Not Your Typical Student

April 21, 2005

by Allison George, Director of Communications

Nick Ferguson explains how his classmate finally recognized him.

“A guy in my class told me that he was playing Madden Football and he saw me,” said Ferguson. “He did a Google search and figured out the Nick Ferguson in the video game was the same Nick Ferguson in his class. One of my professors did the same thing. He googled me right there in class.”

Nick Ferguson can indeed be found in the popular video game. And if you’re surfing the web, you’ll find him at www.gatech.edu, where he is enrolled this semester, and at www.denverbroncos.com, thanks to his “day job” as a safety in the National Football League.

But keep searching, and you’ll find Ferguson’s smiling face on websites from the Cincinnati Bengals to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to the Rhein Fire, courtesy of a gridiron odyssey that would make Marco Polo seem like a homebody.

Which brings us back to Georgia Tech.

Ten years after he played his last football game for the Yellow Jackets, Ferguson has returned to the Flats to complete his degree. With a full load this semester, he will earn his degree in Management in May.

“Wow, I didn’t think it was that long,” joked Ferguson, a starting cornerback for the Jackets as a senior in 1995. “It seems like it was just yesterday.

“It’s been somewhat of a difficult transition, coming back to school after so long, but that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do it. At times it’s been really tough, and I’ve had a couple of people tell me, Just look at all the other obstacles you’ve overcome in your football career, you can do this.”

But there’s more to the story than term papers and late-night study sessions.

In today’s NFL, professional football is a year-round job, and players receive a monetary bonus to spend their “off-season” attending so-called voluntary workouts. With no guaranteed contracts, players have to maintain every edge, lest they be replaced by someone younger or cheaper. That explains why it has taken Ferguson 10 years to become secure enough in his career to be able to return to Atlanta and Georgia Tech to attend classes.

“The Broncos and Coach (Mike) Shanahan have been very supportive in helping me do this,” said Ferguson.

Support has its price. Ferguson had to forfeit his workout bonus, a sum of $50,000.

“Guys have been asking me, What are you doing? Take the money,” said Ferguson. “But I told myself that this is an opportunity that I have to take advantage of now.”

Ferguson’s NFL career is a rags-to-riches story if ever there was one.

Not a highly-recruited prep player, the Miami, Fla., native enrolled at Morris Brown in Atlanta and played one season there.

“I saw that as a way in,” said Ferguson, one of 11 children. “After being in Atlanta and learning about Georgia Tech, I said to myself, I think I’m a good enough student and a good enough athlete to give it a shot. So there have been a lot of challenges in my career, starting with that transition from Morris Brown to Georgia Tech.”

He joined the Tech program as a walk-on in 1993 and served as a scout team player. After finally proving himself, he started one year in 1995, the first full season for head coach George O’Leary. The Jackets posted a 6-5 record that season, coming up just short of a bowl game, but laying the foundation for Tech’s current run of eight straight bowl games.

“I really wish that I could have experienced what the guys after me did, going to bowl games, but we take pride that we started things and laid that groundwork,” said Ferguson.

“Coach O’Leary and I have the same agent, and we talk occasionally,” continued Ferguson. “When I do talk to him, we discuss football, but that conversation is never over without him asking about my degree. So it means a lot to me that long after I finished playing football for him, he is still concerned about me as a person and about my education.”

In the spring of 1996, Ferguson signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent but got injured in training camp.

So he headed north for his first tour of duty in the Canadian Football League, playing with the Saskatchewan Rough Riders and then the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He played three seasons with Winnipeg, sandwiched around two seasons with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe and a trip to the Chicago Bears training camp in 1999, when he made it all the way to the last cut.

“That’s where it gets interesting,” said Ferguson.

After he was cut by the Bears, he went back to Canada to finish the season. When negotiations with the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins bogged down, he went to NFL Europe for another spring. Finally, in 2000, Ferguson landed on the Bill’s practice squad. Midway through that season, he received a phone call.

“I got a call on a Tuesday, and it was Bill Parcells,” said Ferguson of the then-New York Jets’ head coach. “Next thing I know, I’m on a plane to New York, and then I’m sitting in a room with my agent and Bill Parcells, and we’ve got Wade Phillips (Buffalo head coach) on the phone.”

Parcells wanted to sign Ferguson for the rest of the season, but Phillips countered by offering to elevate him from the practice squad.

Not known to take no for an answer, Parcells and his powers of persuasion eventually won out.

“At that point, I knew I was making a decision that could shape the rest of my career,” recalled Ferguson. “But Coach Parcells said some things that really made sense. It wasn’t that he was intimidating, but he spoke the truth about my career.”

Ferguson ended up playing in seven games that year for the Jets, as well as every game the following two years. In 2003, he signed as a free agent with the Broncos and enjoyed his most productive season, starting 10 games and ranking fourth on the team with 72 tackles before breaking his arm prior to the final regular season game. Last fall, he played in every game, starting one.

“Denver is a great place,” said Ferguson.

Ferguson is one of three former Yellow Jackets in Denver, representing a decade of Tech football, in defensive end Marco Coleman, who finished at Tech in 1991 and just signed on for his 14th NFL season, and fellow safety Chris Young, who played for the Jackets from 1998-2001.

When he’s in Atlanta, Ferguson works out in the Tech weight room, and as he encounters current Yellow Jackets, he tries to offer them a glimpse of the realities of life after college.

“The NFL is a business,” said Ferguson. “You see it on TV, but you don’t realize how much of a business it is until you’re there. It’s all, What have you done for me lately?

“It’s great to be able to come back and talk to the guys and tell them what to expect. It’s a privilege to be able to play in the NFL, and it’s important that you are a good person in the locker room and in the community as well as a good player, but it’s definitely a business.

“That’s why it’s so important to get your degree.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Nick Ferguson is one of several former Yellow Jacket football players who have returned to school. Wide receiver Dez White, now with the Atlanta Falcons, is enrolled this semester. White starred at Tech from 1997-99. Former Tech linebacker Ron Rogers, the third-leading tackler in school history, is also enrolled this spring and is on track to complete his degree in Civil Engineering in August.

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