Ferguson never played football during his elementary school days. Instead, he was relearning how to walk and talk after a debilitating and mysterious illness left his motor skills impaired and his memory practically erased.
The Navy freshman – who has skyrocketed up the depth chart in recent weeks – remembers all too well the morning in the second grade when he went from being a regular kid to an extended-stay hospital patient.
“I woke up one morning for school and my dad was trying to get me up from bed,” recalled Ferguson, who played at the Naval Academy Preparatory School before arriving in Annapolis this summer. “I fell on the ground, and he was like, ‘get up, get up’ – but I couldn’t get up. They rushed me to the hospital and I was in the hospital for about half a year.”
Doctors were at first perplexed about the mysterious condition, but eventually a specialist diagnosed the North Carolina native with the rare Guillain-Barré Syndrome. A neurological disorder which affects only about 1 in 100,000 people, Guillain-Barré results when the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system. The causes aren’t exactly clear, and aside from crippling many of his motor functions, the syndrome also caused Ferguson to lose much of his memory.
“I didn’t know my parents’ names,” Ferguson said. “I didn’t know the difference between an Apple and a Pear. I couldn’t walk.”
After losing a frightening amount of weight, Ferguson eventually began to relearn how to walk with the help of a walker. All in all, his mental and physical recovery took the better part of the next two years, but by the end of fifth grade, he was enjoying the kinds of recess heroics his peers were.
“It took me about a year to finally get out of walker,” he said. “I was rehabbing forever, and I started back running and stuff about the end of fifth grade. Ever since then I’ve been fine.”
Fine might be an understatement, especially if you’re talking to Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green. Tasked with rebuilding a depleted Navy secondary which lost three starters from last year’s 8-5 team, Green has been pleasantly surprised to see the 6-foot-2, 195-pound freshman step up.
“He has really good size, good range,” Green said of Ferguson. “He had a good year at NAPS last year but came into camp and really impressed us early with his ability to tackle and make some plays.”
Ferguson credits the illness with helping give him a sense of drive and determination that made achieving his childhood dream of playing college football a reality. Set-back in his physical development after the illness, it also gave him an understanding of work ethic that continues in the weight room to this day.
“After going through that it kind of made me appreciate where I’m at even more now because I lost a lot of weight. After that – in sixth grade – I was probably about 60 pounds. Trying to put on weight - and to play football - it was tough, and I never thought I’d make it. I just worked hard, and now that I’ve made it, I feel like I need to try to make the best of it because I’ve been blessed to be able to walk again.”
Amazingly, Green knew very little about Ferguson’s childhood health scare while recruiting him out of West Johnston High School in Angier, North Carolina. Having recently learned more about Ferguson’s childhood resilience, Navy’s defensive coordinator said he’s not at all surprised given Ferguson’s level of intensity and commitment.
“I did not know all the details about it - It’s amazing, just amazing what he has done,” Green said.
Green went on to praise the freshman for being well beyond his years in his understanding of the game, saying Ferguson has developed a maturity that betrays no sign of his class in school.
“Chris is a very intense guy when it comes to it with wanting to do things right, wanting to get better in everything that he does – every phase of competition,” said Green. “The thing about Chris is that he’s so into the game. He asks questions about what defense we’re playing in or an adjustment or something that you would expect to come out of the mouth of an upperclassman.”
Green continued, saying, “He’s got a lot of maturity about him when it comes to the game of football and playing the game. That will you see in him to get better, you see it on the practice field everyday.”
Ferguson has spent the summer learning from former Navy defensive back Wyatt Middleton, and said his goal is to see action on special teams when Navy opens the season against Delaware on September 3rd. According to Green, it’s a goal which is likely to come to fruition, and -only a decade removed from an illness that left him unable to walk - Ferguson looks poised to join the ranks of a proud tradition of recent Navy defensive backs.
“He’s in there,” Green said. “He’s in the two-deep on just about every special team we have. He’s going to see action that first ball game.”
Adam Nettina is a freelance writer who has written for GoMids.com since 2009. He can be reached at AdamNettina [at] gmail.com.