Editor’s note: The Montana Football Hall of Fame banquet scheduled for March 28 in Billings has been postponed until June 20 due to the coronavirus.
BOZEMAN — The whole thing started with a surprising conversation in his high school coach’s office late in the fall of 2001, when Montana State offensive coordinator Don Bailey took an unplanned trip to have a peak at a quarterback he had been hearing about.
“He was recruiting (future Bobcat receiver) Brandon Roosevelt and took an impromptu trip by my high school to meet me,” recalls Travis Lulay, whose high school coach summoned Lulay to his office that day nearly 20 years ago. “By the time I got into (the) office, Bailey was halfway through the state championship game from a couple weeks before and he looked at me, kind of excited and with big eyes, and said ‘Who’s recruiting you?!’”
When Bailey heard that Lulay had no other Division I scholarship offers, the offensive coordinator perked up.
“I told him, ‘That’s absurd, but that’s good for us. We’ll getcha!” Bailey said. “We knew we were going to (sign) a couple of quarterbacks. I was recruiting the Oregon-Washington area, and I told Coach (Mike) Kramer I was heading down to St. Regis High School in Oregon to look at Travis Lulay but that I had appointments in Portland later that afternoon. After (Bailey and Lulay) visited for about a half-hour I canceled my other visits and called Kramer and said, ‘I’ve got my guy.’”
And so began one of the most memorable Bobcat careers of the modern era. That college success in Bozeman set the table for a life in football, including three years fighting for a chance with the Seattle Seahawks, an adventure to Germany and an outstanding career in the Canadian Football League. It also led to Lulay’s induction into the Montana Football Hall of Fame.
Lulay’s career as MSU’s starting quarterback came similarly out of the blue. While having breakfast one morning in the fall of 2002, he said, “I found out from (offensive lineman) Mataio Toilolo, and Mataio hardly said two words to me in my entire time here. But he told me I was going to start, and I didn’t really believe him. We were at breakfast, and he told me, ‘Coach put in a quarterback draw for you,’ and I said, ‘Mataio, you can’t be right. They would have told me.’”
That came later in the day, over a noon meeting with Bailey.
“Bailey broke the news to me, ‘You’re the next one up,’ and it was a lot of emotion.”
Lulay was replacing incumbent starter Tyler Thomas and stepping into a veteran offense that featured juniors and seniors starting at every position except center, and now quarterback for a coaching staff in their third season of a massive rebuilding project.
“I’m a freshman,” Lulay said, “and I remember deflecting a lot of it, thinking, ‘Now I’ve got to play well for these guys, I’ve got to be good enough to be the starting quarterback for those seniors.’”
Lulay threw for 262 yards and a pair of touchdowns, rushing for 60 more, in his first college start. It was an eye-popping beginning to his career, and as he watched it unfold in Pocatello, Idaho’s, Holt Arena, Kramer knew he was seeing something special.
“We did not even come close to understanding what Travis Lulay really was about until his game performance in Pocatello,” Kramer said. “He wowed us! From then on his limitations were us and (determining) how we could best utilize his talents.”
The transition from the small-school Oregon ranks was stark, and it was force-fed. But it was also transformative. Kramer’s record at MSU was 7-20 when Lulay took the first snap of that Idaho State game, which ended in a Bobcat loss. But the third-year head coach clearly had the program trending upward. The Bobcats won five of their last seven games in 2002, and from the beginning of that streak until Lulay’s career ended, the team was 25-17 record with three Big Sky championships.
Many moments along the way seemed miraculous to fans of a program that compiled only four winning seasons in the previous 16 years. The first came in Sacramento, California, on Nov. 2, 2002, when MSU trailed 30-28. As the clock was about to hit zeroes, Lulay took the snap.
“We’re close to midfield, time’s running down and it looks like the game’s over,” he said. “I get up there and get the ball and I think half the guys thought I got it off on time, there were a couple guys celebrating on Sac State’s defense. I dropped back and got hit, and I just threw it up blind because you can’t end the game with the ball in your hand. The ball goes right to Scott Turnquist, he catches it, (gets tackled by) the facemask, 15 yards, can’t end on a (defensive) penalty, untimed down, we kick the field goal and walk out of there winners.”
If Lulay hadn’t begun grasping the importance of the Cat-Griz game before November, he gained some insight after a win over Eastern Washington.
“I’ll never forget after that game a Bobcat fan came up to me at the little fifth quarter post-game (event in Worthington Arena), and said, ‘We don’t care about the game next week (against PSU). In two weeks we play Missoula, we have to take care of that one.’ And Bailey looked at me and said real quietly, ‘We want to win next week too, right?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we’re good, coach.’”
