A Conversation with Kevin Ferguson
By: Bunmi Ajao, Kemi Ajao, Jennifer Bowles, Sidney Gafford, Kierra Graham, Zavia Hammond, Shanice Hardy, Caim Stewart
As we sat in McDonalds, talking over the cashiers and the hottest radio sensations, we received a glimpse into Kevin Ferguson’s experience as a student athlete (quarterback) at the University of Virginia during the 1980s. Ferguson is from the small rural town of Appomattox, which has remained demographically consistent over the past 30 years. Though the number of Asian and Latino immigrants in the state of Virginia has increased substantially during this time period, Appomattox has not experienced such diversification. According to data from a 2012 report, the town was 65% white and 31% African American. A proud native of Appomattox who now lives in Lynchburg, Kevin Ferguson attended the University of Virginia from 1983-1987 as a psychology major and economics minor. His decision to sign with UVA was heralded as a great plus for the University, which competed with James Madison, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Alabama for his services. As Ferguson explained to the Free Lance Star after his signing, “I never really considered Alabama and Kentucky. Madison was too small. It came down to North Carolina and Virginia, but I never got the same feel for the recruiters at North Carolina as I did at Virginia.”
At the University of Virginia, the highly touted quarterback met his wife of 25 years, Janet Ferguson. She played a pivotal role in keeping him grounded throughout his undergraduate years. Although the black experience at UVa was challenging and undergoing many changes during the 80s, Ferguson had nothing but positive things to say about his time at the University. He always expressed his appreciation in being afforded the opportunity to play football, meet a more diverse group of people and receive a degree from such a prestigious institution. Ferguson and his family, to this day, faithfully attend all home football games and can always be found flaunting their orange and blue.
SG: Can you state who you are and when you attended the University, what made you decide to go to UVa, and your major?
KF: I attended the University of Virginia from 1983-1987 on a full football scholarship, majored in psychology, and minored in economics. UVA was one of the football scholarships I received. I thought at that time that UVA was the best school for me, it was close to home and it was important for my family to [be able to ]get up [there]and see me play.
SG: What would you say is one of your favorite memories?
KF: Meeting my future wife. We’ve been together for 25 years even though we lived 20 miles apart, I knew who she was and meeting her was the most positive experience.
SG: Did you feel that you had to have a particular major in order to have tutors? Were you persuaded to pick certain majors over others because you were an athlete or do you believe you had free reign to pick what you were interested in?
KF: No, I think they definitely gave us free reign. After two years they helped us get into a program that we could both succeed in and were interested in.
SG: What was it like being a black man on the football team in the 80s sharing the quarterback position?
KF: Well, that was new because as far as I know…no one has told me anything to contradict it…but I think I was the first black quarterback here and there were definitely some pressures, perceived or not. I think there was some “racism” from some of my teammates with me being the first black quarterback with a white guy. But I think a lot of them were in favor of him and I think ultimately led to my demise in the quarterback position at the University of Virginia.
ZH: How did you overcome some of the discrimination of being black?
KF: Well I just believed in who I was, believing in myself, strong faith, strong family and I’m not a quitter and I would keep working hard and take care of the things I had control of and whatever happened, happened.
BA: What kind of programs allowed you to stay at the University and not feel like you needed to leave because it was not like home?
KF: Well I don’t know if there were any programs, its just I knew this was a place I wanted to be whether football worked out or not because of the esteem of this university. I wanted to get my degree from here because I knew it would open up doors close to home and all across the world. When you go into someone office or interview with that degree it opens up doors and that has proven to be true.
SG: So, would you say having a degree from the University was kind of that motivation for you to stay at the university?
KF: Definitely, because after my second year when I was demoted from quarterback I really thought about leaving and then I thought about well my aspirations was to become a professional football player. I guess I was smart enough to realize then that may or may not happen and the average life span was about three or three and half years, so I said I had to stay here and maintain my grades. Another thing was having my wife, girlfriend then, there for support that I decided this is where I needed to be.
SG: do you have any particular memories good or bad of your experience as a football player? Bad in the sense that you felt discriminated against or good where you really appreciated the football program?
KF: Well, definitely from a good perspective is the scholarship because I would not have been able to come here if I did not receive it. Bad in the sense that I did feel a little bit of racism not just from the white football players, but also the black players and that was challenging. But once again, I realized this is where I needed to be and fought through it and graduated in four years which was important to me.
SH: Since the football team wasn’t very welcoming, where did you find community?
KF: I didn’t join any fraternities. But I hate to keep saying this, but it was really my girlfriend, my wife now. I did have another set of friends that I used to hang out with, but mainly it was my wife.
