Russ Cellan still can see him now: the tall, scrawny kid walking into the weight room, peanut butter sandwiches in hand.
D’Brickashaw Ferguson once was a 6-3, 210-pound high school sophomore desperate to put on the pounds. And Cellan, Freeport High School’s longtime football coach, was always there to remind him to be patient.
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“He’d say, ‘I can’t keep the weight on,’ ” Cellan recalled during a phone interview with Newsday on Friday afternoon. “And I said, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll come.’ ”
Eventually, the weight did. So did a standout college career at Virginia and a 10-year tenure in the NFL.
And when news broke Friday morning that the 32-year-old left tackle was walking away from the Jets — the hometown team that drafted him fourth overall in 2006 — memories immediately came flooding back for Cellan.
“I still remember sitting in the limousine with him the day he got drafted,” said the Long Island fixture, who has coached Freeport’s football team for 31 years. “He invited a few people, and I was one of them. We went to Radio City [Music Hall], sat in the fourth row. Then he got drafted. We went backstage.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday.”
Those who knew Ferguson long before he became an NFL star appreciate him more for what he represents off the field. In their eyes, he was more than just a durable offensive lineman who never missed a practice or a start during a streak of 167 consecutive games. He was, and always will be, a perfectionist. He’ll also be the type of role model whom residents of Long Island will always be proud of.
“There’s always going to be a connection at Freeport,” Tim Halvorsen Sr., the school’s junior varsity coach the past 35 years, said in a separate interview over the phone. “The kids all know who he is.”
“He’s like the mayor around here,” Cellan said.
Ferguson was a youth minister in the church and a National Honor Society scholar. He thrived on the field, too, winning Newsday’s Thorp Award as Nassau County’s most outstanding player and the Martone Award as Nassau’s outstanding lineman. Pictures of him and other Freeport players who achieved their NFL dreams sit in a display case at the high school.
A nearly two-mile stretch on South Ocean Avenue in his hometown bears his name: D’Brickashaw Ferguson Way.
“We use Brick as an example,” Halvorsen said of the three-time Pro Bowler, who played 10,707 of the Jets’ last 10,708 offensive snaps. “He worked hard in the classroom as well as on the field. And that can push kids in the right direction also.”
“Whenever he came back and spoke to the kids, it always had that theme: You can do it,” Cellan said. “You have to take care of what’s important. Your grades. Your community.”
In that same limousine on draft night in 2006, Cellan chatted with his wife over the phone. He had been so wrapped up in the elation over Ferguson’s selection that he did not know whom the Jets had taken with their other first-round pick, No. 29. She told him: Ohio State’s Nick Mangold, the best center in the draft class.
Said Cellan, “I told Brick and he said: ‘Oh, yeah, that guy is really good.’ ”
That was the day the “Brick and Nick” Era began. And on Saturday, it officially came to a close.
“Having coached him,” Halvorsen said, “it’s disappointing to see a great career come to an end.”
Halvorsen also was there the first time Ferguson walked away from football. In the ninth grade, a frustrated Ferguson “stormed off the field” after getting beaten a couple of times during a junior varsity practice. “He wanted to quit because he was young, he didn’t play it before and he wanted to be a perfectionist,” said Halvorsen, who convinced the young offensive lineman to return the next day. “He’s always been one of the kids that wanted to be the best that he could ever be.
“ . . . When he decided to walk off the field, he was at that awkward stage — puppy-dog legs, flopping all over the place. And once he grew into the frame, boy, he was something to see.”
Now Ferguson’s journey from Freeport to Florham Park is officially complete. And now that it’s over, his former coaches say they could never take credit for what he accomplished. That’s because his parents, Rhunette and Edwin, are “the reason that he is the way he is,” Cellan said.
He added, “I had nothing to do with it. I was along for the ride too. I’m lucky enough that Brick happened to live in this community. Those guys are not made, they are born.
“ . . . When you’ve been coaching as long as I have, you’ll have a handful of guys that stand out. And he’s one of them. It’s obvious.”