[Notre Dame Irish running back # 32 Vagas Ferguson in action during the 1978 Cotton Bowl against the Texas Longhorns, photo: US Presswire.]
Although Vasquero Diaz “Vagas” Ferguson grew up in Richmond, Ind., Notre Dame was nowhere on his radar. A resourceful Notre Dame recruiter discovered him, in this small town near the Ohio border and won him over with some Fighting Irish magic. Ferguson finished his senior year as the nation’s fifth-leading rusher, fifth in Heisman Trophy voting and with All-America honors. He ranks third all-time for total yards (3,472) among Notre Dame running backs, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He was a first-round pick in the 1980 NFL Draft and played for five seasons with the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, and Houston Oilers. He now lives back in his hometown of Richmond, Ind. and is active in his local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a member of the Indiana Football Hall of Fame.
Q: Growing up in Indiana, surely you had heard about Notre Dame football and all of its legendary players and coaches. Right?
A: “To be truthful, I didn’t hear about Notre Dame until my sophomore year of high school. The schools that most of us talked about were Purdue, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State. Those schools got a lot of local coverage. I had the chance to visit Notre Dame during my sophomore year in high school because my cousin Lamar Lundy, Jr., a tight end, was being recruited by Notre Dame through a Notre Dame alum who lived in Richmond. He was a senior when I was a sophomore and I got to tag along on his visit to Notre Dame. My cousin ended up going to California – Berkeley, but that trip to Notre Dame left quite an impression on me. I took official visits to Big Ten schools primarily. I went to Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa; Notre Dame was the last school I visited. (Notre Dame recruiter) Brian Bulac was a driving force behind my decision to attend Notre Dame. He came to my home to speak to my grandparents (Vagas’ mother died when he was eight, and his father lived nearby). Education was top on my grandparent’s list. They wanted to make sure we got a good education, and that was the first thing he talked about when he walked in the door. You will be a football player at Notre Dame, but you are a student first. That impressed my grandparents, and impressed me as well. Most schools only talked about what I could for them on the field.”
Q: Can you talk about the diversity issues at Notre Dame in the 80s?
A: “When I was at Notre Dame in the late 1970s, we were in a time of awareness. Racial issues were very much being addressed and it wasn’t any different at Notre Dame than it had been at my high school back home. You tended to hang out with people who looked like you. You congregated as a group, black females and males. Women had not been at Notre Dame very long at that time either, so they had an especially tight bond as well. The black students that I met the first few weeks I was at Notre Dame, guys and girls, we became really close. We were new and didn’t know any of the upperclassmen so we just kind of took each other in. We still stay in touch today. You gravitate to people who are more like you. It’s not a negative thing. You renew yourself through people who have similar experiences as you
do. Today, that is changing. I can see it my kids and grandkids today. I have bi-racial grandkids. They don’t even see that kind of stuff at all.”
Q: What is your favorite Notre Dame football memory?
A: “The most important thing that I took from Notre Dame was the development of relationships, and crossing the barriers of race. Football did that for us. We had to play as a team and support one another and that broke down a lot of racial barriers that we were facing during that time as players. My favorite memory on the field had to have been the 1979 Cotton Bowl against Houston. It was below zero; so cold, in fact, that they had to put salt down on the field to thaw it out. In the fourth quarter, we were behind 34-12 with seven minutes left. Late in the game the defense made a big play (a Tony Belden blocked punt) and got points on the board which really changed the momentum for us. (Quarterback Joe) Montana, who had been sick with the flu and missed most of the third quarter fighting below-normal body temperature, returned to execute an unforgettable fourth quarter comeback.”
“Down 34-28 with six seconds remaining, we had just enough time to run two plays. The first play was a pass pattern where myself and receiver Kris Haines went to the flat and we had to get across the goal line from the 8-yard line. With the limited amount of time remaining in the game, if we caught the ball, we had to score. The first play we ran was not successful. At this point there was only two seconds on the clock. On the next play, Montana looks over to the sidelines and the coaches put up their hands as if to say, ‘Do whatever you want to do. Joe, you call it.’ He got down on one knee and drew the play (the same play we had just run), just like you would in the school yard, and told myself and Kris Haines how to run it. Haines said he could beat the guy that he was covering. Joe told him, ‘I’ll hit ya in the corner of the end zone.’ We ran the play, scored and won on the last play of the game. Incredible.”
Q: How do you remember your NFL draft experience?
A: “I was dating my fiancée at the time and she was a student at Purdue. Most of the guys were in their rooms watching the draft, but I really did’’t even think about it. I never got into that stuff. If I got drafted and got the chance to play in the NFL it was just an added benefit. All I knew was that it wasn’t going to make or break me. It wasn’t that important and I wasn’t worried about it at all. I had always told the guys, ‘I don’t care where I go, but I really want to go some place warm.’ And where did I end up? New England. My buddies ended up in San Francisco and New Orleans. How the heck did they end up there and I’m stuck in New England and I played there for three years (1980-82). Going into my fourth year we had a new coaching staff come in and I didn’t get along with them, so I got cut. After New England I played a little bit for the Houston Oilers and a little bit for Cleveland Browns. After that I moved to the USFL in 1984 and played for a year in Chicago. Then the USFL went under and I was pretty much done.”
