Friday, December 31, 2004

The Passing of a Legend

Bob Ferguson's days of playing football were over before my time, and unfortunately I've never even seen him play on film. Still, growing up in Troy, and especially attending Troy High School, you were surrounded by his legacy. The road leading into the high school/junior high campus is Ferguson Drive, and the football field on that road, where the junior high and freshman teams play, is Ferguson Field. There's a large color photograph of him in Ohio Stadium hanging in the rear entrance to the high school. It was impossible to be unaware of Bob Ferguson, and it was impossible not to marvel at the numbers he put up on the football field. In a football town like Troy, Mr. Ferguson became a mythical, larger-than-life figure. Although I never met him, it certainly sounds as though he was as great a person as he was a player, and it's sad that he's gone so soon.

Here are the various stories about Mr. Ferguson, taken from the Troy Daily News. I've pasted the entire articles, not knowing how long the links will continue to work.

Troy’s Ferguson dies after battling through illness
by David Fong, TDN Sports Editor

A stroke took away his ability to run.

Diabetes took away his legs, his eyesight and, eventually, his life.

No power on Earth, however, will take away Bob Ferguson's legacy as one of the greatest football players in Troy High School and Ohio State history.

Ferguson, 65, passed away Thursday morning in Columbus after years of battling diabetes. While the man may be gone, however, those who saw the bullish fullback play will never forget his deeds and accomplishments.

"He was something special," said Herb Hartman, a teammate of Ferguson's at Troy. Hartman's older brother, Gabe, played with Ferguson both at Troy and Ohio State. "What I'll remember most is that if you didn't clear your blocks in time, you were going to get stepped on.

"It was just a matter of making your blocks and waiting for the locomotive to come in behind you. Then you would watch him run over people downfield."

Stories of Ferguson's punishing running style have become the stuff of legend woven into the fabric of Troy football's rich tapestry.

According to one story, a reserve sophomore defensive lineman was trying to win a spot on varsity in the mid-'50s at the expense of a senior offensive lineman who already had his spot on varsity locked down.

Time after time, however, the sophomore defensive lineman was outhustling the senior, much to the upperclassman's chagrin. Rather than take matters into his own hands, however, the senior had a much better idea.

"If you don't stop, it," the senior reportedly told the sophomore, "I'm not going to block you at all on the next play."

The senior was true to his word and on the very next play, he stepped aside and let the sophomore get plowed under by Ferguson.

The numbers Ferguson put up at Troy certainly back up the testaments to his greatness. For 40 years, he owned nearly every rushing record in school history. In his career, Ferguson rushed for 5,521 yards, including 2,089 yards in 1956 and 1,423 in 1957.

He also held the school record for points scored in a career (578).

All of those records were eventually eclipsed by Ryan Brewer in the mid-'90s. Ferguson still has the top two single-game rushing totals in school history — 529 yards against Kiser in 1956 and 475 yards against Monroe in 1956. Ferguson's rushing total against Kiser was tops in the state of Ohio until Williamsburg single-wing quarterback Jason Bainum broke it three years ago.

Around Ferguson, Troy coach Lou Juillerat built one of the most powerful squads in Troy history. From the time Ferguson was a sophomore until his graduation, the Trojans went 27-0, outscoring opponents by an average score of 31.7-9.1.

Around Troy, Ferguson became more than just a football player — and football became more than just a sport. Ferguson and the teams he played on turned Trojans from football fans into football zealots.

"Everyone got involved in it," Hartman said. "It was the talk of the town."

"Oh, everybody in town loved him," said Wilma Ford, Ferguson's sister. Ford still lives in Troy. "It was a very exciting time, when he was playing for Troy."

Even those who never saw Ferguson play in person are well aware of his accomplishments.

"I think he's a legend not only in Troy, but throughout the state," said Steve Nolan, Troy's head football coach since 1984. "From the stories I've heard about his abilities and some of the game film I've seen of him, it was pretty obvious he was special.

"One of the first things that happened when I came to this community and people started talking football was his name was always mentioned as the elite player. When I saw his records for the first time in print, I couldn't believe them. They were that unreal — especially when you consider he was constantly the target on that offense."

After graduating from Troy High School Ferguson went on to have an outstanding career playing for Woody Hayes at The Ohio State University. He was a two-time All-American and a two-time All-Big Ten first team selection (1960 and 61). In 1961, he won the coveted Maxwell Trophy and finished second to Syracuse fullback Ernie Davis in one of the closest votes in Heisman Trophy history.

