Once the pageantry of officially signing his scholarship to USF waned Wednesday afternoon, Nate Ferguson raced down the steps of Sickles High’s auditorium stage and made his way through the crowd.
Weaving through a few rows of green plastic seats in a brisk stride, Ferguson didn’t stop until he reached the chair of the woman he owes most of his life to – his grandmother, Betty Ferguson.
Bedecked in a tan, long-sleeved dress shirt and a new Bulls snapback cap, Ferguson sat down beside her, put his right arm around her shoulder and kissed her on the cheek.
Then, a lifetime of emotions came pouring out.
“It means everything,” Ferguson said, fighting back tears. “It just means everything.”
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Through the eyes of Sickles football coach Brian Turner, Ferguson is the model of what every young athlete should strive to be.
“You learn a lot about yourself,” Turner said. “He’s a man.”
Aside from his three-star accolades from recruiting services and hard-hitting abilities as a defensive back on the gridiron, Ferguson has displayed a knack for his maturity off of it.
And it starts with his journey.
At the age of 6, Ferguson lost his mother to cancer. He said his father has dealt with problems with alcohol and substance abuse and has been in and out of intensive care.
Betty provided the majority of his guidance and upbringing.
“She is like my second mother,” Ferguson said. “She’s been through a lot. She’s taken care of me with the little that she’s got and she made it work.
“Without her, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. She raised some of the strongest men.”
That strength instilled by Betty quickly caught the attention of Turner, who had known the family after coaching Ferguson’s uncle years earlier.
Ferguson, who previously attended Freedom and Gaither before coming to Sickles in August, was ineligible for the first five games last season because of county transfer rules.
But that didn’t stop him from making an immediate impact on his teammates.
During Sickles’ preseason game, Ferguson noticed an abundance of trash scattered all around the team’s sideline. Without hesitating, he stopped what he was doing and began cleaning up by himself.
“Our kids saw that and what an incredible leader he was for our team,” Turner said. “It didn’t take long. The teachers love him … everybody on the team loves him. He was an immediate leader. The fact he’s going to USF is just incredible.”
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Ferguson’s desire to play for USF started with a vision of playing with another blossoming Bull, junior-to-be Nate Godwin.
The two were teammates in high school at Freedom and developed a strong bond over the past few years.
“He’s like a brother to me, a mentor,” Ferguson said. “My freshman year, when I came (into Freedom), everybody called me ‘Little Nate.’ It just stuck. And ever since then, that first day of summer practice, we’ve just been tight.”
Ferguson began to fall in love with the university soon after making his visits and getting a close-up of the team’s practices.
So, when the offer to play for USF from coach Willie Taggart finally came Monday, Ferguson, who had been verbally pledged to Eastern Michigan, didn’t hesitate at the opportunity.
“He told me the offer was coming from the big dog,” Ferguson said with a smile. “I told him right away, as soon as he offered, that I was committed. That was my choice.”
His chance to play for USF also meant an opportunity to continue playing for his relatives and friends in Tampa.
Seeking advice on how to handle it, Ferguson reached out to a familiar name: USF’s all-time leading receiver, Andre Davis.
“I texted him and told him that I committed,” Ferguson said. “He told me he was proud of me and now that it was my turn, since he’s leaving, to fill his shoes.
“They’re going to be some big shoes to fill, but I think I can do it.”
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Ferguson doesn’t expect to be placed atop the depth chart right away, but he plans on working to get there.
“There’s a lot of (defensive backs),” he said. “But the best are going to play. If I just work hard and go in there humble, I don’t see why not.”
Turner said it’s that attitude that will carry Ferguson.
“He won’t be intimidated,” Turner said. “He’s already had to do things in his life that they haven’t had to do yet, because they have their parents at home and they get everything they’ve wanted. But he’s had to fight for everything he’s got.
“To me, football is the easiest part for him.”