Q: How would you describe your NFL career?
A: “The friendships you make and the people you meet are definitely one of the best things that I took away from the NFL. If I think of anything it is those relationships that I developed. I still keep in touch with many of the guys I played with in New England. Looking back you don’t remember the records or the individual touchdowns, but you do remember people. It’s a blessing to know I can go anywhere in the country and run into people that I know. It’s no longer about football it’s about relationships.”
Q: Where did life take you after football?
A: “Believe it or not, there was a Fortune 500 company in Richmond, Ind., called Belden Wiring Cable Company. They did wiring for computers internationally and all over the U.S. I was looking for a job once I finished playing football and I had sent out a lot of resumes in the Chicago area without much luck. It’s all about who you know, and I didn’t know many people in Chicago. A friend of mine recommended that I call the president at Belden and I landed an interview. I went to Richmond for the interview and they really liked me. They needed a salesman in Chicago and I was already there, so it was a good match. They trained me and I started working there for 6 1/2 years until 1991.”
“Going into 1991 I decided that I needed to get back home. My grandparents were getting older and I had gone through a divorce and wanted to move back home so that my kids could be around family. I also wanted to go back to school and get my masters, but without a support network I could not continue to work, raise kids and go back to school. So in December, 1991 I went home for Christmas and a family friend who worked at the local Richmond school system called me. She was in HR/administration and she asked me if I’d be interested in coming in for an interview. They were creating a new position, to have someone oversee the non-sport extracurricular activities at the high school and thought that I would be perfect for the job. The timing could not have been better. Here I am trying to move back home and a job practically falls into my lap. The Lord blessed me indeed. I went in and spoke with them and told them that the job sounded great but I’d need a little time to think about it. They told me to take my time as they were in no rush. They were not even going to implement the program until the following school year.”
“When I got back to Chicago after Christmas, the HR woman from the high school called me yet again, and this time she asks me if I’d be interested in taking over as the interim athletic director at the high school. I asked her if I could think about it and she said, ‘Don’t think about it too long!’ I hung up the phone and was literally jumping up and down. I called her right back and said, ‘Yes!’ I explained that I would have to give my company notice and couldn’t start until Feb, and she replied, ‘We’ll hold the job for you until February 1.’ I moved my kids back to Richmond, moved in with my grandparents, got the kids enrolled in school and started as the interim athletic director … and I’ve been here 20 years now. Taking that job allowed me the opportunity to go back to school and earned my Masters in Education and Certificate of Principal through the University of Miami of Ohio, which I never would have been able to do if I had stayed in Chicago. It allowed me to take care of my grandparents and my kids were in a much less hectic environment and surrounded by family. Blessings all around.”
Q: What advice do you have for current college athletes?
A: “Get your education and get that degree! When it’s all said and done and you have to put sports away, you will have to make a living for the rest of your life. The effort you put into your school work will determine the quality of life that you’re going to live. My grandparents always told me, ‘Don’t always hang your hat on football, you have to get your degree.’ I had to remind myself constantly that I had to get the education piece so that I at least had that going for me. I knew that as a Notre Dame graduate I could get a job anywhere. That degree meant a lot me.”
Q: What is your favorite Dan Devine memory?
A: “What made Dan Devine good as a head coach is that he surrounded himself with good position coaches. You dealt with your position coach way more often than you actually dealt with Coach Devine. He was not very outgoing, didn’t talk to people a lot and was kind of withdrawn. He would talk to us, but he didn’t talk to the public very much. He and his family had previously had some bad experiences with the media and I think that was part of why he was so withdrawn. We didn’t know that, we just accepted him the way he was. You have to be able to delegate to people and trust them. Coach (Gerry) Faust, unlike Coach Devin, was not able to do that.”
“I had two backfield coaches when I was at Notre Dame, Jim Gruden (his son is former NFL head coach and ESPN football analyst Jon Gruden). Indiana had recruited me starting in my sophomore year of high school all the way through, and Coach Gruden was there before he got the job at Notre Dame. During the recruiting process he told me, ‘I’m gonna coach you some day’. During my junior year of college he left Indiana and came to Notre Dame. He taught me more about the running back position than any other coach and took me to another level of play. I absolutely contribute the success I had my junior and senior years at Notre Dame to Coach Gruden. I trying to stay in touch with him to this day.”
I’d like to give Vagas Ferguson a big thank you for stopping by the blog. Next week I sit down with Notre Dame lineman Mike McCoy.