FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — D’Brickashaw Ferguson vividly remembers his heart being questioned when he was just 9 years old.
There were serious concerns by his mother and father, as well as the doctors who were treating the young patient whose life — he was told — would likely be restricted from playing contact sports indefinitely.
No martial arts. No football. Nothing.
Ferguson, instead, used the 10-inch scar in the middle of his chest from open-heart surgery to drive him to become the player and man he is today. After 10 solid years in the NFL with no snaps missed due to injury, the New York Jets left tackle announced last Saturday he was retiring from football on his own terms.
“This all started because a young boy who happened to have open-heart surgery desperately wanted to prove his toughness,” Ferguson said at a news conference Thursday at the team’s facility celebrating his retirement. “Not only to himself, but to everybody — by playing football.”
During his playing career, Ferguson mostly shied away from telling the tale of the life-changing, life-saving surgery he had as a youngster. In front of an auditorium packed with his wife Kirsten, his parents, past and current teammates, media, Jets owner Woody Johnson, general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles, Ferguson bared his heart about what drove him to ultimately become one of the best players at his position.
He recalled the day his doctor removed all restrictions from physical activity during junior high school, and his dream to make what he considered a “handicap” a thing of the past by playing football.
“My mother’s face?” Ferguson said, smiling. “Priceless.”
He went on to develop into a star at Freeport High School on Long Island, and then a top recruit at the University of Virginia. Ferguson got even better in college, and the Jets snagged him with the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft. New York didn’t have to worry about the left tackle spot for 10 years; Ferguson never missed a game or a practice, and never appeared on the team’s injury report.
He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and one of the Jets’ most popular players a humble leader.
“He carries himself with respect and he’s like this when the cameras are off,” fellow offensive lineman Willie Colon said. “He’s the most authentic person I know. I love him. His loyalty, how he treats others, goes beyond football.”
The 32-year-old Ferguson began contemplating retirement after last season, when he realized it was becoming more difficult to play at the high standard he set for himself. The Jets were also considering asking Ferguson to take a pay cut, and they looked at other left tackles in the meantime.
“It was difficult,” he said. “I think not to be the guy who’s automatically the left tackle was something new to me. I was taken aback. I just wasn’t used to that.
“But at the same rate, I also recognize this happens in football. You play your game and at a certain point, the game must end. There’s a natural progression in sports. No matter who you are, there’s an end.”
He also made headlines last season when he said he felt “betrayed” by the NFL’s past approaches to head injuries after watching the movie “Concussion.” But he insisted the potential effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy did not factor into his decision.
“I’m not retiring because of CTE,” Ferguson said of the degenerative brain disease. “I think learning about that was very groundbreaking for me. But I don’t attribute that discovery to why I’m doing this today.”
In the end, Ferguson just believed now was the time to walk away.
“I really feel that when I came in this league, I wanted to be the best that I could be. I wanted to go against the best and defend the best. And when I could no longer do that, I wanted to kind of step away and be happy with the things that I accomplished.”
A video of career highlights was played before Ferguson was introduced by Johnson, and current and former Jets teammates such as Colon, Nick Mangold, Bart Scott and Geno Smith gave him a rousing ovation. They later gathered on the podium for a group picture and hugs.
“To have this kind of celebration is very fitting,” said Mangold, drafted 25 picks after the man he considers a dear friend.
Ferguson remained remarkably composed throughout the news conference, referring to himself as “blessed” and thanking those who helped him live out his dreams on the field. Everyone who attended received a green and white commemorative pin, with his last name and the years 2006 and 2015 bookending his familiar jersey No. 60 printed on it.
“You guys have pins!” said a wide-eyed Ferguson, overwhelmed by all the pomp and circumstance in his honor. “Who has pins?”
Well, a guy Johnson referred to as “one of the finest players” in team history has pins.
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