By Bill Sorrell
There was one time that Riley Ferguson did not want to get back up after he fell down.
Ferguson, the record-breaking University of Memphis quarterback who is expecting his name to be called today in the NFL Draft, fell off the stage during a skit when he was in the fifth grade.
“It wasn’t fun. I ended up walking out of the room. I didn’t want to get back up,” said Ferguson.
There have been ups and downs. He has had an accomplished football career and dealt with personal tragedy.
When Ferguson was in the eleventh grade, his brother Cayden died about 30 minutes after he was born. His mother Diana Ferguson had emergency surgery following complications in her pregnancy.
“I am not really sure of all the malfunctions that went on,” he said. “I just know that he was alive for about 30 minutes or 15 minutes, something like that, and he ended up passing right in my mom’s arms.”
That will forever be with him. Ferguson got a tattoo on his left arm in remembrance of Cayden that reads “May your light shine over me.” The words surround a cross.
“That is actually a Bible verse. It’s not only (for) my little brother but God as well,” he said.
Cayden is remembered on game day. He writes his name on wrist tape along with the names of his uncle Tony and aunt Lisa. He writes RIP (Rest In Peace) for his cousin Thomas Randall McDonald, who died on Dec. 7, 2016, after being shot in southeast Charlotte, N.C. He was 22.
He also writes “Free Him” for a friend who was jailed after “he did some dumb things” said Ferguson.
On the other hand Ferguson writes 704, his area code, and “QC” for Queen City (Charlotte) and his favorite Bible verse Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.”
He has a chain with a cross that was given to him by his uncle after Lisa died.
“It means a lot to me,” said Ferguson, whose hometown is Matthews, N.C. “There have been a lot of adverse situations that I have been in when it comes to football. When it comes to having faith and having Jesus in your life it shows you how to overcome a lot of adversities and I think that is something that has helped me a lot.”
After leading Butler High School to the Class 4-A state championships in 2010 and 2012, he signed to play at Tennessee.
He passed for more than 8,000 yards during his three years as a starter at Butler. His senior season he passed for 2,173 yards and 25 touchdowns in nine games and was named the Most Valuable Player in the state championship game.
“That was fun, real fun,” Ferguson said of winning state championships. “Not a lot of people get to experience that. I just remembered the feeling of winning. It was truly amazing. I have been truly blessed since I was younger to win a lot of football games. I am a competitor. Winning games and the comradery of being on teams, there is nothing like it. It truly teaches you lessons for life after football.”
He was a 2012 U.S. Army All-American Bowl nominee and played in the 2012 Elite 11 finals in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Butler finished ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 3 in the nation by USA Today his senior season. His junior year, he passed for 3,345 yards and 48 touchdowns and as a sophomore 2,600 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Quarterback Riley Ferguson hopes to be selected this week in the NFL Draft. Photo by Ben Solomon/American Athletic Conference
A leg injury forced a medical redshirt his freshman season at Tennessee in 2013. He decided to leave.
“There were signs God was giving me that Tennessee wasn’t the right spot for me. I didn’t enjoy it while I was there. The time I had to lean on my faith was when I was back home. I was back home working. Things got rough but I knew there was a future and things I had to go accomplish and that is something I did,” he said.
In Charlotte he worked for a fencing company and detailed cars.
“I needed to make some money some type of way,” he said.
But Ferguson began to once again hear football’s call.
“I needed to get back into football,” he recalled. “God came across one day and I feel like I got some signs saying I need to get up and figure out what I can do to get back in school and play football and go use these talents that God has given me to go out and glorify Him.
“I know that I have a tremendous amount of talent when it comes to playing quarterback,” he continued. “At the same time I understand that God is the one who gave me that talent. I didn’t receive that by myself. It’s a blessing.
“I have to make sure that I give all the glory back to Him and make sure that I go out and play the game for Him and show everybody what is possible when you live your life for Jesus Christ,” he added. “Jesus means everything. Without Him none of us would be here.”
One of Ferguson’s tattoos is a football surrounded by hands with the words “God Given” above them on his right arm, his throwing arm.
“This the football one,” said Ferguson, who began getting tattoos when he was 15.
During his time away from the game he would read his Bible and listen to messages by Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church, where he went with his mother.
“I really enjoy listening to him,” he said. “His messages help me a lot. Going to church I would just sit there and say, ‘Man I have to do something with my life and working is not what I need to be doing right now. I need to get back into football.’
“At the time when I was at home working there were times I had doubts about my life and where it was going but I think having struggles also helped me as well,” the 23-year-old added. “I turned to the Lord. I feel like it definitely helped me get my life back on track.
