IOWA CITY, Iowa - Anthony Ferguson stood on the sidelines of Sun Devil Stadium watching the seconds tick away on his redshirt freshman season. His Hawkeyes were completing their upset of No. 12 Missouri in the 2010 Insight Bowl.
Iowa fans in attendance in Tempe (AZ) cheered and sang the fight song with their conquering heroes. Ferguson dreamed of these moments while lifting weights and running sprints for four years of high school. He had arrived on the sport's biggest collegiate stage. It turned out to be the only time he'd experience it.
The epiphany struck Ferguson during the contest. He would walk away from football, a game he played since the fifth grade.
Ferguson wrestled with the decision throughout that fall, his first in Iowa City. He tried making sense of giving up a full-ride scholarship to a Big Ten university for which he'd worked hard to earn. In many ways, the game identified him.
"There was a lot of prayer throughout the season. I knew I didn't want to quit when I was tired. I didn't want to quit after a workout or after I was burned out. If you still feel the same way after a win or when you're eating lobster at the (university club) tennis courts, if you can say you're going to leave that behind, that's fine," he said.
Ferguson enjoyed the good life as a Division I athlete. He experienced the red-carpet treatment at the Insight Bowl. He desired more, and it had nothing to do with status or sold out stadiums.
"That's when I realized this wasn't for me. At that point it was so clear. God was telling me he had more for me. There was other stuff for me to do here. That's when I made up my mind that I would be done with it," he said.
Ferguson stayed at Iowa unlike many athletes who exit the university when they leave the team. He loved the school and community for what else they offered. He graduated last month with a degree in African-American Studies, the first member of his family to complete a college education.
Thriving without football, Ferguson studied abroad, created two organizations and mentored young people. Growing from within also allowed him to share one of the darkest periods of his life which touched even more lives.
"I missed the game just because I had so many great friends on the team. I didn't miss playing. I have met so many great people and so many opportunities that I got when I left football. It's called a student-athlete but those guys aren't students. They don't get the same experience. I enjoyed my time here being a student. I don't miss the game. I wouldn't have had this experience if I would have still been playing," he said.
Ferguson grew up in Baltimore. His mother, Rosalee Wilson, a single parent, worked long hours as a cook to support Anthony and his brother, Paris. She struggled with addiction but cared for her children.
Wilson pushed her boys towards athletics. It kept them in shape, occupied and out of the trouble in the streets.
Anthony took to the game quickly and checked in as one of the biggest, toughest players. He stood out for the Hamilton Tigers youth program through junior high. He was spotted by Biff Poggi, the well known and accomplished head coach at The Gilman School, a prestigious private institution.
Poggi brought Ferguson to Gilman and into his home, where the young defensive tackle lived during the week. He bonded with his coach's family, particularly Jim Poggi, a classmate who played linebacker on the team.
"That's definitely my second family. (Biff Poggi) was a father figure for me. I've had coaches that would just run you to death and that's the end of it. You walk off the field. There's not much said. With Coach Poggi, there was love. It was always positive. Him and his wife and the kids, they just adopted me. It was great," Ferguson said.
The Poggis helped Ferguson transition from inner city Baltimore life to that of the privileged. Students paid $25,000 a year to attend Gilman.
"It raised the standard that I had never been held to. I had to meet with a tutor. I was so far behind as far as grades. When I came in for the ninth grade, I was probably reading on a seventh- or sixth-grade level.
"There was a lot of catch-up I had to play. It was a very loving environment. They stressed academics first. It was hard at times adjusting, being at a predominantly white school coming from an all-black school. There were people there that weren't open to it. But there were just as many, if not more people, who really wanted me there," he said.
Ferguson excelled in the classroom and on the field. He positioned himself academically and athletically to attend some of the nation's top colleges on an athletic scholarship. He considered Penn State before choosing Iowa, where Jim Poggi also would commit.
"One of the things that attracted me to the program was Coach (Kirk) Ferentz. He had that Biff Poggi attitude. They and their coaching staffs supported their players and looked out for one another. That's what I thought I would find here. I don't know what happened with Coach K (Rick Kaczenski)," Ferguson said.
Kaczenski isn't the first football coach to apply tough tactics. He won't be the last. But not every style works for all players.
Kaczenski succeeded with the likes of Adrian Clayborn, Cristian Ballard and Mike Daniels at Iowa. He's molded Randy Gregory into a potential first-round draft pick at Nebraska, where he landed after leaving the Hawkeyes following the '11 season. He never reached Ferguson.
Poggi and his Gilman staff pushed him. They balanced the aggression with kindness.
"I remember losing my football pants during my sophomore year and I was freaking out. I thought I was going to be in huge trouble. I went into Coach Poggi's office stressed out. He looked at me and said, "It's ok. Just go get some new ones from the equipment room. I love you kid,"" Ferguson recalled.
With fewer players in high school, head coaches can be more hands on than their college counterparts who oversee more than 100 athletes. There, the position coach interacts most often with guys at his spot.
"Freshman year at Iowa, It was really difficult as far as adjusting athletically. I came from a very loving program where they push you athletically but you do have people in your ear telling you they love you. They let it be known that they cared about us more than what you were performing like on the field.
