As D’Brickashaw Ferguson blew open holes at the Pro Bowl on Sunday night in Miami, my thoughts drifted back to National Signing Day in 2002. I sat with him that day at the Freeport High School library as he signed a national letter of intent.
It was a modest affair. Freeport teammate Jerry Mackey Jr., their parents, school administrators and coach Russ Cellan looked on as the dynamic duo made a fateful college decision. Mackey, a gifted linebacker, headed to Syracuse University.
Months earlier Ferguson became the first lineman in 22 years to win the Thorp Award as Nassau County’s best high school football player. He was also considered one of the nation’s elite offensive line prospects. So he could have gone anywhere. Ferguson chose the University of Virginia, an ACC school, as much because of its academic reputation as its football status.
And he never looked back. Ferguson started four seasons at Virginia and the New York Jets made him the fourth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
For one reason or another, many of Long Island’s most talented high school stars never quite pan out in college. Jason Gwaltney (North Babylon) and Nicole Kaczmarski (Sachem) are the poster children of failed expectations.
Mostly, these prep stars are emotionally or academically unprepared for the next level. I knew Ferguson would be different. I had a chance to see and talk to Ferguson up close for three years in high school. And as dominant as he proved to be on the football field, I was even more impressed with his mind.
He was bright and had a wide range of interests beyond sports. So as I watched the oversized tackle start for the AFC squad in the Pro Bowl, I couldn’t help but smile. D’Brickashaw Ferguson finally realized his potential and reached the pinnacle of the game.
Ferguson generated a lot of attention in the months leading up to signing day. If he wanted to go to Miami or Michigan or Florida State – powerhouses of the time – he could have. But instead of reaching for the stars, he made a decision based on more than prestige.
His signing day decision is worth mentioning because Wednesday, Feb. 3, marks yet another National Signing Day. Long Island is not a football hotbed. More than 120 high schools collectively produce no more than four to 10 Division I prospects in a given year.
I write this in hopes that the hot prospect of the moment thinks about the path Ferguson blazed. The Cavaliers just completed a 5-6 season when he signed, so playing in the national title game wasn’t on the horizon. No, he chose Virginia for academic reasons. He carried a 3.8 GPA and a scored 1000-plus on the SAT in high school.
His college choice was calculated. It was sensible. And look at where it got him? D’Brickashaw Ferguson has developed into an elite NFL player, and he did it on his terms.