He finished his career at OSU with 2,162 rushing yards, the 14th-highest total in school history. He often saved his best games for rival Michigan. The Buckeyes went 3-1 against the Wolverines in his four years in Columbus. As a senior, Ferguson rushed for four touchdowns as the Buckeyes rolled to a 50-20 win over Michigan in 1961.

Ferguson was the perfect fit in Hayes' "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense. In three years as an Ohio State starter, Ferguson was never once tackled behind the line of scrimmage — an almost unheard of feat. Hayes once called Ferguson, "the greatest fullback I've had at Ohio State." Ferguson was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995.

Following graduation, Ferguson was a first-round draft pick by both the San Diego Chargers (AFL) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (NFL). A series of injuries cut Ferguson's NFL career short before it ever got started, however. He bounced around to a number of teams before retiring.

Following his retirement, Ferguson was a social worker in Columbus. In 1991, he suffered a massive stroke. He spent much of his final years battling the effects of the stroke and diabetes.

"I'm glad he got one last Christmas with his wife and his kids and his grandkids," Ford said. "I know that meant a lot to him. They meant a lot to him and he meant a lot to them. They'll never forget him. I don't think anyone who knew Bob will ever forget him."

Buckeyes should retire Ferguson’s 46
Troy Daily News Editorial by David Fong

In the history of the program, only 15 football players have worn No. 46 on their jerseys at The Ohio State University.

Here's one vote for making sure no one ever wears the number again.

Six Ohio State football players — Archie Griffin (No. 45), Vic Janowicz (No. 31), Howard "Hopalong" Cassady (No. 40), Les Horvath (No. 22), Eddie George (No. 27) and Chic Harley (No. 47) — have had their numbers retired by the university.

Let me make my case for Ferguson's No. 46 being the seventh.

According to the school's media guide, for a player to have his number retired, "an athlete must have graduated, or in the event of leaving early to pursue a professional career, have been in good academic standing at the time of his departure. He also must have received one of the following awards: The Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award, the Associated Press Player of the Year Award, the Football Writers Player of the Year Award, or the American Football Coaches Player of the Year Award."

In the history of the program, only three players have won the Maxwell Award — two of whom have had their numbers retired. Cassady won the award in 1955, while George captured the award in 1995. Only Ferguson, who won the award in 1961, has not had his number retired.

Furthermore, only six Ohio State running backs have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Ferguson and halfback Gaylord Stinchcomb are the only Buckeye backs without a retired number.

While Ferguson didn't win the Heisman, he came within a whisker of bringing home college football's most prestigious award. As a senior, Ferguson rushed for 938 yards and scored 11 touchdowns, leading the Buckeyes to an 8-0-1 record and the National Football Writers Association's share of the national title.

In a move many don't comprehend to this day, however, The Ohio State Faculty Council voted to veto OSU's Rose Bowl berth that season. The move likely cost the Buckeyes a consensus national title. With the Buckeyes home for the holidays, Alabama — previously No. 2 behind Ohio State in every other poll — jumped into the No. 1 position.

It wasn't the only time Ferguson had to settle for second place that year. In the Heisman voting, Syracuse running back Ernie Davis edged out Ferguson by a mere 53 points, despite rushing for 115 fewer yards in one more game than Ferguson played in.

It was the closest vote in Heisman history and would stay that way until Auburn's Bo Jackson clipped Iowa's Chuck Long by less than 40 points nearly 25 years later.

Ferguson was the perfect fit in legendary coach Woody Hayes' meat-grinder offense. In fact, Hayes once tabbed Ferguson "the greatest fullback I've had at Ohio State."

The way I see things, if he was good enough for Hayes, he certainly should be good enough for the current administration at Ohio State.

There is no greater honor for an athlete than to have his number retired. Ohio State should posthumously grant Ferguson this honor. At a school that has produced running backs like Griffin and George, it's easy for a player like Ferguson to get lost in the shuffle.

And that's a shame.

Ferguson — for all of his accomplishments — deserves to be remembered right alongside Ohio State's great.

Had he won the Heisman — and not lost by the narrowest of margins — he would have certainly cemented his legacy and already would have his name and jersey number in Ohio Stadium's ring of honor.

Currently, freshman linebacker Chad Hoobler is wearing No. 46 for the Buckeyes.

I, for one, am hoping he's the last.

Ferguson left a lasting legacy on Troy program
by David Fong, TDN Sports Editor

Few can appreciate what Bob Ferguson meant to Troy football more than the man who spent four years chasing — and eventually passing — his records.

"A legend has passed away," said Troy High School graduate Ryan Brewer, who broke nearly all of Ferguson's school rushing record four decades after Ferguson set them. "For all the football fans in Troy — and Troy is a great football city — I'm sure they are going to be in mourning. I know I'm going to mourn."

