Like millions of Americans in late March 1983, Edwin Ferguson and his wife, Rhunette, were engrossed in The Thorn Birds. The ABC miniseries, based on the best-selling novel by Colleen McCullough, told the story of Ralph de Bricassart, an ambitious Catholic priest in Australia torn between his devotion to the church and his passion for the comely Meggie Cleary. So moved was Edwin by the melodrama that he decided that if the couple, whose first son, Edwin Jr., was born in 1980, had another boy, they'd name him after the protagonist in The Thorn Birds. "The character was so reminiscent of the struggle we face even now," says Edwin. "Wanting to do the things that are pleasing to the Holy Father, and to achieve goals on Earth." When Rhunette gave birth to the couple's second son later that year, Edwin proposed a variation on the priest's name: D'Brickashaw. Rhunette wasn't so sure. "To be honest," she says, chuckling, "I thought it was very unusual." She preferred the more mundane Montgomery.
The parents consulted Rhunette's mother, Evelyn McClendon, to settle the matter. After careful consideration she sided with Dad. "The idea was to give him something unique," Edwin says, "and from early on, he was a unique individual."
D'Brickashaw Montgomery Ferguson has a degree in religious studies from Virginia and a black belt in karate. He also played alto saxophone for his high school band and occasionally performs solos at a Baptist church in Charlottesville. But those aren't the qualities that will make him the first offensive lineman taken in the NFL draft on April 29. What pro scouts love about Ferguson is an athleticism that's uncommon at left tackle—his catlike quickness and flexibility, his strong, angular upper body and power forward's long arms.
The 6' 6" Ferguson is not the prototypical NFL tackle. He played his senior year for the Cavaliers at 295 pounds, about 30 below the average weight at the position in the league last season. But Ferguson excels in pass protection, with an explosive first step, polished technique and football smarts. Seattle Seahawks president Tim Ruskell says that Ferguson's 7'3" wingspan allows him to anticipate, and then hinder, a defender's movements. "He'll be able to feel if [a pass rusher] is getting ready to change directions," Ruskell says. "That gives him a microsecond to adjust. We always look for [a large wingspan] in our offensive linemen. That's a premium."
Just how expansive is Ferguson's embrace? On a balmy March day at Disney's sports complex in Orlando, where he was working out with training coach Tom Shaw to prepare for the draft, Ferguson sauntered up to the blue Chevy Blazer belonging to Shaw's assistant. Facing the SUV, Ferguson leaned over the hood and spread his arms wide, and his fingers dangled over each side of the hood, with room to spare.
"I bee-lieeeeve I can fly," Ferguson crooned with a grin.
Russ Cellan, Ferguson's coach at Freeport (N.Y.) High, and Ron Prince, his former offensive line coach at Virginia, both attribute Ferguson's dexterity and footwork to his extensive martial arts training (taekwondo as well as shodokan, a form of karate). Ferguson doesn't dispute that but believes the main benefit he derived was discipline, which fostered an obsessive attention to technique. Ferguson, whose father is a logistics manager for 7-Eleven and a certified karate instructor, says martial arts are about "learning how something is supposed to be executed. If a punch is supposed to be a certain way, the fine detail can yield a greater effect."
Still, some NFL talent evaluators are concerned about Ferguson's size and how it will affect his blocking. From 2000 to '05 the average weight of the 17 offensive tackles chosen in the first round was 328 pounds, and some scouts believe Ferguson needs to gain 10 to 20 pounds, without sacrificing mobility, before he'll become a Pro Bowl tackle. Others, though, think Ferguson has a perfect blend of speed and strength for the position. "You don't have to be Hulk Hogan and knock the guy down on your run blocks," says one league scout, discussing the left tackle spot. "It really is a position block, with sustained strength. It's better to get into the defender artistically with technique than to just barrel into him." To show that he could beef up, Ferguson came to the Indianapolis Combine in February at 312 pounds. (Like many top prospects he didn't perform drills in Indy.) The following month, at his pro day workout, he still ran the 40 in an impressive 5.1 seconds.
"When he steps on the scale, it's not an eye-opener, but he's going to be a great player," says Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese, whose club has the third overall pick. "He's going to be in the league for 10 to 15 years. He's athletic and very competitive, with good fundamentals and great feet." Adds Buffalo Bills G.M. Marv Levy, who picks eighth, "Teams can get too hung up on a prototype. If he's good, he's good. And [Ferguson] is very good. You don't have to fit into an exact mold all the time."
