Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Always the White Knight

        The greatest high school football player I've seen? No doubt about it.
        Joe Ferguson, Woodlawn's White Knight.
        Anyone who knows me knows this is not a surprise. I know many, many people who saw him play for Woodlawn in 1966, '67 and '68 will agree.
         He was the real deal. He was the most accurate, most dynamic passer Louisiana had ever had to that point, and he went on to a very good but curtailed college career at Arkansas and then 18 years in the NFL.
         He took Woodlawn -- as I've said many times -- to the promised land: the long-sought-after, long-awaited state championship, a 14-0 season in his senior year. The previous Woodlawn QB took his team to the state-championship game, but the title escaped him and his teammates.
          Terry Bradshaw did OK, though, in the rest of his football career. We still see him occasionally on TV.
          Sure, Bradshaw wound up as the most accomplished quarterback out of Woodlawn ever. He has four more Super Bowl titles than Ferguson and he's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
           But Joe has a bunch of Hall of Fame honors and, like Terry, the great respect of anyone who ever played with him and was around him.
           And where Bradshaw loves the spotlight and is quite the character -- always was -- and worked hard at his craft, no one was more dedicated, more of a perfectionist, harder on himself than Ferguson.
            Where Terry could be quite loose -- and quite funny -- during practice or in the dressing room, Joe was all business. If you saw him on the field, even during off-season throwing sessions, he did not mess around.
         Despite his fame, he was one of the most grounded, unaffected great athletes I've known, and still is.
Joe Ferguson
          Joe is 62, lives in the Fayetteville, Ark., area with wife Sandy, and is again dabbling in the real estate business, as he did before a couple of college coaching stints -- at Louisiana Tech on the staff of his brother-in-law, Joe Raymond Peace, in the early 1990s and at Arkansas (QBs coach under Danny Ford and Houston Nutt) in 1997-2000.
         He's been through two battles with cancer (Burkitt's lymphoma, leukemia) in the past five years. He was very ill for a while, but he's recovered well.
          When we saw him at a Woodlawn football reunion -- the 1966 team, for which Joe was a sophomore starter -- in late May, he looked good. In fact, the always-trim QB/coach, it appears, has been eating well. He's not fat, but he's not the lanky kid who wowed us in the '60s.
           He became a legend starting in the second half of his fourth game of his junior year at Woodlawn. With no running game to speak of on a struggling team, Coach A.L. Williams and his staff considered Joe's strong right arm and decided they would go to an almost every-down passing game.
        Tied 7-7 at the half with Airline, Woodlawn came out throwing. Ferguson was 21 of 31 in the second half, wound up 28 of 48 for a state-record 317 yards and led a 28-14 upset of the team that would go on to win the Class AAA state championship.
        I believe Joe's life was never the same after that night. He was on his career path.
        From that point, Woodlawn lost only two games the rest of that season -- one in the state semifinals (much further than anyone expected that team to go). But there was no stopping the 1968 Knights and Joe wound up with unprecedented numbers (86 career touchdown passes, 6,710 yards).
          One story -- and Woodlawn fans are familiar with this -- illustrates the type of individual he is.
           After he threw six touchdown passes against arch-rival Byrd in his junior year -- he was 31 of 47 for 402 yards passing (he threw one fourth-quarter pass), and kicked four extra points -- the Shreveport Journal ran a headline, "Ferguson 40, Byrd 6."
            It embarrassed Joe. During Saturday morning's practice, he seemed jittery and uptight. As practice ended, he asked Williams if he could address a players-only team meeting.
            He tearfully told his teammates that they were very much the reason for his success, that they were in this together.
             Among those teammates were the offensive linemen, who weren't much at blocking for the run but pass-protected as well as any line in the state. Because Woodlawn often wore all-white uniforms, and Ferguson was rarely touched, the media -- I think it was Jim McLain, who covered Woodlawn for The Shreveport Times -- began calling him "The White Knight" because his uniform was spotless at the end of games.
             It could have been a reference to the all-white era Joe played in during high school. But he proved, in college and certainly in the NFL, that playing against black athletes didn't keep him from great success.
            Next: To Arkansas and then the NFL.


  1. I remember while attending Tech that the Knights came to Ruston and played the Bearcats and Burt Jones. It was one of the best high school games that I can ever recall.

  2. From Jim McLain, Shreveport: Agree with you completely on Joe Ferguson. He's one of the classiest athletes I ever dealt with. And, yes, you were correct. I did give Joe the White Knight nickname. I called his offensive line the "Clean Machine" and the '66-68 Woodlawn teams "The Jet Set." Joe is one of the most respected athletes ever to come out of Shreveport-Bossier. It was a joy to watch him develop his skills from high school through the pros. And the best part was his character never changed.
    Best regards,
    Jim McLain