A Matter of Degree

Dec. 29, 2011

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

Nick Ferguson proved that it’s never too late to get your college diploma and is certainly worth the wait.

Ferguson, who started the 1995 season at cornerback for the Yellow Jackets after transferring from Morris Brown College, got his at Georgia Tech’s 2011 Fall Commencement on Dac. 17. He admits that neither the degree nor the impetus for getting it is all his.

“There were two people who were pretty much hounding me about it,” said the 37-year-old native of Miami, Fla. “My mom would always say to me, ‘When am I going to get OUR degree?’ and I would also hear from [former Georgia Tech head] coach [George] O’Leary on occasion. I actually bumped into him in an airport one time and he asked me ‘When are you going to go back and finish?'”

After leading all Tech defensive backs with 67 tackles, making one sack, one interception and breaking up seven passes in helping the ’95 Yellow Jackets to a 6-5 record, Ferguson embarked on a professional playing career.

Over the next 14 years he would venture all over the world, from Canada, where he played with the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders (1997), and Winnipeg Blue Bombers (1999, 2000), across the NFL, where he auditioned for the Cincinnati Bengals (1996), Chicago Bears (1999) and Buffalo Bills (2000) and played with the New York Jets (2000-02), Denver Broncos (2003-07), and Houston Texans (2008-09), and even across the Atlantic, where he played for the Rhein Fire of the World League of American Football (2008). His journey ended in 2010, with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League.

While well-traveled, Ferguson was anything but a journeyman player. He was a solid corner, finishing his 10-year NFL career with 312 tackles, seven interceptions, seven forced fumbles and a sack in 394 games played.

Wherever he played ball, however, he carried one unfulfilled goal with him — getting that diploma.

Not his degree. Ferguson completed the course work for a degree in Management in 2005. Finishing that up required taking a break from the preseason rigors of the NFL. He recalled broaching the subject with then-Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan and required making a sacrifice and taking a financial hit.

“It was something that was on my mind,” said Ferguson, who in ’05 was beginning his third season with the Broncos. “So much so that I went to Coach Shanahan and said, ‘I’ve got a $50,000 workout bonus that’s due to me once I complete the program. How about I forfeit that and you allow me to go back and complete my degree? Because it means more than the $50,000.’

“[Shanahan] understood,” he continued. “I was a good player and I was a hard-worker. It didn’t really take him too long to decide, go ahead and do it. But he made me make a promise that I come back in shape and that I’m [training camp] before OTAs (Organized Team Activities) started.”

He didn’t miss OTAs and would actually have his best NFL season (starting all 16 games, making 79 tackles, five interceptions, three passes defended, and a forced fumble). But he missed out on the graduation ceremony, having settle for hearing it via a friend’s cellphone as he was flying back to Denver.

That’s what made participating in Georgia Tech’s 2011 Commencement Ceremony so memorable.

“The speaker was Democratic Representative John Lewis, who has a long history in the Civil Rights movement and with Dr. Martin Luther King,” he said. “I got to sit in that audience and hear him speak and then hear some of the other speakers.

“While I was standing in line [to get his diploma], I saw two Georgia Tech players that I had a chance to talk to,” he added. “We talked a little bit about the season and we talked about what [graduation] meant to them and their families, the fact that they walked across that stage. For me, it was a great time to actually do it, a wonderful experience. You can hear someone else tell you about their experiecne, but until you are there to experience it for yourself, nothing holds a candle to it.”

Afterwards was the equally unforgettable experience of sharing the occasion with his wife and two children, and his sister, who graduated from the University of Florida, and, of course, getting to deliver the degree to its co-holder.

“My mom was just gleaming that I had finally walked across the stage,” he said. “Most important, she had a chance to actually see me do that. Over my career as an athlete she’d seen the highs and lows, she also saw me walk across that stage, which was a big high for our family, knowing that we have two college graduates in our family. That’s a big deal.”

Ferguson called his mom the inspiration for his perseverance.

“Growing up in Miami, I saw my mom struggle to make ends meet and just said, ‘I have to make sure that her hard work goes for something special,'” he said. “I owed it to not just myself but her and other people who paved the way for me.”

He still cherishes his teammates and friends he made at Georgia Tech, especially linebacker Marco Coleman, who, coincidentally, has enrolled at Tech to finish his degree.

“He told me, ‘I’ve watched you play. I think you can play in the league. You just have to go out there and believe in yourself,'” he recalled. “Once Marco told me that, I was like, ‘I can really do this.’ That was a memorable moment to me because Marco did not know me but he was so kind and so encouraging. That really helped me out moving forward.”

Today, Ferguson is moving forward with his post-football-playing career. He and his family live in Atlanta, and he has a burgeoning broadcasting career. Ferguson did some work for Georgia Tech with local sportscaster and Yellow Jackets announcer Randy Waters, he does a weekly segment for 1510 AM Mile High Sports in Denver with Eric and Kiz, and works for Sky Sports, England’s version of ESPN.

As he continues to expand his broadcasting career, Ferguson is pleased about the greater message he’s already delivered to his children.

“I have two young kids,” he said. “For them to see me walk across that stage meant a lot to me because as they grow older and I talk to them about continuing their education they see that dad actually came back and finished his. It’s a great motivating factor for them in the future.”

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