When Bulger came to West Virginia from Pittsburgh's Central Catholic in 1995, he was a 6-2, 165-pounder who offset mediocre arm strength and lackluster mobility with razor-sharp accuracy and focus and a release even his idol, Dan Marino, would envy. Five years later, he had grown to 6-3, 205 pounds and parlayed those physical traits, and a breadth of mental ones, into as solid a collegiate career as any Mountaineer in history. There were the then-school record 8,153 passing yards (including a single season school mark of 3,607 in 1998), the 59 touchdowns against 34 interceptions, the sizzling 61.6 completion percentage. Bulger, along with receivers like David Saunders, Shaun Foreman, Khori Ivy and Pat Greene, as well as tight end Anthony Becht and back Amos Zereoue, made up among the most talented skill teams in program history.
Bulger, Becht and Zereoue went on to solid NFL careers, with Bulger's being perhaps the most surprising, what with the 11 years played, the pair of Pro Bowls – one an MVP effort – along with two team MVPs for the Rams and the top NFC yardage passer in 2003. In early 2006, Bulger became the fastest quarterback in NFL history to reach 1,000 completions. In 2007, he signed a six-year, $62.5 million contract extension with St. Louis which made him the highest-paid player in team history. Just four years later, he was out of the league altogether, a rash of injuries, declining skills and that key lack of a solid offensive fit causing Bulger to announce his retirement after throwing for 22,814 career yards.
Since then, he's stepped away from the game to raise two daughters, Elsa and Iris, with wife Mavis. The family bounced around, from Missouri to Pittsburgh to their current residence outside Sarasota, Fla. "I think I just needed some time to take a couple deep breaths, get away a bit," said Bulger, who seemed as settled and content as he always has when speaking to media in the basketball practice facility just before the opening of Bob Huggins' Fantasy Camp last weekend, where he was a guest instructor.
"I've learned if you don't know what you're talking about, keep your mouth shut," he said of what he could tell participants. "I went to shoot around some down there, and I couldn't even dribble. It's embarrassing. Just watching West Virginia's players down there, they look like football players with how well they are put together. That's a credit to what Coach Huggins has done. The facility and the recruits. Now there are two different campuses, the Evansdale and the coach Huggins campus."
The event was the first time the quarterback had been in Morgantown since he was inducted into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.
"Any excuse to get back here," said Bulger. "There is something if you're a Mountaineer. I didn't get the opportunity to play against too many Mountaineers in the NFL. But no matter if you're on the opposing team, after the game you seem to gravitate towards each other. People that are here for just four years, they seem to get it. There's very few states that have the focus this one does on the university and program."
It's been well-documented that Bulger, holder of 25 WVU school passing and total offensive records, wanted to attend Pitt to follow in the footsteps of Marino. Fortunately, coach Johnny Majors never gave Bulger a look. And though Majors, out at Pitt after the 1996 season, never paid the price, later Panthers' teams did to the tune of 52-14 and 52-21 blowouts in 1998 and ‘99.
"I was selling my home in Pittsburgh, and I was throwing away all kinds of stuff, and I found a bunch of pictures, some of my two youngest sisters on the field during media day in 1995," Bulger said. "I think (Meg) was still in grade school. That seems like just yesterday. I always have fond memories."
Well, for the most part. "I remember being a freshman, and they put the option in the script, and I thought ‘Why is he doing this?'" Bulger said of head coach Don Nehlen. "I think after the first spring camp after my fall redshirt, he decided not to do it. He wanted to do it so bad, make me run option, but it wasn't going to threaten them. It was fun because Coach(Dan) Simrell came in and coach Nehlen changed. I want to thank him for doing that, because running the option, I wouldn't have lasted too long."
That change was a move from the base I formation to additional pro sets that took full advantage of Bulger's skillset. West Virginia often went three to four wide, and though it wasn't close to the modern day Air Raid, WVU threw the ball more than at any time during the Nehlen tenure with Bulger at the helm.
"You have to have the right fit," Bulger said of his collegiate and professional success. "Mike Martz was the right fit for me. It's reads and knowing where to go with the ball. Tom Brady has been in the same system. Peyton Manning has been in the same system. The NFL is changing a little bit because there is not traditional football anymore. Sixty, 70 percent (of college offenses) are spread and quarterbacks aren't learning how to read defenses any more. They aren't even learning how to take a snap (from under center) in many cases. The NFL has had to adapt. Defenses figure that out and they go back and forth. The NFL was going to more of the running quarterback when I came out (of college), then it went back, now it's going back again. It's cyclical."
Bulger believes at times teams must be able to run the football to win, but did note he thinks Dana Holgorsen's system is a quarterback's dream, and seems a fun style to play. Bulger also addressed the NFL's ongoing issue with drugs, particularly Toradol, the brand name of ketorolac tromethamine. A non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, ketorolac acts as an analgesic, or painkiller, and is non-addictive, but with other potential side effects. Bulger said he estimated 25-50 percent of his Ram teammates took the prescribed drug before games, including himself. The NFL is currently being sued by a multiple ex-players who claim that the league didn't properly warn them of consequences.
"Guys for the most part knew what they were getting into," Bulger said. "We weren't just fed pain pills. You had to get them, and a lot of doctors didn't want to prescribe them. But Toradol, the more years you play in the league, I'd say a quarter to half the team took an injection before games. I know it got me through some games. If there are consequences, hopefully we learn from it. But I don't think retroactively going back and blaming the team physicians is helpful. Let's learn from it.
"I'd go back and do it again. I don't feel too bad. I should probably work out more than I do. I had back issues coming into West Virginia, and they are creeping back a bit. I was fortunate. I broke over 20 bones, but not too many ligaments or surgeries. We will see 10 years from now with my head. My wife says it's already starting to go. I had three or four diagnosed (concussions), but I had more than that. Some guys are more susceptible. I've seen guys on minor hits get concussions. Some guys bounce back quicker. It's not a black and white issue. It was worth it. I came (to West Virginia) thrilled to death I had a scholarship at 165 pounds. To have 11 years in the NFL and a couple Pro Bowls, I can't thank the NFL enough, let alone accuse them of anything."
Bulger also said despite the short and long term concerns over concussions and other injuries, he would encourage youth to participate in the sport. "The discipline and the work ethic, I think it prepares you for life more than probably any other sport," he said. "There is pain tolerance, but I think that's a good thing. Coach Nehlen used to talk about how team oriented it is. There's risk in anything. There are more hospital emergency room visits times four for cycling than football. Women's soccer is right up there. But football is not for everyone. Let's just say that."