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COLUMNS

The most heroic of all Florida football players should be remembered this week | Whitley

David Whitley
Gainesville Sun

There are dozens of trophies and awards at the F Club in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. They can all blend together unless youֱre looking for a particular one.

Thatֱs often the fate of the Forest K. Ferguson Award. You probably need to be a Gator aficionado to recognize the name, much less why it warrants an award.

Please pull up a chair for a little history lesson. This is the week to learn about the man called ֱFergie.ֱ

Anyone remember D-Day?

Itֱs one of those flag-waving events that seem to be waning from public consciousness. When Memorial Day arrived last week, many websites, papers and news shows barely noted it.

But Thursday is the 80th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy. Perhaps that nice round number will compel a moment of reflection.

Ferguson deserves that much.

ֱHis heroism was unparallel,ֱ Bob DֱAngelo said.

He wrote ֱ It takes a book to do Ferguson justice, but allow me to cram in a few basics.

Ferguson arrived on campus in the fall of 1938, pretty much a laid-back country bumpkin from little olֱ Stuart. He showed up at football practice wearing a straw hat, no shirt, no shoes. The only thing slower than Fergusonֱs walk was his Southern drawl.

ֱLook at that crazy nut,ֱ center Bill Robinson said. ֱHeֱs the most comical guy in camp.ֱ

A bit goofy, perhaps, but the guy could play. Ferguson was 230 pounds of pure athlete.

Freshmen couldnֱt play varsity, but Ferguson was an instant two-way starter as a sophomore. He was an end on offense and defense. One assistant coach said he ֱlooked like one of the most shiftless, indifferent players in the world,ֱ during practice.

But when the game starts, he ֱletֱs his hair down and goes to war.ֱ

Ferguson was so good in a game at Vanderbilt, the crowd at Dudley Field gave him a standing ovation. He scored two TDs and personally ransacked Miamiֱs offense in 1941.

ֱForest Ferguson 14; University of Miami 0,ֱ the Miami Herald wrote.

In footballֱs grind-it-out era, Ferguson had 43 career catches for 668 yards. He was UFֱs second All-American, and football might not even have been his best sport.

Ferguson played first base for UFֱs baseball team. He was the Collegiate State Boxing champ. He won the National AAU javelin throw. And he was no dummy, graduating with degree in physical education.

Ferguson briefly contemplated playing pro football, but there was no real money in it. Besides, every able-bodied young man in America had a more pressing calling in 1942.

Ferguson enlisted in the Army and was shipped to a war-weary England in late 1943. When his unit marched through the towns near base, he bellowed a personal greeting:

ֱEnglishmen, have no fear. Fergie Ferguson is here!ֱ

Everybody, including the Nazis, knew what he and 133,000 other U.S. troops were the for. It was just a matter of when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower would send them across the English Channel.

The order came June 6, 1944. Second Lt. Fergusonֱs 116th Infantry Regiment landed at Omaha Beach. It was hell on earth.

German machine guns and artillery pinned the platoon on the beach. Ferguson let his hair down and went to war.

He grabbed a Bangalore torpedo, an explosive tube designed to clear obstacles. He crawled to a barbed-wire fortification and blew out an opening.

What happened next was lost in the fog of war. Some reports said Ferguson charged up the cliff, his machine gun blazing away.

Others said he stood up after the Bangalore exploded, yelled, ֱLetֱs go, men!ֱ and was hit in the head by a Nazi machine-gun bullet.

Whatever the case, Ferguson survived. He was evacuated to England and spent two months in a hospital.

Doctors put a steel plate in his head. Ferguson looked like the old Fergie on the outside. Inside, the damage was irreparable.

Forest K. Ferguson

Ferguson was given the Distinguished Service Cross, the nationֱs second-highest military award. He packed it with his other belongings and headed home to Stuart.

He moved into his parentsֱ house. The greatest athlete in Martin County history struggled to keep his balance. His home-spun drawl was almost indecipherable.

One day, Ferguson sat next to a woman on a park bench. He tried to get out a few words.

ֱIf I, I, I c-c-c-could talk,,ֱ he said, ֱIֱd say, ֱGod d--- it!ֱֱ

One thing sparked life back into him. Some local businessmen started a semi-pro football team made up of World War II veterans. Ferguson helped coach that team and Martin County Highֱs squad.

A reporter from the Atlanta Journal came down to do a story. He wrote, ֱFootball did what the doctors hadnֱt been able to do. Give him something to live for.ֱ

Ultimately, nothing could save him.

Ferguson fell into a coma the day before Christmas in 1953. He never regained consciousness and died May 15, 1954.

He was 34 years old.

A few months later, former teammate John Piombo had an idea. He got with Dick Stratton, who was the host of Ray Gravesֱ TV show, and they created an award.

It would go annually to the senior football player ֱwho displays outstanding leadership, character and courage.ֱ

Thatֱs why thereֱs a trophy named after Forest Ferguson. Please give it a moment of thought on Thursday.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on X @DavidEWhitley