Part of Jaylon Ferguson’s Ravens game-day routine was to forget something at home.
He would call his fiancée, Doni Smith, who would drive to the team’s downtown Baltimore hotel to bring him whatever clothes or shoes he’d left at their house.
“He always told me, ‘That’s the only way I get to see you before the game, if I say I forgot something at home,’” Smith said Friday in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
Ferguson, the Ravens outside linebacker who died last month at age 26 from the combined effects of fentanyl and cocaine, was known for breaking Terrell Suggs’ collegiate sack record at Louisiana Tech, for his warmth in the Ravens’ locker room and for the promise of his still-young NFL career.
To Smith, their three children and others who knew him, he was a soulmate, a best friend, a quiet guy who would “give the shirt off his back to anybody.”
Ferguson would invite people who needed a place to stay to come over, telling them Smith would cook for them and that they had an extra room — then tell her about it afterward. Those same people, Smith said, would become part of the family, people their children now call uncles.
He loved shopping with his three kids for toys, occasionally asking people: Do you think it’s weird my best friend is a toddler?
He dreamed of buying land and starting a farm, maybe coaching football and owning a butcher shop, Smith said. He hoped to live an “ordinary life” after his NFL career ended.
“Jaylon definitely had the biggest heart that I’ve ever imagined. I thought that I had a big heart, but his heart was way bigger,” Smith said. “He just was a guy that wanted joy. He wanted peace. He wanted everybody to be happy. He would meet people, and they would instantly become family.”
The two were planning to have a justice of the peace marry them July 9 in Louisiana, then celebrate with a larger reception sometime next year, Smith said.
Instead, she’ll spend that day at a memorial service for Ferguson at Louisiana Tech, where he played college football and graduated. She hopes to release doves in remembrance of him.
Smith declined to comment on the specifics of Ferguson’s death. On Friday morning, shortly before her first interview since his passing, the medical examiner’s office said Ferguson died from the fentanyl and cocaine found in his body. Bruce Goldfarb, the agency’s spokesman, said the death had been ruled an accident.
But Smith said Ferguson should instead be remembered as a record-breaking college player, great father, great son, great friend, great partner and great guy. They had three children: Jyce, 4; Jrea, 3; and Demi, who just turned 1. A viewing and funeral service for Ferguson will be held Saturday in St. Francisville, Louisiana, according to an Instagram post by Smith.
“He was loved. He loved his family,” she said.
Ferguson’s death rocked the Ravens organization, where he was entering his fourth season. Teammates said he was a supportive presence who would light up the room with a joke, and that he was poised for a big season.
Left tackle Ronnie Staley said Ferguson wanted to “be better for himself and his kids.” He was always excited when there was a new child on the way, Stanley said, and would talk about “how he plays for them.”
Ferguson’s loss was felt in his native Louisiana, where he starred in high school and college.
A day before he was drafted into the NFL, in 2019, a tornado ripped through Ruston, Louisiana, where Louisiana Tech is located. Ferguson joined the volunteers clearing debris and helping with supplies. The town’s mayor called him a strong role model, a “class act” and a “heck of a pass rusher.”
Smith said the day Ferguson broke Suggs’ Football Bowl Subdivision sack record, he didn’t even realize it until he was pulled to the sideline and told he had. He ran over to her, she said, and kissed her in the stands.
He still was learning in the NFL, she said, calling it a “humbling experience.”
But Smith didn’t doubt Ferguson’s talent or that he was headed for success. Smith would know — she played flag football in college, a pass rusher herself, to Ferguson’s amusement. The two would talk over his game performances, and Smith said she was always “tough” on him, not shying away from telling him when he missed a tackle.
“I don’t care who said that he didn’t produce in the NFL. Like, he’s the greatest of all time. And I think he would’ve been a Hall of Famer,” Smith said. “I don’t think nobody played the position as well as he did.”
In the months leading up to his death, Ferguson and Smith suffered personal losses. His grandmother died in March, and they had a house fire in May that forced them into a hotel into June. In the middle of all that, Smith lost her grandmother, too, she said.
“It was a lot for the both of us,” Smith said. “We were just both trying our hardest to support each other and be there for each other.”
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He wasn’t able to see Smith and his children on Father’s Day last month, she said, because he had things in Baltimore to take care of, including doctor visits for a sprained ankle. But the two had talked the Tuesday before his death about the “administrative side of being adults,” like their plans to get married in a few weeks and buy a house.
He was planning to come down to Louisiana to see them on June 22, the day the Ravens announced his death. The night before, police said they responded to a home in North Baltimore, where they found Ferguson unresponsive. He was pronounced dead there, and a spokesman said Friday that the investigation is ongoing.
“He just kept telling me that whole day, he was like, ‘I miss y’all, I’m just ready to get home to y’all,’” Smith said.
Since his death, his children have been asking about him, Smith said: Where’s Daddy? Daddy, where are you?
She knows they’re going to miss his presence, his big heart and the way he expressed his love. And she hopes she can help carry on that legacy in his place.
“I felt like he showed his love and affection far better than I did,” Smith said. “I have to live up to that, because I’ve got to take care of them.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Jonas Shaffer contributed to this story.