"Out here, I didn't feel that as much. I definitely felt that from the head coach, Coach Ferentz. He was very loving. I felt that from Coach (Darrell) Wilson. Coach K, there wasn't much love there. I was an athlete. He expected me to do a job. It was cut and dry. There wasn't anything there beyond that. That was the biggest adjustment for me. Gilman had prepared me academically and for the culture out here. The football part was hard. You see yourself as property almost. Football was what you were brought here to do," Ferguson said.
Things between Kaczenski and Ferguson came to a head in Arizona. Word had reached the coach that the freshman was considering walking away from the game.
"We got to the (Insight) bowl game and Coach K cursed me out. He said he heard I was thinking about leaving. He said he couldn't wait. I was like, wow," Ferguson said.
Ferguson called Biff Poggi to tell him his mind was made up. He was done with football. His mentor told him he loved him and to phone Ferentz. Family came next.
"My mother cried for a bit and told me to think about it. Maybe two months later, she called me again and told me to go to Coach Ferentz and get back on the team. There was so much backlash from my family.
"I was sure but It still didn't lighten the blow for my mom, who really was invested in me eventually going to the NFL or making that attempt. There were a lot of people that I lost that I didn't think were there for that. I came to find out that they were there because they thought I was going to go to the NFL and thought I was going to have a successful college career. That part was extremely hard," Ferguson said.
Ferguson felt as if a boulder had been lifted from his shoulders. He was free to explore the life of a college student without the intense responsibilities of a Division I athlete.
Ferguson spread his wings right away, joining a fraternity and researching things in which to get involved. He started up two organizations.
Young, Black and Educated targets African-American students to get involved with the community. Issues of Men is a non-traditional bible study modeled after what he learned at Gilman.
Ferguson served as president of the Black Student Union. He mentored youth throughout Eastern Iowa. He studied abroad in India, Guiana and Ethiopia.
"I've had a tremendous amount of time to explore different things. I met so many lifelong friends. I'm still close with some members of the football team, but the friends that I made outside of football are such lasting relationships," Ferguson.
Ferguson said he talks with senior wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley weekly and also stays in consistent contact with Christian Kirksey, Don Shumpert and Carl Davis, his freshman roommate. He invites them to his activities.
"Those, to me, are some of the good guys. There are some guys that come to schools and focus on athletics and they don't really care about anything else. Those guys want to be involved. I told them after I left that there's a whole other world out here. So, when we have our organizational meetings, those are the guys that I call. Those are the guys that show up to help when they have the time to try to get more out of the experience," Ferguson said.
Ferguson's desire to help others stretched beyond one boundary he once thought unlikely. He was speaking with a friend about TED Talks, whose slogan is "ideas worth spreading." He decided to share his deepest, darkest secret.
A family friend sexually molested Ferguson when he was a child. The trauma created struggles for him, especially in how he related to males. He worked through many of them at Gilman but his story remained contained to a small group of friends and family.
That was until Ferguson began researching Ted Talks. He opened up to a room filled mostly with strangers and the speech popped up on You Tube. Some viewers remembered him from his football days while others related to his tragic tale.
"Immediately after I had the talk, there were people in the audience that came up to me. One woman said she had not even told her husband that it happened to her. She said she was going to tell him that night. She was in her 50s. She just cried. That was powerful. That's making a change. I got emails from friends that had it happen to them. I even got anonymous emails from friends that couldn't yet come forward but they wanted to share how they felt and what happened to them," Ferguson said.
Ferguson first came out about the abuse to Poggi when he was at Gilman. He then told his family.
"I got to college and I put it off for a bit. Some of those symptoms came back up. I started shutting down. We had a therapist come to one of the (Hawkeye) practices and talk. I felt like it was someone that I should reach out to. She connected me with someone and we started to talk it over. The first day, she asked me what my goal was, what did I want to do with all of this. I said, this is a crazy thought but I eventually see myself standing up in front of a crowd of people and sharing my story. Maybe that will help someone," Ferguson said.
Ferguson said the emotions he felt during his freshman season at Iowa brought on by the childhood abuse played a role in him leaving the game. People outside of his close circle did not know it had happened so they speculated.
"I looked on line to see some of the reasons that popped up as to why I left. There was a rumor that I got somebody pregnant," Ferguson said.
It served as another sign that he made the right choice by walking away from football. He mostly stayed away from the sport throughout the rest of his college experience.
Ferguson returned to Kinnick Stadium in April for the team's spring game. He brought with him a group of kids from a local high school that were part of his mentoring program there.
"They were really amazed by the event and that I used to be a part of that world. They asked me if I missed it. I told them if I was still on the team I probably wouldn't have met them. They smiled," Ferguson said.
Ferguson is unsure where his life will go from here. Like most college students, he applied for jobs leading up to graduation. He said he's willing to move wherever he's called.
"My end goal is to have a community center that is built around men loving each other and being open. I'd like it to break down some of those walls that as men we're told by society we need to have - not crying, being a man's man, all of that stuff. I really would like to break some of that down and provide a loving culture for men. That's my passion. Kids are my passion. I want to try to raise them up," Ferguson said.