Tripucka skips a generation in sports dream

Jun 9 2012 - 4:40pm

ST. LOUIS - Growing up in Boonton Township, N.J., Travis Tripucka wanted to play basketball. Specifically, he wanted to play basketball at the University of Notre Dame, just like his dad.

His dad is Kelly Tripucka, among the more celebrated athletes ever to come out of Notre Dame. He was a three-time All-American for the Irish (from 1979 to 1981), a member of Notre Dame's All-Century basketball team.

He was a first-round pick in the 1981 NBA draft and went on to a distinguished professional career. In 2000, the Newark Star-Ledger named him the New Jersey boys basketball player of the century and in 2008 he was named to Detroit's "50 Greatest Pistons" team.

Like any son might, Travis wanted nothing more than to retrace his father's footsteps. "I've looked up to him since the day I was born," Travis said. "He's my hero."

But as Joni Mitchell sings in "The Circle Game," "We can't return, we can only look behind; from where we came."

Travis can't be exactly like his dad, literally. He can only be four inches shorter. Kelly Tripucka is 6-feet-6, Travis is 6-2, and while Travis was a fine basketball player at Mountain Lakes High, he was not a "Player of the Century."

"I was OK," he said. "I was a double-double guy. I liked to mess around in there down low, even though I didn't have the big body of a power forward. I liked to use my smarts down low, that I got from my father."

Tripucka also played tight end and defensive end for the Mountain Lakes football team. But his best sport was lacrosse. There would have to be a slight adjustment to the path. No problem, Notre Dame has a lacrosse team.

"That's where I wanted to go since I was 3 years old," Travis said. "That was the only place I wanted to go. But the academics got a little too demanding. It's a tough school to get into. They want at least a 1300 on your academic boards, which I didn't have."

Travis Tripucka couldn't return, he could only look behind. No need for apologies. The Notre Dame son attended the University of Massachusetts instead. He spent long hours in study halls, maintained a 3.0 grade-point average and became an All-New England Scholar-Athlete.

"I could have gone to Notre Dame, but I'm really glad I stuck with U- Mass because I did things at UMass that I never would have been able to do at Notre Dame," Tripucka said. "It was a great experience for me."

Tripucka continued playing lacrosse at UMass, becoming a stout defender for the Minutemen. It's a sport that caught on with rest of the family, as well. Travis' younger brother, Jake, was a junior midfielder for the highly ranked, NCAA championship-contending Duke team.

"I started playing it when I was a freshman in high school, and we had one of the best programs in New Jersey," Travis said. "I love it because it has a little bit of everything. It's offensively and defensively like basketball, it has the physicality of football, the substitution of hockey. ... It was just a great sport for me."

Great sport, yes. Great way to make a living, not really. Tripucka got a couple of offers to continue playing, but professional lacrosse is more like a hobby than a career path. Unless you are one of the marketable stars of the sport, it's not a livelihood alternative.

"I have a couple of friends that play it," Travis said. "They go to work all week, they try to do a little conditioning work, as much as they can. Then they fly out to wherever they have to go. They play on a Saturday and come back on Sunday.

"It's more about just having some fun, just to get away from work. It's like a fun summer job."

Which brings us to a another opportunity Tripucka had at UMass, one that likely would not have been available in South Bend, Ind. He became a long snapper on the Minutemen football team.

What's more, he became quite good at it, good enough to draw post-draft attention from NFL teams, good enough to work out for teams, good enough to draw a recommendation from Rams special teams coach John Fassel and a contract from the Rams.

"Hey, if the opportunity is there, I'm going to tackle it head on," Tripucka said, football pun unintended.

Now Travis Tripucka has a chance to follow his father's lead into professional sports. And more directly, he has a chance to walk in his grandfather's footprints, "And go round and round and round, in the circle game."

Frank Tripucka was an All-American quarterback at Notre Dame in 1948, guided the Irish to a 9-0-1 season. He went on to play in the NFL, CFL and AFL. With the Denver Broncos, he became the first U.S. pro quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season, and he completed the first touchdown pass in the history of the AFL.

Frank Tripucka was back in the headlines recently when he granted the Broncos permission to recommission his retired No. 18 jersey and make it available to new Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

Again, Travis has had to adapt to stay on the trail. When he graduated from UMass in December, he was a relatively svelte 215 pounds. That's good weight for a lacrosse player, a stick drawing for an NFL lineman.

Obviously, the snap is important to the long snapper position. It has to have velocity, accuracy and consistency. But the snap is only half of the job requirement. As soon as the ball is away, the snapper becomes another player on the line, a player capable of repelling opposing lineman, a player capable of escaping interference to get down field and make a tackle.

A long snapper needs quick feet, speed and agility, and he also needs a bit of heft. As of December, Tripucka wasn't big enough to snap his fingers in the NFL. But as he went through organized team activities last week at Rams Park, he was a thick 242 pounds, or 27 pounds heavier.

"I put a lot of time in the weight room and started eating a lot," he said, adding with a laugh: "My parents were kind of upset because the food bill got jacked up. ... But I'm right where I need to be. I don't want to get any bigger than 245."

Tripucka might be right where he needs to be to win a job, as well. The Rams parted ways with incumbent long snapper Chris Massey last season and employed newbie Jake McQuaide in the role. McQuaide is back, but with a new regime in place, including a new special teams coach, it would appear positions are up for grabs.

"It's a new coaching staff coming in," Tripucka said. "They're coming off two wins last season, so you have to think they're looking for drastic changes."

If he becomes the Rams' long snapper this season, if he honors the Tripucka family heritage by becoming a professional athlete, Travis will be more than happy. After all, he was never going to be exactly like his dad. He doesn't have "the gift."

Kelly Tripucka, who has been a broadcaster and a scout in his post-playing career, is 53 now. Travis just turned 23. But he still can't beat his dad in a game of H-O-R-S-E, not even close.

"He kicks my butt every time," Travis said. "He's the king. He's a freak. He can go out there and pick up a ball, after not touching it for months and hit the first shot. He's amazing."

We can't return, we can only look behind.

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