BALTIMORE — The death of Ravens outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson is different because he played in Baltimore.
After nearly 35 years of sportswriting, you become immune to the highs and lows of professional sports, especially when things happen in other cities or other parts of the country.
But on Wednesday, tragedy struck in Baltimore when the Ravens announced that Ferguson had died. Baltimore Police said that Ferguson was found unresponsive at a home in the 400 block of Ilchester Avenue in the Harwood neighborhood.
Police said there were no signs of trauma or foul play, but investigators are not ruling out the possibility of an overdose before the medical examiner determines a cause of death. That’s irrelevant to me. Ferguson, the father of three, was only 26 years old. That’s a tragedy regardless of the circumstances.
It’s way too young for anyone to die.
He’ll never get to watch his kids graduate from high school or college or see them get married. He won’t coach at football clinics or become a grandparent.
I didn’t know Ferguson well.
In fact, in his three previous seasons with the Ravens, I only interviewed him about three times. But he played for Baltimore, and that hits home.
I watched him come into the league as a rookie. I saw him try to play defensive end while settling in at outside linebacker. According to several current and former Ravens assistant coaches, Ferguson was a hard-working, likable player who had already overcome several obstacles growing up in Zachary and Ruston, Louisiana.
By Wednesday afternoon, many of his current and former teammates had already paid tribute to Ferguson with posts on social media. More than any other sport, football creates that type of bonding.
I once had a junior high school football coach, Richard Harman, who used to say that the only group closer than a football team are men at war. I believed that for the longest time, and to some degree, I still believe it now.
That bonding, from lifting weights, attending meetings, practicing in 100-degree heat and competing in strenuous situations, is unique. It’s why the death of Ferguson can be so devastating to an organization.
There are a lot of heavy hearts over at The Castle, and unfortunately there is no blueprint, no X’s and O’s, on how to fix them.
I’ve been in this situation before. In 2013, I was the coach of New Town’s lacrosse team and my assistant, Terry Kimball, died of cancer.
We had a game on the morning of his death, and one of the officials offered condolences to one of my players, who asked me if Coach Kimball, whom they loved, had died.
I told the player I didn’t know because we had to get through this game and travel back to the school. Afterward, I told the team the news but broke down a couple of times. The players told their parents. Some of them came in crying.
As the head coach, I had to only deal with 14 players. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has to deal with about 90, not including the front office staff. He has to control his own emotions while counseling and consulting others. It’s one of the most difficult positions to be in as a head coach.
One former Ravens assistant said this season might have been Ferguson’s breakout year. This was going to be his fourth season after being a third-round draft pick in 2019, and he had appeared to have lost anywhere between 20 to 30 pounds.
Ferguson performed well in minicamp, finally showing the explosion he had lacked in previous years. Maybe he was finally going to live up to the reputation he built in college, when he broke the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision record for career sacks with 45, surpassing former Ravens great Terrell Suggs’ mark of 44. Those sacks earned him the nickname “Sack Daddy.”
Yet, this is about so much more than just football. Life is so many things, and definitely fragile.
When most of us first heard the news Wednesday morning, we probably wondered why. How this could happen? Regardless, sadness soon set in, and a lot of us felt a personal tragedy.
Ferguson was so young, and his death hit home in Baltimore.