Starting as a plebe, Navy's new safety beats the odds again

Safety Chris Ferguson left has rebounded from a rare disorder to become a starter in his freshman year for the Midshipmen.
Safety Chris Ferguson left has rebounded from a rare disorder to become a starter in his freshman year for the Midshipmen. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

Two thoughts were doing a crossing pattern in Keith Ferguson's head as he watched the second-eldest of his four sons start for the Navy football team Saturday against Rutgers.

One caused him to laugh, the other to cry.

When Chris Ferguson made a crunching tackle near the goal line and forced a fumble, his father thought about the former high school quarterback "who didn't like to get hit." But when the freshman safety returned an interception for a touchdown minutes later, it was too much for the tough oil rig driver watching on television in his home in North Carolina. The tears of joy started to pour, and they haven't stopped.

More are likely to come considering the promise the younger Ferguson demonstrated in his debut as a starter in Navy's 21-20 loss in Piscataway, N.J.

The memories of what Ferguson endured for three years beginning when he was a second-grader are something of a blur to him now, which is not that surprising when you consider that Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the nervous system, can wipe out memory and cause paralysis.

But Keith Ferguson remembers it all, starting with the Monday morning in February 2000, when he tried to get his then 8-year-old son out of bed and on his way to school in Angier, N.C.

"He got up and collapsed on the bed. I said, 'Stop playing around,'" Keith Ferguson recalled Monday in a telephone interview. "He got up again and fell back down to the floor and I started getting a little worried. I said, 'Chris, stop playing,' and he said, 'Daddy, I'm not playing.' I took him to the hospital and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with him."

He was sent home, but when his condition deteriorated, the youngster was taken to a larger hospital near Fort Bragg, with the same result. He was eventually taken to the University of North Carolina Medical Center in Chapel Hill, but doctors there also were stymied.

"We were there for about eight days and I was watching him die," his father said. "They did a spinal tap, everything under the sun. One of the doctors in Chapel Hill told another doctor in New York and they flew him down. He pulled the sheet back on Chris and said, 'I think I know what it is, but you've got to sign a waiver -- like now.' I would have signed my life away to save my son's life. I found out afterward that he only had about four hours to live."

After undergoing treatment to stop antibodies from attacking his nerve cells, the sick youngster began to respond. But the road back was difficult. He spent five months in the hospital in Chapel Hill and had to make repeated trips there for therapy and tests for the better part of a year. He progressed from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches.

"It was like raising a baby all over again," Keith Ferguson said.

"They were running tests on me all the time," Chris Ferguson recalled Monday after practice in Annapolis, where Navy (2-4) was preparing for its game there Saturday against East Carolina (2-4).

But he also has memories of "going to the playroom all the time and watching Carolina football games from the hospital."

A straight-A student, Chris "couldn't tell the difference between a green apple and a green pear," his father said. One of his teachers came every day after school to their home to tutor him.

Doctors told Keith Ferguson and his wife, Savita, a kindergarten teacher, that it would be years before their son would be able to walk on his own or read and write. They said Chris' dream of following his hero, Michael Jordan, to the NBA were over.

Keith Ferguson didn't listen. An Army veteran, he said he raised his sons with "foot-to-tail action" -- in other words, tough love. It continued during his son's recovery.

"I put him in a football uniform the same year, even though he was so weak," his father recalled. "He had gone from a size 12 to a size 6 in eight or nine days. He was like skin on bones. He looked like one of those malnourished kids with the potbellies and the long, skinny arms. I knew he had a long road ahead. He loved basketball so much that I would let him do it just for exercise. He was frustrated because I was pushing him to get him back to being himself. But he was determined to get back to being normal."

Chris started playing sports again by the end of fifth grade and joined a football team "because my friends did it." Though the youngster showed promise as a quarterback, West Johnston assistant coach Kwame Dixon, a former defensive back at the University of Pittsburgh, told the ninth-grader who had made varsity that he had more potential on the college level in the secondary.

"It kind of made my son mad," Keith Ferguson said.

Dixon was correct. Though he was recruited by some larger schools, such as North Carolina State, Ferguson was intrigued by Navy. His elder brother, Keith II, was in the Air Force. His father, who had been stationed for four years in Alaska, encouraged Chris to listen to what Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green had to say.

"I told him that if he went to Navy, even if he didn't want to play football anymore, he would have a career," Keith Ferguson said.

During his recruiting visit, Green told Ferguson's parents "there's something special about your son." At the time, no one on the Navy staff knew of the condition Ferguson had overcome.

"He saw the pictures on the wall of the skinny kid, but he didn't know," Keith Ferguson said. "I told him, 'You'll find out over the next four years that this kid's got a book to write. … It's a beautiful story.'"

When Ferguson's father met up with Green before the game Sept. 17 at South Carolina, Green said, "I did not know that Chris went through all of that."

Ferguson said that when he came to Annapolis last summer after a year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island, his biggest goal was "to try to make the travel team." He got in on defense toward the end of the season opener against Delaware and made a couple of tackles. He played on the kickoff team against South Carolina, forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Gamecocks.

According to secondary coach Keith Jones, the first big indication of the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Ferguson's potential at safety came with that hit. Then Ferguson started showing promise during practice.

"Coach Green and I saw that he was going to be a player. We didn't know how soon it would be," said Jones, in his 10th season at Navy after coaching at Virginia Tech and other schools. "When he was on the kickoff team and started making some plays, it was like, 'He's going to get his shot soon.'"

When starting safety Shawn Lynch, a converted wide receiver, struggled against Air Force and Southern Mississippi, Ferguson was moved into the starting lineup.

"It was a big deal to be starting, but I had faith in myself because of the work I put in," Ferguson said. "I had watched a lot of film and listened to Coach Green a lot. I knew I'd be all right."

Wearing the jersey number of his favorite athlete -- 23 -- Ferguson jarred the ball loose from Rutgers running back Savon Huggins on third-and-goal from the Navy 1 late in the first quarter and the Midshipmen recovered. He then intercepted a tipped pass from Scarlet Knights quarterback Gary Nova and returned it for a 16-yard touchdown to help tie the game at 7 in the second quarter.

Except for the outcome, Ferguson's debut was reminiscent of what defensive end Jabaree Tuani did as a plebe starting in the team's third game of the 2008 season against Wake Forest.

"He's a high-energy guy," Tuani, now a senior co-captain, said Monday. "Even though it was his first start, it was like he was out there for years. He came in with tremendous composure and played a hell of a game."

Playing safety and making the defensive calls reminded Ferguson of his years playing quarterback, in that "you have to take charge. If you know what you're doing and what they're going to do, that was the easy part."

Back home in North Carolina, Keith Ferguson had company watching last week's game. Along with his wife and two younger sons, there was Keith II, who had returned the previous day after finishing a 6 1/2-month tour in Afghanistan.

"To have him home and to have Chris telling me that he's starting, it was like, 'Life just don't get any better for a father and a mother,'" Keith Ferguson said. "To have your son home from a war and another son who had so many trials and tribulations, it's like a dream."


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