When Lulay and his mates arrived at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Nov. 23, 2002, Bobcat fans had endured a long stretch of misery against MSU’s in-state rivals, a fact lost on Lulay until early in his freshman year.
“I remember sitting in the academic center one of our first weeks (of the 2002 fall semester) and a teammate, Brant Birkeland, said, ‘I’ve got a buddy in Missoula who’s giving me a bad time about the streak.’ And I was like, ‘What’s the streak?’ And he said, ‘We haven’t beaten Missoula since (1985).’ And I said ‘Holy cow, we’ve got to do something about that!’”
That afternoon in Missoula, Lulay and the Bobcats did just that. Leaning on a talented offensive line and senior running back Ryan Johnson, Lulay and the offense did just enough. The defense held Montana’s potent offense to 14 first downs and 199 yards. And the Cats beat the Griz 10-7.
Lulay was central to the game’s most important moment. Montana State led 3-0 at halftime after out-gaining the Grizzlies by nearly 100 yards and holding quarterback John Edwards to 1-for-19 passing. MSU received the second-half kickoff, and on that drive’s 11th play, from its own 47-yard line, the freshman quarterback called a play that changed Bobcat history: Empty Left 35 Mix.
“I remember it clear as day,” Lulay recalls. “They saw us in empty and wanted to blitz the formation, and I had hot throws on both sides. I had a quick out to Blake (Wolf), but I threw the slant to Junior Adams instead. I remember Trey Young blitzed off the edge and I knew he was unblocked so I just bought a little time to my right and threw the pass. It was a bit of a crap-shoot that day (because of the wind and snow), the ball was wobbling on some of those throws, but that one found its mark, June caught it one-handed, I remember he gave the (quiet) sign in the end zone. It was a huge day by the defense, but that moment, that play, is as vivid in my mind as any in my entire career.”
Even the most optimistic Bobcat fan couldn’t have known as the visiting team celebrated that touchdown, or even in the game’s jubilant aftermath, but at that moment the course of the rivalry had been diverted. Beginning with that 10-7 Montana State triumph, MSU would win half of the next 18 Cat-Griz games, a rate unthinkable in 2002.
Montana State’s next three seasons provided countless thrills. The team again finished 7-6 in 2003, again closed the regular season with an emotional, thrilling win against the Grizzlies, and again bowed out of the playoffs in the first round. MSU couldn’t quite overcome a rash of defensive injuries in 2004, finishing 6-5, although Lulay logged his best season and the offense set several records.
Entering the final weekend of the 2005 season it appeared – correctly – that the team’s 6-4 record entering the season’s final weekend wouldn’t be enough to boost MSU into the playoffs.
“We knew that was our last moment, and it was pretty emotional,” Lulay said of Cat-Griz 2005. “I remember it snuck up really quick, and it was like, this whole experience just flew by. It was a really rewarding day, and I don’t feel like the scoreboard reflected how we really dominated that game.”
The domination was thorough. Montana State held the Grizzlies to 220 yards and 15 first downs, out-gaining UM by 150 yards. Lulay played the game on a severely sprained ankle – “I wasn’t coming out,” he said – by relying on a strong ground game and spreading pass completions around.
“I was literally limping off the field,” he said. “It was another day where we really relied on the run game. The field conditions were crazy because it had thawed for the first time in weeks. It was a muddy mess out there, and the big guys up front did a phenomenal job that day of opening holes for freshman Evin Groves to kind of be the hero that day.
“But when it comes to a moment at the end when you know what’s happening, you don’t really want to know that it’s the end but that we did this thing together, that’s pretty special.”
Ryan Phillips competed against Lulay in 2003 and ’04 as an Eastern Washington linebacker, and considered Lulay a peerless competitor.
“He was the top of the class,” Phillips said of Big Sky quarterbacks he played against\. “He was a guy that was versatile, he was a guy that could run and throw the ball. He was very efficient. He definitely was a matchup nightmare in the sense of his IQ for the game, being able to read defenses and so forth.”
Lulay would eventually join forces with Phillips with the BC Lions in the CFL, but first came the years that saw him “chase football,” as he called it. After showing his supreme athleticism at the NFL Combine in early 2006, he signed with the Seattle Seahawks. He was cut at the end of training camp but re-signed with the Seahawks in January, 2007 and played in NFL Europe that spring with the Berlin Thunder. He spent training camp and practice squad time with the Saints and Seattle over the next couple of seasons, but never made an active NFL roster.
In May, 2009, Lulay signed with B.C., and had an impressive enough training camp to make the team. Part of the reason he stuck, Lulay said, stemmed from a crazy notion dreamed up by Kramer nearly six years earlier.
The Bobcats had stumbled out of the gates in Lulay’s sophomore season, losing three of their first four games. The total margin of defeat was 18 points, but nonetheless Kramer looked to shake things up. He sidled up to Lulay before a special teams meeting.
