parents in the Foreign Service, he spent much of his young life overseas, traversing from Jordan to Egypt to South Africa to India. He played cricket and soccer and basketball and he swam, but it wasn’t until he returned to the United States for high school that he was introduced to football at the age of 16.
A similar sequence has repeated in the years since, as he climbed the ranks from high school to Old Dominion, where he was a walk-on, to the NFL, where he’s on his third team less than two years into his pro career: Travis comes in under the radar, grows suddenly, then flashes brightly and seemingly out of nowhere.
It has happened again, this time on the game’s biggest stage, fueling a growing thought that the Eagles might have found themselves a gem.
“He showed last week that it was no fluke. He’s a big-time player,” Wentz said. “We’ve seen what he’s done in practice now for a while and how he’s kind of come along within our offense and our system. With the injuries and everything going around, he was the next guy up and we looked out there and said, ‘We’re confident in this guy to get it done’ and he’s been making play after play. I think he has a bright future ahead of him.”
An international way of life
Travis got his first diplomatic passport when he was 6 months old. Celeste still laughs at the memory of sitting him on her lap and trying to get him to look toward the camera for a usable take.
She and Alonzo met through the Peace Corps. A “hot, steamy romance” ensued, Celeste said, and they married months later. But their story reads more like an action novel. In the late 1980s, they moved to Swaziland in southern Africa during the final years of apartheid. Alonzo then joined the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), becoming the first African-American acting administrator in the agency’s history. He worked alongside the military in Afghanistan in an effort to help reconstruct a country that had been isolated for a quarter-century.
Celeste also joined the USAID. Working from Jordan, she directed the contracting office for Iraq during the height of the Iraq War. Prior to that, she was the director of the contracting office in South Africa that started the Presidential Emergency Program for AIDS Relief — the flagship HIV/AIDS program for the U.S. government internationally, which is credited with saving millions of lives.
Alonzo and Celeste divorced following their assignment in Jordan. Travis was about 2 years old at the time. Alonzo went to Eastern Europe, while Celeste and the children moved to Egypt, then South Africa, back to Jordan and finally, India. During the summers, Travis and Jacqueline would go wherever Alonzo was posted, including Serbia, Montenegro, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
“One of the ways it shaped him is he actually thought that was the norm,” Celeste said of Travis’ world-touring upbringing. “He was moving to different countries with different religions with different languages, totally different cultures. And he didn’t know otherwise.”
Adapting to the football culture
Travis returned to the United States for his high school years to focus on academics and athletics. He lived with Alonzo in Virginia while attending Massanutten Military Academy. His passion was basketball, but he was approached to play football by one of the coaches during SATs prep. Alonzo objected out of concern for Travis’ health, but while Alonzo was away on a trip overseas, Celeste signed the permission slip.
“So she is responsible for Travis being the star he is today,” Alonzo said with a laugh.
Travis made all-state as a wide receiver his first year. But it was a small, independent school with not much of a football reputation. To have a chance to make it to the next level, he transferred to Broad Run, a public high school in Ashburn, Virginia, where he quickly earned a starting role.
With such little information available to schools given his truncated high school career, Travis didn’t receive any scholarship offers. So he walked on at Old Dominion and earned a scholarship by the fall. He showed great promise, catching eight touchdowns his redshirt sophomore season, but it wasn’t until he was a senior that it all clicked into gear, and he erupted for 63 catches, 1,083 yards (17.2 avg.) and nine scores.
“Being so cultured and being around so many different things that I know a lot of kids his age hadn’t been around, I think it took him some time to actually find himself as a football player,” said John Allen, Travis’ wide receivers coach at Old Dominion.
“A lot of times you hear the stories about the young man that didn’t come from anything, had to really pull himself up, really had to work themselves out of situations with a single parent home. Travis didn’t have any of that. Really, Travis had the world in the palm of his hands if he wanted to. And to find himself as a football player, to find the drive and the passion that he had within, to finally bring that out and show people that, ‘Yo, football is really important to me. I really love this game,’ that’s what was fun to watch. And I think that’s what he found within himself.”
‘A long year’ rewarded
The Eagles had a mid-round grade on the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Fulgham entering the 2019 NFL draft, coach Doug Pederson said, but with five overall picks that year, the stars didn’t align. He was taken instead by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round.
Celeste hosted a small get-together on the third day of the draft. Travis went upstairs to play Xbox to distract himself. That’s when he got the call from Lions general manager Bob Quinn, unbeknownst to the rest of the family.
“He came downstairs and he came around the backside of my chair and gave me this bear hug from behind,” Celeste said. “And I just thought it was one of those, like, ‘It’s a long day.’ We just started the sixth round. I reached around and patted him and right as I did that, his face came on the screen. We lost our minds!”
But, with the Lions loaded at receiver — Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola each had over 60 catches that season — Travis had to fight for playing time. He made the Lions’ 53-man roster, but was waived last September and placed on the Lions’ practice squad. Fulgham was promoted back to the Lions’ roster with three weeks left in the 2019 season.
Continuing Fulgham’s journey, he was waived by the Lions in early August 2020. The Green Bay Packers claimed him on Aug. 10, only to release him nine days later. Seven of those nine days were spent in a hotel away from the team in following the league’s COVID-19 protocols.
The Eagles claimed him off waivers on Aug. 20, then waived him Sept. 3.
“It’s definitely been a long year for me, long offseason,” Fulgham said. “But I came here to Philly and they gave me an opportunity.”
Signed to Philadelphia’s practice squad, he started opening eyes during training camp.
“From his first week coming into camp I would literally sit on the sideline — I didn’t even know he came from Detroit until I was talking to [Darius] Slay one day — and I was like, ‘Bro, this No. 13 … this dude right here, he always catches the ball. And every time he catches it, he’s off the ground,'” Eagles defensive back Jalen Mills said. “Whether it was digs, out-routes, go balls, he was catching it at the highest point and that’s hard to cover.”
With four of the original top five receivers injured, Fulgham was promoted to the Eagles’ active roster prior to the San Francisco game on Oct. 3, and has been setting off fireworks ever since.
“Obviously, Travis has made a case to continue to play and play at a high level,” Pederson said.
With limited fans allowed in the stands for last week’s Eagles-Steelers matchup, Alonzo and Celeste got to watch Travis’ breakout game in person. Once again, they were unable to contain themselves.
“It’s great that no one knows who I am,” Celeste said, “because it was one of those situations like, ‘That’s Travis Fulgham’s mom? Oh my god, she has lost her mind.'”
“It was great, man. It was poetic,” added Alonzo. “All I can say is he’s doing what he expects himself to do. He’s always believed that he belonged out there. I think he showed the whole league on Sunday that he’s someone to pay attention to.”