SG: Are you familiar with Rugby Road? Did you ever attempt to go out on Friday or Saturday night?
KF: I went down Rugby Road a couple times my first year and never had any negative experiences. I think this was because if you were known as an athlete you were accepted more than a traditional student. But yeah I have to been to Rugby Road numerous times and never had a bad experience.
ZH: So I know you said you had friends outside the football team. Do you think there was a separation between being an athlete and just a regular student?
KF: Yes. I definitely think that is the case because you spend so much time with your football team. For instance, back in the 80s, we would get up and go to class together then go to U-Hall together and would meet, practice, eat and then have study hall, and lastly go back to our dorms. Especially first year, they did segregate us by having three or four football players in each dorm. We did get to have some relationship with normal traditional students. But essentially the football team becomes your family because majority of your time is spent with them. So you don’t have much time to do things outside of that family, but I did miss that interaction I wish I would of had with other students.
SG: What was your experience traveling with the football team to schools that are farther south or them coming to UVA that might have been more racist than UVA?
KF: When you’re traveling you really don’t see that because you are bused in straight to the hotel, almost secluded. I mean you hear fans saying things, but I personally did not hear anything, some of my other teammates did hear things.
SG: As an Alumni now what did it mean when Coach London decided to become the head coach at UVA, making him the first black coach?
KF: Oh, I was very excited and I knew I was going to do everything I could to support him! I knew that was a big step in the football program because once again I believe I was the first black quarterback here like him being the first black coach at the university. I will definitely continue to support him.
SG: How do you feel about the position David Watford may be in now as a black quarterback? Do you think things might have changed since you attended the university?
KF: The black dual quarterback position that David Watford is in not uncommon because the game has changed to that and I think David is an exceptional athlete. He had the opportunity last year to play and for the most part he did well. But if things don’t work out with him with Grayson, I don’t think he will think it’s from a racist perspective.
SG: Harrison Davis was one of 4 black men from Charlottesville who integrated the football team. I think it’s interesting that history wasn’t shared.
KF: I don’t know who that is and to this day, I’ve had no knowledge of that.
SG: I think that’s part of the motivation behind this Black Fire class because so much of the history of black people at the University isn’t told and even more sad to hear that its not passed down within the black community itself.
BA: You mentioned that your wife played an influential role in your decision to stay at the University, and was a very good support system so how did y’all meet?
KF: It’s interesting. We were in the dining hall. For about a month, and I would come in the dining hall and I would see her over here and I would see her over there and try to make eye contact and stuff. Then about a month into that goo-goo gaga stuff, I finally gained up enough courage to go and talk to her and the rest is history.
ZH: Do you think it’s common to find a college sweetheart at UVA?
KF: I don’t know. It all depends on the person. I did because, even in high school I dated one girl, and I’ve never been a player. So, I was fortunate enough that I found the one I wanted and knew the one I wanted and that’s it.
SG: Were other people dating?
KF: Oh yeah, well I guess you can call it dating. (laughs) I had those intentions when I came here, but then I met Janet and she stole my heart and that was it.
SG: Are you familiar with OAAA, the Office of African American Affairs?
SG: Did you participate in anything that they did or they offered? Were they of any assistance to you during your time at UVA?
KF: Yes, I was aware of them. I didn’t really participate in anything, you know. I certainly was made aware of them.
SG: What was your experience with the Peer Advisor Program? Did you have a peer advisor? Did you participate in the Peer Advisor Program even though it was relatively new?
KF: I’m not familiar with the peer advisor program. When I was there we didn’t really have such a thing that I knew of. But being an athlete, what we did have was tutors and access to all kinds of advisors to help us be successful. But I don’t know anything called a Peer Advisor Program.
ZH; Do you attend Black Alumni Weekend?
KF: I haven’t in the past ten years but I have been on two occasions. I’m not a frequent visitor.
SG: What was that like? What was that experience?
KF: It was fun. It was the first three years after college. I was eager to get back to see some of the people I went to school with. It was fun. You know, just like high school, it’s always good to get back, catch up, see where people’s careers have taken them, families, and all that.
SG: Would you say that you feel comfortable to come back to UVA aside from a football thing?
KF: Yeah, yeah. I’m here all the time. I have no problem. I love it when I come up here. I look for every opportunity to come back here.
SG: We talked in class about kind of having this love/ hate relationship with the university in a sense that there’s a lot of stuff that you learn about the space that you don’t really appreciate or understand why it had to happen that way but you still wake up every morning and say I love this place and I’m glad that I’m here.
