Michael Zyskowski spent most of the weekend hiking in the beautiful White Mountains of New Hampshire so he was admittedly out of the loop as he melted into his couch on Sunday night to watch Eagles-49ers.
Now the Director of Player Personnel at UConn, Zyskowski used to coach special teams and running backs at Old Dominion so he always keeps an eye on one of his former players, Eagles long snapper Rick Lovato.
While at ODU, Zyskowski was also in charge of recruiting in the Northern Virginia region, which means he once helped bring a skinny and raw teenager named Travis Fulgham to the program over six years ago.
“Next thing I know it’s (Carson) Wentz to Fulgham and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute!’” Zyskowski said to NBC Sports Philadelphia on Monday. “Literally just shock and awe. Holy cow!”
Yeah, holy cow!
Zyskowski missed the news but Fulgham was signed from the Eagles’ practice squad to the active roster on Saturday. And on Sunday Night Football against the 49ers, Fulgham had two catches for 57 yards, including the 42-yard go-ahead touchdown with less than 6 minutes left.
“It’s definitely been a long year for me, long offseason, but I came here to Philly and they gave me an opportunity,” Fulgham said on Sunday night.
Fulgham was drafted in the sixth round out of Old Dominion last year but the Lions cut him this August. From there, he spent a little over a week with the Packers before he was waived and the Eagles claimed him during training camp.
In just a few practices this summer, Fulgham showed the Eagles coaches that he had potential and they kept him around on the practice squad for the first three weeks of the season. Then, in the biggest moment of his young career, Fulgham came through.
“That was fun to watch because that was typical Travis Fulgham,” former Old Dominion head coach Bobby Wilder said. “His whole football story has been no stars in high school, no scholarship offers. Comes into Old Dominion as a walk-on. We were maybe a week into camp back in 2014, his freshman year, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this kid is special.’”
A scholarship in a week
It’s fair to call Fulgham a late bloomer in football. His parents worked for Foreign Service, so Fulgham grew up in places like Jordan, Egypt, South Africa and India, according to the Daily Press of Virginia.
Fulgham didn’t live in the states until the beginning of his freshman year of high school and although he was an athlete, football was far from his first love. And even throughout high school, he remained a three-sport athlete, excelling at soccer and basketball. Because Fulgham hadn’t spent a full offseason with the Broad Run High School football team, their head coach Matt Griffis was hesitant to vouch for Fulgham’s work ethic. He told Zyskowski he didn’t know how Fulgham was going to handle an offseason but there was no denying his natural talent.
When Fulgham showed up to Old Dominion as a walk-on in 2014, he began to make an immediate impression.
How long did it take for Fulgham to earn a scholarship?
“About 10 minutes,” Wilder joked.
In reality, it took less than a week for Fulgham to go from walk-on to full scholarship after another student transferred. During those first few practices that year, the coaching staff was amazed by a skinny kid who just kept making play after play.
“I’ll never forget,” Zyskowski said. “He was on the scout team and he was just Moss’ing guys and making plays for the scout team, catching balls that were really just jump balls. He was catching balls that he had no business catching literally as a walk-on, true freshman receiver.”
Learning to be great
Fulgham made some spectacular plays to earn a scholarship, but he was far from a finished product, far from a draft pick and far from an NFL player.
Back then, he was just a skinny kid with a bunch of unfulfilled potential who was still learning the game. He was an athlete, not a receiver.
“So he didn’t really know football,” Wilder said. “He didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense to him the way it did for kids who had played it their whole life. But he was relentless in terms of working at it.”
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Wilder and Zyskowski both said there were some bumps along the way. Fulgham came from a structured family situation and that undoubtedly helped him to form his work ethic but it wasn’t where it needed to be early in his college career.
It’s not that he wasn’t working hard, it’s that he wasn’t working hard enough. Not enough to become a great player.
After redshirting in 2014, Fulgham began to rise. He made a few catches in 2015 and in 2016 had a really nice season with 29 catches, 478 yards and 8 touchdown passes. But he followed that up with a really disappointing junior season, catching 30 passes for 394 yards and 1 touchdown. He wasn’t going to get to the NFL playing like that.
So Wilder called Fulgham into his office after that junior season and sat him down for an important talk. Wilder told Fulgham that if he wanted to keep playing football after the upcoming season, he had to truly commit himself in the weight room and the classroom.
“His senior year, he was one of the hardest working kids on our team,” Wilder said. “But it was not a success story that was written right at the beginning.”
His rise to the NFL
Fulgham’s senior season at Old Dominion was incredible. He caught 63 passes for 1,083 yards and 9 touchdowns, but Wilder knows the moment the NFL took notice.
On Sept. 22, 2018, the Monarchs hosted No. 13 Virginia Tech and upset their cross-state rivals 49-35. It was the biggest win in the recent history of the Old Dominion program, which restarted in 2009.
And Fulgham was incredible. He caught 9 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown.
“He was the best player on the field that day and that game really catapulted him into the NFL,” Wilder said. “Because it was a nationally televised game against the best team we were going to play all year and he dominated that game."
After his senior season, Fulgham went to the NFL Combine and impressed enough to get drafted.
When the Lions took Fulgham in the sixth round, he became the second ODU player ever taken in the NFL Draft after his teammate Oshane Ximines went in the third round to the Giants.
Of course, Fulgham didn’t make it in Detroit. That story would have been too boring anyway.
“And typical Travis, he gets drafted, he gets cut three times and then he goes out and wins a football game for the Eagles,” Wilder said. “It’s really the story of Travis Fulgham. He’s turned every setback he’s had with football, he’s turned it into a major comeback."