Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The White Knight: Part II

         Joe Ferguson came to the University of Arkansas in the fall of 1969 as perhaps the nation's top recruit, the expected successor to the very successful Bill Montgomery as the Razorbacks' quarterback. He became the Southwest Conference's Offensive Player of the Year in 1971; he wound up as a bench-warmer the second part of his senior season.
          Frank Broyles had promised him a pro-style offense and brought in some assistant coaches to help install it, among them Joe Gibbs. But with a team not as physically strong as previous Arkansas teams, Broyles gave up on the passing game during Joe's senior year and put him on the bench.
         Orville Henry, the longtime Arkansas newspaper columnist, wrote a column criticizing Ferguson and serving, basically, as Broyles' mouthpiece for the benching. It was a rip job on a college senior -- a very decent, dedicated young man -- and it was not well-received in Shreveport, La.
         You are supposed to forget and forgive. Henry is long dead and Broyles -- the most revered man in Arkansas athletics -- is retired after a lifetime as Arkansas athletic director. Someday I will forget and forgive.
           But this is the type of guy Joe Ferguson is. I have never heard him criticize Frank Broyles, and I've given him plenty of chances. He always maintained a cordial, if not close, relationship with Broyles, who certainly approved Joe coming back to Arkansas to be part of the football coaching staff. Before that, Joe had been the sideline commentator on Arkansas football games for a couple of years.
           So Broyles benched him. As I've pointed out to thousands of people, all Joe did was start in the NFL -- with the Buffalo Bills -- for the next 12 seasons. Then he played three more years with the Detroit Lions, two with the Tampa Bay Bucs, and one game with the Indianapolis Colts in 1990.
           But he couldn't play at Arkansas?
            Funny how things work. Two kids from the Deep South, two great quarterbacks from Woodlawn High, end up playing in Pittsburgh (Terry Bradshaw) and Buffalo (Ferguson). How proud we all were; how we Dallas Cowboys fans even pulled for the Steelers and the Bills ... sometimes.
Joe Ferguson, still a hero in Buffalo
           Joe spent his rookie year mostly handing off to O.J. Simpson -- ever heard of him? -- in the Juice's record-breaking 2,000-yard rushing season. In a few years, the Bills became Joe's team. He was never a great star, but he had some outstanding seasons and did take them to the playoffs a couple of times (once for a matchup with Terry and the Steelers).
            It was, all in all, quite an achievement to last 18 years in the NFL. The tall, thin kid who was a a high school superstar was still a superb passer and great competitor in the pros. Unlike Bradshaw, though, he never had enough talent around him to gain Super Bowl status.
          A couple of Ferguson stories ...
          We went fishing in the spring of 1985. Joe is as much a perfectionist about fishing as he is throwing a football. I love fishing, but I am an amateur; give me a cane pole, some worms and a bank or pier to fish off, and I'm OK. Joe was going to show me how to cast and fish for bass. He was not amused.
        We talked about his career, about the media in Buffalo. Joe knew his time in Buffalo was up; Bills management had told him they would find him another team. The NFL draft was days away. I was at the Shreveport Journal then; I asked that if he heard anything to let us know.
          The morning of the draft Joe called the office; he had been traded to Detroit for a draft pick.
         How many star quarterbacks would call and give you the scoop? Bradshaw, for instance, was increasingly difficult for the Shreveport area media to reach as his NFL career progressed.
          In 1988, Ferguson moved to Tampa Bay to back up Vinny Testaverde, the No. 1 pick in the draft the year before. We had just moved to Florida when I took a job at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. Just two weeks after I'd been there, Tampa Bay played at home against the Miami Dolphins, and with Testaverde hurt, Ferguson (age 38) was going to start. This was the Don Shula-coached Dolphins with Dan Marino at QB. The Bucs were only 2-6.
         Knowing Joe was going to play, it was a game I had to see, so I got a media credential. My son Jason, then 14, was in the stands.                                   
         After a scoreless first half, Marino and the Dolphins scored 17 third-quarter points. In the fourth quarter, Joe got hot, led two drives that ended with him throwing touchdown passes. The Bucs got the ball in their own territory late in the game. Again Joe led a good drive, but faced fourth-and-1 at about the Miami 40. Instead of trying to get the first down with about two minutes left, Joe -- after faking a running play to draw in the defense -- threw deep toward a Bucs receiver who was well-covered. Incomplete, game over.
          Facing the media afterward, Joe (who was 26 of 36 passing for 251 yards, one INT, two TDs -- not bad) took responsibility for the call, saying "we wanted to take a shot." He told this to several reporters in one-on-one interviews.
          I had waited around. When they were all gone, he smiled and said, "They [the coaches] called that play from upstairs."
         He was the Arkansas QBs coach in 1999 when Arkansas played No. 3-ranked Tennessee (7-1) at home. I was at the Knoxville News Sentinel, and spent the week in the Fayetteville area doing stories on the Razorbacks, who were 5-3, coming off being blown out 38-16 at Ole Miss and still remembering the late, lost, bizarre fumble that kept them from upsetting the Vols in a battle of unbeaten teams the year before in Knoxville. Tennessee went on to the national championship.
         Joe had helped guide Clint Stoerner into a very good college quarterback. That Saturday, Stoerner played one of his best games, and so did Arkansas, which finished off this upset of Tennessee 28-24.
         We visited several times that week, had lunch one day, and Joe introduced me to many of the Arkansas coaches. I watched the Monday practice, but was told by the sports information director the next day that Houston Nutt had said visiting team reporters shouldn't be there.
          Like I was a threat. It really questioned my integrity, as if I would write or say something that could help Tennessee. Me help Tennessee? That'll be the day.
           When I saw Nutt later that Tuesday, he apologized (sort of) and said "several of his coaches were worried about this."
          When I told Ferguson that, he laughed. "That was all Houston's doing," he confided. "He asked me if you knew anything about X's and O's, and I told him, 'I don't think he knows much at all.' "
          Thanks, Joe. (He was right, of course).
           So I guess I helped Arkansas win that game.
           I do know this: I know a class athlete when I see him, and a class guy, and they don't come any better than Joe Ferguson. The White Knight was one of the biggest winners ever, in every way.

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