Ferguson — who died Thursday morning in Columbus after a lengthy illness — set the standard for Troy running backs in his four years as a Trojan in the '50s. Brewer, certainly, knew all about his legend by the time he arrived at Troy some 40 years later.

"How could you not?" Brewer said in a telephone interview with the Troy Daily News Thursday afternoon. "You hear his name all the time in Troy. In junior high, you play your games at Ferguson Field — a field that is named after a man who gave his heart to Troy football."

After spending his childhood learning of Ferguson's exploits by word of mouth, Brewer met the legend for the first time on a magical September night in 1998. Ferguson — accompanied by two of his sons — was in Troy Memorial Stadium the night Brewer broke his career rushing record.

Brewer — who didn't know Ferguson was going to be there — received the game ball from the two-time All-American after the game in a tear-jerking ceremony. Ferguson — who was legally blind and confined to a wheelchair by that point — handed Brewer the game ball and received a football in return from Brewer.

"It was a great moment for me," Brewer said. "I really can't explain what I was feeling that night. I was in awe of him. People still talk about him all the time.

"Even down here in South Carolina (Brewer played football at the University of South Carolina and currently runs a business there), people still talk about him. I remember (South Carolina graduate) George Rogers talking about him. That's a Heisman Trophy winner, talking about what a great running back Ferguson was."

Troy football coach Steve Nolan still uses Ferguson's legacy to guide his players.

"He was a great example for younger kids," Nolan said. "He was someone you could really look up to. The whole time Ryan was chasing his records, (Ferguson) acted with such class about the whole thing. He was just totally a class act, all the way around. He did all the right things.

"He really helped put Troy football on the map. I remember when Ryan was playing in (the Outback Bowl), the announcers were still talking about him. That's the kind of impact he had on the game."

Troy High School senior Todd Denlinger — who has made a verbal commitment to play at Ohio State, Ferguson's alma mater, next season — understands how much Ferguson has meant to every young boy who grows up dreaming of playing Troy football.

"I really started hearing about him when Brewer was chasing all of his records," Denlinger said. "For the community, he was such a great person. For Ohio State, he was an All-American there, which tells you what kind of athlete he was."

Residents remember Ferguson
by Henry S. Conte, TDN Associate Sports Editor

If one thing is if for certain, Bob Ferguson left an indelible impact on the community of Troy and anyone he met.

He also left quite an impact on most of the people that ever tried to tackle him.

The community of Troy attended to the news of the passing of one of it's favorite sons with warm memories of both the man and the player.

"I remember in 1957 against Greenville the boys went to the huddle and decided not to block for Bob because he didn't ever have to block. Troy was on their own 3-yard line and Bob broke a run for 97 yards with no one blocking," said Sidney Wheat.

Wheat was a friend of Ferguson's, and when Ferguson played briefly in the National Football League with the Steelers, Wheat was one of the waterboys.

"Ferguson really put Troy football on the map. For years people talked about Canton McKinley the pride of Ohio football, but for four years when Ferguson was at Troy High School, that is all anyone talked about," said Wheat.

"The thing I remember most about Bob was that no matter what city you were in he would talk to you," said former Troy mayor Pete Jenkins.

"No matter how many headlines he had he was still a good person. I saw him in Columbus one day and he said, 'Hey Pete' and we just a started talking," Jenkins said.

Sentiments of what kind of person Ferguson was were echoed among all who knew him.

"Everyone thought so much of him that even when he was down they chipped in to help him out," said Jenkins.

"A lot of times people associated with him as a football player. But he was a great person as gentle as a lamb. He is someone who will be really missed," said Wheat.

"Ferguson was one of the best players in Troy's history. He had no neck it was just shoulders," said Troy native Nevin Fessler. "It wasn't until his sophomore year that we realized what a good player he was."

When Ferguson moved on to Ohio State, Fessler commented "It was exciting to listen to the games on Saturday when he played at Ohio State."

"Ferguson is why that stadium is filled every Friday," said Leo Partington.

"Troy is a football town and on Friday nights he added to the excitement. You always knew he was going to put on a good show until they played Fairmont," said Fessler.

Apparently in those days Fairmont was the only defense that was able to key in on Ferguson enough to contain him.

"Ferguson would just run through the line and carry two or three guys with him every time. It was a lucky tackle if one guy pulled him down," Fessler said.

But what remains now are the memories of Ferguson.

"Bob did well for himself and for the City of Troy. He was a great man," Jenkins said.

"Right now the City of Troy is changing. A lot of people here don't know who he was, but for the ones that do they remember that he put this city on the map as far as talent goes," Wheat said.

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