From the football fields of Freeport, D'Brickashaw Ferguson has emerged as one of the best left tackles in the NFL. And today he'll face the toughest challenge of his young career when the Jets attack Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game.
The Jets' Super Bowl chances hinge largely on the Pro Bowler, who must protect rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez from the Colts' monster pass rusher, Dwight Freeney.
Ferguson knows he would not be taking the field as Sanchez's bodyguard had it not been for the Freeport community.
"We have a culture in Freeport, especially in our football department. We feel that we're the best team on Long Island, in New York, hands down," he said, smiling. "That's always been the mentality. And it's not that different from the mentality here, with [Jets coach] Rex Ryan. He says, 'You guys are the best. You guys are going to win the Super Bowl.' "
Ferguson almost walked away from football when he was just a freshman. But the Freeport football program would not let him go, especially Tim Halvorsen, his junior varsity coach.
Ferguson "didn't see what others saw in him," his father, Edwin Ferguson, said. "Brick wanted instant results."
So the tall, gangly two-way lineman turned his back on the game, frustrated by a running back who kept blowing by him in practice.
"He said, 'This is it. It's not for me,' " Halvorsen recalled. "I had to call him back. I told him, 'Just bide your time. You've got a lot of potential.' And he took it to heart. The next day he came back and from there, he's been successful."
Freeport helped raise Ferguson. And, in turn, he's been giving back since he left.
As the consummate achiever - an honor roll student, a saxophonist, and a black belt in karate - he always prided himself on being the best. And now he's determined to make sure younger generations have no excuse to fail.
He created the D'Brickashaw Ferguson Foundation in 2007 to financially support academic pursuits by deserving high school students. It also aids food banks, clothing ministries and area churches.
"We want to build up the community 'one Brick at a time.' That's our motto," said the 26-year-old.
$60,000 in scholarships
Ferguson's foundation has given $60,000 in college scholarship aid. He also plans to create a mentorship program geared toward student-athletes and host a youth conference in April to offer Nassau County juniors and seniors the tools for transitioning into college.
"He's a perfect role model for kids coming up through Freeport," said Freeport line coach Toby Elmore, who is on the board of Ferguson's foundation. "They can say, 'I can overcome any obstacle that's here in this town because someone else has done it already.' "
Ferguson stood on the Hofstra sideline in November 2008, wearing his old Freeport varsity jacket, cheering on the Red Devils, the Nassau County champs, in a losing effort against Connetquot for the Long Island Class I title.
When head coach Russ Cellan was looking to raise funds for team jackets, Ferguson was there again.
"Not only did he get involved, he said, 'I'll pay for the whole thing.' And he wrote a check," Cellan said.
The players were in awe of his gifts. "We kind of look up to him as a big brother and as savior to the program because the kids really deserved it," said Freeport assistant line coach Mike McQueen, who played JV football when Ferguson was a senior.
Good deeds not surprising
The coaching staff, however, wasn't surprised by the gesture.
"He doesn't forget his roots," said Halvorsen. "He's so gracious. I've never seen him turn down anyone who asks for an autograph."
Ferguson doesn't think of himself as a philanthropist, just the latest in a string of Freeport stars, including Morlon Greenwood, Clifton Smith and Jerry Mackey, who have returned to give back to a community that has given so much to them.
"Sometimes if I have free time I'll go down there and chill out," said Ferguson, who last visited the school during the Jets' bye week in November. "It's good to feel like I'm still in touch."
He left a storied legacy behind when he graduated from Freeport in 2002. A National Honor Society scholar, Ferguson also won Newsday's Thorpe Award as Nassau County's most outstanding player and the Martone Award for outstanding lineman as voted by the county's coaches.
When he arrived at the University of Virginia he was only 245 pounds - the size of some running backs. But Ferguson worked hard, bulked up to 300 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame and left college as the nation's best offensive lineman. He also earned his degree in religious studies in 3 1/2 years.
He was selected fourth overall in the 2006 draft by the Jets and earned All-NFL rookie honors.
D'Brickashaw Ferguson Way, a stretch of nearly two miles on South Ocean Avenue, stands as a testament to his impact in such a short time.
"We're just proud that he's able to make all the various opportunities in his life a blessing to others," his mother, Rhunette, said.
Added Cellan: "I don't think you can have enough D'Brickashaw Fergusons in the world."