The 22-year-old who's commonly called Brick by friends and family has never fit a traditional football mold. For several years, in fact, it appeared he wouldn't be able to play the sport at all. When Ferguson was born, doctors discovered that he had a heart murmur. Because many heart murmurs resolve themselves on their own, doctors decided to give this one time. The murmur persisted, and when D'Brickashaw turned nine he underwent corrective open-heart surgery. Afterward Rhunette, a nurse, prohibited her son from participating in contact sports. D'Brickashaw spent his gym periods tutoring classmates in reading and math. Even his afterschool taekwondo lessons were canceled. "I was a boy, so naturally I wanted to play sports, be aggressive," says Ferguson, "but I couldn't really do anything."
D'Brickashaw eventually persuaded Rhunette to let him resume martial arts, but hard-core team sports remained off-limits. As he entered seventh grade, though, D'Brickashaw became more insistent about playing football, and Rhunette finally said she'd allow it if a cardiologist approved, certain that the doctor would side with her. After the examination, Rhunette said to the doctor, "D'Brickashaw feels that he can play football. Would you please tell him that's one of the sports not recommended?'"
The doctor looked at D'Brickashaw and deadpanned, "I don't know what to tell your mom, but maybe you should tell her that you can play."
The response made Rhunette's jaw drop—but she was happy for her son. "She didn't want her baby to get hurt," says D'Brickashaw, "but I knew this was my chance."
At a gangly 6' 3", 215 pounds, he joined the high school varsity football team as a left tackle in the 10th grade. The starting left guard was a 300-pounder, making Ferguson resemble a tight end in a funky formation. But Ferguson improved so quickly that as a senior he was named the top high school football player in Long Island's Nassau County—the first time in more than two decades that the award had gone to a lineman. A number of top Division I schools recruited him, including Michigan State and Syracuse, though he was told by some that he would have to bulk up to play tackle at that level. Virginia, enticed by his athleticism, didn't quibble about his weight. Ferguson, a National Honor Society student whose older brother was studying at Virginia, selected Charlottesville.
As a 245-pound freshman in 2002 Ferguson was the lightest starting offensive tackle in the ACC. Nevertheless, he started every game and was named a freshman All-America. As a sophomore Ferguson didn't allow a sack, but he was already hearing that he was too small to make the NFL. In the off-season before his junior year, he revamped his diet: Each day he consumed a six-pack of Ensure Plus, the protein-heavy drink for building muscle, to supplement his three regular meals. "I thought I would gain maybe 10 pounds," he says.
Instead, Ferguson gained 30 and checked in for his junior season at a well-toned 295 pounds. He made the All-ACC first team and was suddenly a top draft prospect. But Ferguson turned down the prospect of a pro contract worth as much as $25 million to return for his senior year and finish his degree. "I just wanted to make sure I went to the NFL totally prepared," Ferguson says.
There was a small scare when, in a Sept. 24 game against Duke, he left in the first quarter with a knee injury. But it proved minor, and Ferguson, who had started 42 straight games from 2002 to '04, missed just two starts and was named All-America. Now NFL teams are lining up for the chance to draft a player who could be a franchise left tackle in the mold of Walter Jones of Seattle, Jonathan Ogden of Baltimore and Chris Samuels of Washington. He's expected to be among the first five selections, which would make him the highest pick out of Virginia since Bill Dudley in 1942. "Whoever gets him," says Houston Texans G.M. Charley Casserly, "will be very happy."
Ferguson may be small by NFL offensive line standards, but at an Italian restaurant in Orlando he was mammoth enough to draw stares from patrons. His waitress, Corie, inevitably asked whether he played football, leading to an exchange that has become familiar to Ferguson.
Corie: "Say that name one more time?"
Ferguson, slowly: "De-brick-a-shaw."
Corie: "That's your first name?"
Ferguson, grinning: "Yes."
Corie: "I'll try to remember that. That must have been a hard thing when you were a kid. You must have hated that your parents gave you that name."
Ferguson shrugged off the remark. He has always had strong feelings about his name, which is why he already knows what he will call his first son.