He enrolled at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. During the 2015 season he averaged 326.9 yards per game, third best among National Junior College Athletic Association quarterbacks. He threw for a national-sixth best 2,942 yards and fourth-best 35 touchdowns, completing a third-most 225 of 332 passes.
Ferguson was first-team quarterback on the All-Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference team and honorable mention All-American.
Before he got there, he lacked confidence.
“I was down. I didn’t have confidence in myself,” he said. “Going to JUCO helped get confidence in myself and get back on my feet in school and football.”
He continued to gain confidence at Memphis.
During the 2016 season he passed for 3,698 yards, 32 touchdowns, completed 280 of 443 attempts (63.2 per cent) and 8.3 yard per catch average. His completions ranked second in school history and attempts tied for first.
His passing yards ranked second in the American Athletic Conference (284.5 yards per game) and his passing efficiency was also second (152.6). He was third in total offense (279.1 yards per game) and tied for first in touchdowns.
He was AAC Player of the Week three times and had seven 300-yard passing games. That ranked second in school history. He passed for 406 yards against Houston. The Tigers went 8-5.
The 2017 season was also memorable, one of the best in Tiger history. He called it “special.”
“It meant a lot,” he said. “It’s been a long journey getting here.”
The Tigers played in the AAC championship game against Central Florida, which would finish as the only undefeated Football Bowl Championship school.
They also played in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl for the first time in program history. A loss to Iowa State left the Tigers 10-3 and a 25th ranking in the final Associated Press poll. It was Memphis’ fourth straight bowl appearance.
The 7-0 regular season home record was also a first. Since the first team in 1912, Memphis has a 481-512-33 record through last season.
“No matter what anybody says about us we can go out there and do it. I think that is something that we take a huge amount of pride in here. We don’t get a lot of recognition because we are actually from Memphis,” he said. “A lot of guys take pride in getting the job done and showing everybody what we are capable of.”
Ferguson (6-foot-4-inches and 190 pounds) became the first quarterback in Memphis history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a single season. He passed for 4,257 yards and 38 touchdowns. He completed 299 of 474 passes (63.1 percent) and threw nine interceptions,
He averaged 9 yards a completion with a QB rating of 161.2. He was first team All-AAC. He passed for a career-high 471 yards twice, against Houston and then against Central Florida in the conference championship game. He was AAC Offensive Player of the Week six times.
Ferguson has thrown four career 400-yard games, a Memphis record.
In 26 games, Ferguson is third in all-time passing yards (7,955). Danny Wimprine (10,215) is first and Denver Bronco quarterback Paxton Lynch second (8,863).
Ferguson is second in touchdown passes (70).
He received the Issac Bruce Offensive Player of the Year Award from the Highland Hundred.
“I have put a lot of work in getting to where I am today,” he said. “I think this past year especially I have put a tremendous amount of work in and trying to go out and be the best quarterback I can be, not only for myself but for this team as well. Getting offensive player of the year meant a lot to me.”
Memphis Assistant Coach Anthony Jones called Ferguson a “gifted athlete.”
“He works extremely hard at his craft,” he added.
He was a semifinalist for the Unitas Golden Arm Award, Davey O’Brien Award, National Football Foundation Campbell Trophy semifinalist.
A pro-style quarterback, his strong arm and ability to extend plays are strengths of his game. Something that has also helped is his preparation.
“You have to prepare for everything. I think that is something I do very well,” he said.
He has been surprised by the speed of the game.
“You get to this high level of football, it’s a lot different from when you are younger,” he said. “That is something that I had to adjust to, the speed and size of players.”
Ferguson excelled academically. With a major in Interdisciplinary Studies, he had a 3.80 grade-point-average and graduated summa cum laude, first in his class, in December. Combining sports management and business, he earned a Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree.
Ferguson leads by example.
“I am somebody who is going to fight no matter what. They can trust in me. I am going to go out and get the job done,” he said.
Marquavius Weaver, a running back from Bartlett High School who was redshirted for the 2017 season, got advice from Ferguson – work harder than the player next to you because you never know when when your number will be called.
“Never take any opportunity for granted,” said Weaver. “Riley never had any excuses. He is all about business and helping others be successful. What I learned from Riley this year was to follow my dreams and never let anyone put limitations on you because they don’t know what you know about yourself and you’ll be surprised about the outcome.”
Ferguson’s character impacted the team.
“Riley is down to earth and just chills. He is a very calm person and knows how to face adversity,” said Weaver.
Jones calls Ferguson a “true role model” for the city and nation.
“He is an awesome young man who has done everything the right way,” said Jones, former head coach at Cordova High School.
