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How Jets’ D’Brickashaw Ferguson overcame open-heart surgery to reach NFL stardom

D'Brickashaw Ferguson of the New York Jets speaks

D'Brickashaw Ferguson of the New York Jets speaks during his retirement news conference held at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Jets Training Center in Florham Park, N.J., on Thursday, April 14, 2016. Credit: James Escher

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The 10-inch scar down the middle of his chest served as a constant reminder of what D’Brickashaw Ferguson couldn’t do. Or at least what he was told he couldn’t do.

This was long before Ferguson grew up to be one of the NFL’s best offensive linemen, long before Ferguson even gave a thought to playing football and decades before he would finish a brilliant NFL career. He was a 9-year-old growing up in Freeport back then. His athletic passion was martial arts and his dream was to earn a black belt. That is until doctors discovered that the blood vessels in his heart weren’t properly connected, recommended open-heart surgery to correct the problem, and told him he couldn’t participate in any contact sports for an indefinite period.

The surgery went well, and his parents, Edwin and Rhunette, were delighted their son was healthy, albeit limited in what he could do. But D’Brickashaw remained frustrated by his limitations, and he ached to be able to fully participate in whatever sport he wanted. Even against his mother’s wishes.

“My recovery process uncovered something that I was gradually beginning to recognize about myself,” Ferguson said Thursday at his retirement news conference at the Jets’ training facility, a celebration of his terrific 10-year NFL career. “I’d already been restricted from recess. I had limitations on what I could do in gym. And even when I was permitted to do karate again, I had to put on a chest protector. It didn’t help that the females in the class were the only [other] people required to do the same.”

For reasons he still can’t quite understand, Ferguson eventually gravitated toward football. Maybe because he felt as if it was the most unlikely sport to play, given his surgery. Or maybe to challenge himself in a way he never thought possible. Whatever the reason, he badgered his parents to let him play, which invariably resulted in his mother, formerly a nurse, rejecting his entreaties.

Until one day, when Ferguson went for an appointment with his cardiologist and agreed to a deal his mother had offered. Whatever the doctor told Ferguson about football would be the final answer. Rhunette was confident of the end result, even though the doctor who performed the surgery was no longer Ferguson’s cardiologist.

“I knew I was going to have the outcome that I thought I would get,” she said a few minutes after D’Brickashaw’s news conference. “So I said to the doctor, ‘Would you please tell D’Brickashaw that he cannot play football?’”

Rhunette was mortified at the answer.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Uh, I don’t see the problem. D’Brickashaw, he’s fine. He’s healed nicely, and he’s able to play,”’ Rhunette said.

“That 10-inch scar in the middle of my chest did not represent triumph,” Ferguson said. “It represented defeat. It meant I was handicapped. This had been boiling inside of me for some time, and I reached the point where I could no longer accept my situation.”

And so it began for Ferguson, who went on to become a star at Freeport High, then at Virginia, and then with the Jets, where he played his entire career after being selected as the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft. Ferguson played a full decade with the Jets, never missing a game and playing all except one snap — a desperation play in the final seconds of the final game in 2008 in which the Jets removed all their offensive linemen.

He went back to that story about his heart condition because he wanted us to know how unlikely his story truly was, and how you never know how a decision may turn out. And how this was all bigger than simply him.

“I don’t think I understood how major [the heart problem] was at the time,” he said. “I’m sure my parents did, but then to overcome it and say, ‘Hey, I want to play football.’ It just doesn’t make sense, and that’s the reason I bring it up. How does a player play 10 years and play every snap and every game? I didn’t do that. God did that. It wasn’t, ‘Hey, I grew up and always loved football and it was my dream to play. I wasn’t born to play football. I had to go to the hospital and have surgery. And because of how I felt and internalized that feeling, that feeling of being handicapped, it spurred some type of desire in me to say I’m going to prove to myself I can do this. Out of everything else, I picked football. It’s a part of that journey.”

That journey is now over, a wonderful career for a man who had his priorities straight, whose work ethic and consistency were everything you could want in a player, and whose values provided the underpinnings for a terrific run as the Jets’ one and only left tackle these last 10 years.

Well done, Brick.

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