“’You punted in high school, right?’” the head coach asked his quarterback. “I said, ‘Yeah, I punted in high school.’ He said, ‘We’re going to have you punt this week.’”
In MSU’s final non-league contest at St. Mary’s, Kramer “’put in a package (with Lulay at punter) and sure enough we caught St. Mary’s in an all-out punt pressure look and we’d snuck (former All-American safety) Kane Ioane in as the wing on the punt team. I looked down at my feet, then I just flipped it down to Kane, and he got tackled at the one. The next time out I remember the defense yelling, ‘That’s the quarterback,’ freaking out, and we ran an option play. The snap went to (former NFL cornerback) Joey Thomas, he was the up back in that formation, and we ran an option pitch to me and I ran for about 20 yards.’”
The Bobcats roared out to a 40-0 lead, and the game had long since been decided by the fourth quarter.
“’So late in the game we had the game in hand and Kramer said, ‘Just stay in the game and punt it.’ I’m like, ‘I thought this was a fake package, but OK.’ And I hit a good punt, and right there he said, ‘You’re my punter.’ That’s how it began, on a whim, and I became the punter for the next three seasons.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2009, with Lulay hoping to make an active professional roster for the first time in his four years since leaving MSU, and B.C. coach Wally Buono approached.
“I got there and our head coach said, ‘You punted in college, right?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a punter.’ So he said, ‘We’re going to need you to help us out.’ So my first snap in the CFL was as a punter, and it all started because of this whim that Kramer put together in a special teams meeting one time.”
The glory of his CFL career didn’t come quickly, but it came. Lulay saw fleeting action in 2009, but by 2010 worked his way into the quarterback rotation. His chance came in the season’s fourth game, when starter Casey Printers was injured. But one game later, Lulay was replaced by Jarious Jackson in the fourth quarter.
Lulay reclaimed the starting job late in 2010 and entered the next season as the unquestioned starter. The 2011 campaign would end up as the capstone of Lulay’s professional career and stand as one of the most exciting in B.C. Lions history. But even that remarkable campaign provided stumbling blocks.
The Lions lost their first five games, and in the second half of game six Lulay was benched. But he caught fire a week later, so did the team, and the Lions won eight straight.
Lulay was named CFL Player of the Week twice in that stretch, and when the team won its final two games, he earned the top Western Conference seed for the playoffs. At the regular season’s culmination he earned CFL Most Outstanding Player honors.
The CFL Western Conference Finals provided Lulay his biggest stage since the Cat-Griz game that capped his Bobcat career. Again, he capitalized.
Lulay threw for nearly 300 yards in a win over Edmonton, then threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns in front of 50,000 fans at BC Place to clinch the Grey Cup Championship. He capped his brilliant season with Grey Cup Most Valuable Player honors. Phillips remembers a brilliant 61-yard sprint by Lulay in the Western Finals that boosted the team into the Grey Cup both for its visual and symbolic impact.
“To me that was the nail in the coffin (of the game), and that moment was the nail in the coffin of all that he went through previously. That moment was win the game, go to the Grey Cup, but to me it was so significant for him and the journey that he took previously in that last year-and-a-half.”
The next season resulted in another Western title for the Lions. He answered his brilliant 4,815-yard 2011 passing season with 4,231 yards in 2012. He rushed for a career-best 477 yards, and his 100.7 passer rating was also his best for a full season. In week 15 he threw a touchdown pass that extended his string to 26 consecutive contests with a scoring strike, but a shoulder injury left him on the sideline the next two weeks, and in an abbreviated appearance serving as a playoff tune-up in the regular season’s final week the streak ended. It was the second-longest streak in CFL history.
The Lions lost the Western Finals in 2012, and that late-season shoulder injury began a string of injuries that would persist through the remainder of his career. He underwent shoulder surgery in November, 2013, missing the first portion of the next season. He started 10 games in 2015 and all 12 of his 2018 appearances, but after a series of late-season injuries he spurned offers to play elsewhere and ended his career with 21,352 passing yards, 33rd in CFL history and third among all Lions quarterbacks.
That spring, the team announced that Lulay had joined the organization’s front office in corporate partnerships, a role he continues to hold.
Lulay was inducted into the Bobcat Athletics Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility, and is undoubtedly in line for more honors for his professional career.
Kramer says they’re all fitting.
“Travis competed every day in every way to be better than yesterday,” he said. “He never saw his greatness as anything more than what he expected. He loved the game-day feel, and he was the most aware, alive, and attuned player we ever had. He never wavered his commitment to his faith, his family, his friends, and his teammates. His induction into the Montana Football Hall of Fame is not only monumental, but it reflects his standard.”