Ferguson has been respectful to teammates and is trustworthy.
“You have to be trusted. If you can’t be trusted, what do you have with people? You have to make sure that you give to others and you will receive it in return at some point.”
Ferguson never acted like he was better than anyone else, according to Weaver.
“He always spoke to every person in the locker room no matter if you were a true freshman or a redshirt freshman,” he said.
Said Ferguson, “I don’t care who it is, it could be Anthony Miller (All-American wide receiver who has declared for the NFL Draft). It could be our scout team wide receiver. I am going to treat them the same. I take pride in that, treating everybody the right way.
“I might not come off the way people would think. I have tattoos. I come from not such a good area,” he added. “That is not who I am at all. If you really got to know me, I am one of the nicest people you will ever know.
“I look at things and try to be the best person I can be to everybody,” he continued. “When I got saved (accepted Jesus as savior) I think that is something that changed the most about me, trying to help others.”
Playing quarterback has given Ferguson a platform. It is a position that he said God put him in.
Jones said, “He understands the foundation behind his success. He understands who all his help comes from (God).”
Ferguson said, “Talking about Jesus and talking about God, faith can help bring people together. Life is bigger than just me. It’s not always about the individual. It’s about us as people. We all have to come together as one, no matter what race we are, no matter what color skin, gender.”
He would not have been at Memphis had it not been for Jesus he said.
God’s purpose he said is to “change the world.”
“I want to try and be an influence on every single life I can possible be,” Ferguson said. “I think the position that He has put me in being a quarterback for the University of Memphis and the type of talent He has given me, I feel like He has given me that platform to do that.
“I have to get better with going to church more but I pray every single day and I try to live the right way all the time,” he added. “That is something that Jesus helped show me what is right to do.”
Said Weaver, “His faith in action is awesome. He has Bible verses on his arm band that I believe helped him to be where he is now and I looked up to that.”
Ferguson’s family has been instrumental in the development of his faith. His grandfather Bob Ferguson is pastor of Gunnings Baptist Church in Blountville, Tenn.
In the fifth grade Riley became a Christian as his grandfather explained God’s plan of salvation.
“My grandfather was a huge role in that. I was around church all the time. I felt God come into me and it just felt right,” he said.
He also attends Hickory Grove Baptist Christian Church in Charlotte with his father Don Ferguson.
He watches video sermons by Elevation Church’s Furtick.
“They have been doing a tremendous job,” he said.
His parents are spiritual role models. Ferguson continues to talk with his grandfather about spiritual things.
“When it comes to being a Christian I thought, when I was younger, it is going to change your life and you are going to have to go to church all the time and you are going to have to say this. It’s not like that. You can be yourself. When God comes into your life it changes who you are as a person. I think that is something that caught me off guard a little bit,” he said.
Riley, who loves golf and shoots in the 70s, has a younger sister, Bailey, and older brother, Zachary.
“My older brother has inspired me my whole life,” he said. “I have always looked up to him and always wanted to follow in his footsteps. Almost every day growing up we have done something trying to get each other better. We have been very competitive.”
A two-sport letterman at Butler, Zach got a scholarship to play football and basketball at Lenoir-Rhyne University. At Butler he set a school record with 75 receptions during the 2011 season. He had 1,161 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns.
In basketball, he averaged 20.1 points, 10.7 rebounds his senior year. After a redshirt year at Lenoir-Rhyne he transferred to the University of North Carolina Charlotte and played wide receiver.
Zach was there when Riley had a bicycle accident when he was 9.
“People have asked about the scar on my face,” said Riley.
As he rode down the street he saw Zach playing basketball with friends.
As he told them that he was going to join them, he hit a mailbox.
“I don’t remember much but I remember hitting the mailbox. Zach was freaking out. He was making sure I was Ok. I was fine. They just butterflied it up.”
He got back up again.
“I am a lot tougher than I give myself credit for. I have been through some hard situations,” he said. “You just duck your head, do the work and keep your faith in front of you (then) everything is possible.”
This year Ferguson has trained with Miller at EXOS in Pensacola, Fla. for the draft. He participated in the NFL Combine and Memphis Pro Day.
“I truly expect him to be one of the best quarterbacks and leaders in the National Football League,” said Jones.
Ferguson has other goals along with NFL dreams.
“I want to be a great father, a great husband, a great son,” he said. “I want to go to the NFL and have a great career, have a family down the road and have Christ in my life and have Christ in their lives as well.
“As long as I have God and my angels that I have lost looking out for me I think that I’ll be fine no matter what and that is something that I lean on a tremendous amount,” he concluded.