COLUMBIA — One day, when Travis Jervey’s two children grow up, they might ask him to tell stories about his nine seasons in the NFL.
There are the obvious stories — about how he spent most of his Citadel career as a backup running back and transformed himself into a Pro Bowl special teams player, or how he played in back-to-back Super Bowls and won one, or how shared a locker room with legends.
Those are the memories he gathered on his way to Monday night, when Jervey, a Wando High graduate, was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.
Then there’s the story about the pet lion — the one that best typifies Jervey’s unusual journey to the hall.
The Green Bay Packers drafted Jervey in the fifth round in 1995, passing on Terrell Davis, the future MVP running back. Jervey lived with running back LeShon Johnson, who grew up riding bulls in amateur rodeos and kept 18 pit bulls as pets in Green Bay. So Johnson didn’t flinch when Jervey saw a newspaper ad for a female lion. They split the $1,000 cost and picked up the declawed cub at the airport. They named her Nala, after a character from “The Lion King.”
To make Nala feel at home in Green Bay, Jervey rented videotapes with footage of African lions. He watched the tapes with Nala. He noticed how the mothers played with their cubs, and tried to mimic it with Nala. He even let the lion sleep in his bed.
But about five months into Nala’s time in Green Bay, she tried to chew on Johnson’s hat, and Jervey reached to snatch it from her.
“She bit a hole in my arm,” Jervey said. “So then I got freaked out.
“I realized that at this point, I could take (the lion) if we had to go one-on-one (in a fight). But I knew that in about another six months, maybe we’d be equal.”
Soon, Nala was off to an Oklahoma ranch designed “for people that were stupid and got exotic animals and couldn’t take care of them,” Jervey said, laughing about his youthful misadventures.
Ten years have passed since his NFL career ended in 2003, and his life is more domesticated now. Jervey, 41, lives in Mount Pleasant with his wife, Christina; 3-year-old son, Johnnie; and 5-year-old daughter, Frazier.
He used to own a fitness center, but now just works there part-time as a personal trainer. He spends most of his time as a stay-at-home dad, relishing the chance to be around his kids as they grow. But, he said, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
It is certainly different than the challenges Jervey encountered as a player. In his first three years at The Citadel, he rarely played while backing up All-American Everette Sands, his roommate on road trips.
“Travis is one of those carefree type of guys,” said Sands, now South Carolina’s running backs coach. “He just sat back and worked and waited for his opportunity.”
Jervey gained 319 yards in his first three seasons combined. As a senior in 1994, after Sands graduated, Jervey ran for 1,171, and averaged 7.7 yards per carry. Despite his modest college stats, he had good size (6 feet, 220 pounds), could bench press 400 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds — all of which appealed to the Packers.
By Jervey’s own admission, fumbles were always an issue for him. With the Packers in 1996, he fumbled four times on 26 carries. He never played special teams in college, but excelled when the Packers asked him to cover kickoffs and punts, which helped salvage his career. His size and speed made him an ideal fit.
“I was just like, ‘This is easy,’” he said. “There’s no pressure. There’s no fumbling.”
In the Super Bowl following the 1996 season, Jervey laid one of the first blocks that sprung Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return touchdown, as the Packers beat the Patriots. In 1997, Jervey made his only Pro Bowl. He signed with San Francisco in 1999, partly because he wanted to live on the beach and surf in his free time.
Between his four years in Green Bay, two in San Francisco and three in Atlanta, Jervey was never a household name. He carried just 129 times in 109 career games. But he played with the stars of his era — Brett Favre and Reggie White in Green Bay, Steve Young and Jerry Rice in San Francisco, and Michael Vick in Atlanta.
“When you sit down and you look at it, it’s so ridiculous,” Jervey said.
All the while, Jervey never lost the adventurous spirit that almost resulted in him playing at Hawaii instead of The Citadel, except Hawaii only offered him a partial scholarship. Every NFL offseason, he spent a month surfing in Dominical, Costa Rica, a remote town on the Pacific Ocean. He bought land there as an investment, but never built a house on it. Instead, he stayed with friends whom he met in Dominical, or crashed at a $30-a-night hotel.
His priorities shifted after he retired, from finding his own fun to sharing it with his kids. He still surfs occasionally, but not whenever he wants. Last year, he sold his Costa Rican land.
His adventures are smaller now, closer to home, like teaching his kids to swim and paddleboard.
“That’s the real world I’m in now,” he said. “It’s not quite the same.”