KF: I do because like I said it’s afforded me a lot of opportunity. It’s afforded me to provide for my family. I guess I could have some of that [hate/ill-feeling toward the University] based on how things didn’t turn out for me in football but I won’t allow myself to go there. Life’s too short. You’ve got to forget about that stuff. You’ve got to live day by day and move on. You can’t dwell on the past. It’ll suck you in if you do. So I don’t allow myself to go there.
SG: Would you feel comfortable sending your boys to UVA?
KF: Definitely, wouldn’t have any restrictions at all. You know, they have their own individuality and they got to go find their way. Coming from where we come from it was black and white, not even any diversity whatsoever. It was either black or white. You need to get out and experience some of that and find your own way in life and I’m eager for my boys to get that opportunity, if it was at UVA or anywhere.
SG: Would you say that coming from Appomattox and having that strict division of black and white helped you at UVA in terms of dealing with those same kind of underlying racial tensions?
KF: Yeah, I really do thinks so because it helped me realize that the world really isn’t black and white as where we come from. To people of all colors and all complexions and you can feel like you can go up and communicate with them and talk to them. There weren’t as many prejudices as I experienced back in Appomattox when you go up to different people.
SG: Going back to a comment you made earlier about kind of experiencing discrimination from some of your black teammates, can you explain an example or a little bit more about what actually happened?
KF: Well once again this is my perception and I do believe it did happen. Without calling names, there were guys at key positions that—well it appeared— when I was in the game, it just felt, like, they didn’t put out the effort. They didn’t give their effort. When I was in the huddle, trying to be a leader, trying to coach them up, they just weren’t adhering to it, weren’t interested in it and then soon as I was taken out in favor of the white quarterback it seemed like they stepped their game up. Like I said, it may be my perception, because of what had happened to me but I think everybody could see it and I had that comment many times from my friends, who’d come to games and stuff like that when they saw this change about to happen. And that was disappointing, that was just hard for me.
SG: So I did a little bit of research for when we first asked to interview you and I found all this information about the white quarterback but there was very little information about you. I’m interested in knowing what does that feel like? Would you say that’s the kind of sentiment you felt when you were on the team and at UVA?
KF: The information you found, was it statistics, or what was it?
SG: It was a little bit of everything like what he did when he was UVa, the Peach Bowl, and what he’s done after UVA?
KF: I’m not so much disappointed because I think my duration was only for 6 games so I didn’t really have time to build that biography. So, I’m not disappointed from that perspective and I’m aware of that too when I go back to look at the programs and look at the records and all that kind of stuff. I used to be in there for some of the records, passes, touchdowns, passes, punts, and all that stuff but now that has so much done better and that is what happens. When you’re older someone takes that away from you. But no, because I understand that I just didn’t play long enough at that position to build that biography.
ZH: Do you stay in contact with any of the other football players that you were on the team with?
KF: Yeah, there are two or three that I follow closely. I’m not going to call out names because I don’t want to put their names out there but yeah; it’s two or three that I do stay in touch with. It’s like a fraternity. It really is. When you go onto a football team or a sports team, it’s like a fraternity. They become your brothers in a certain way…not all, maybe, but there are a handful that become your brothers and yet you truly deeply care about. ‘Til this day, with all the social media now you can find just about anybody you want if they want to put it out there. You can communicate that way but we still pick the phone up.
BA: The football team was more like your separate community at UVa, so how would you describe the Black community outside of the football team? How were they active in the community at UVa?
KF: My perception of that is that when we were there, and I’m basing it on the Greek fraternities and sororities, one interesting thing was when you go to step shows and so forth, you very seldom saw a white there. It was all Black. I don’t know if it’s like that today or not, but there were very few white people that attended those step shows. As far as us, the football team, we use to go to the schools and have days with the kids, and do all those kinds of things in the school system, but that was a mixture of Black, White athletes as well. As far as the Blacks, the non-football, traditional Black students and their involvement in the community, I don’t really know because I wasn’t involved with that many outside of the football program.
BA: And what would you say would be your standpoint on Black enrollment at UVa during your time at UVa? How did you feel about the ratio from Blacks to whites?
KF: Wasn’t enough. It wasn’t at all. I mean you would see most all the Blacks at the Black bus stop. I don’t know if you guys still have that or not. You could always put all the Blacks on one spot on the University congregating together. I guess it was probably
ten percent, twelve percent. It wasn’t enough. Not at all.
SG: So saying that, how do you feel now when it’s about six to seven percent?
KF: It’s hard to believe this day in time. It’s just hard to believe that they haven’t done anything to encourage the Black students to enroll in the University of Virginia. It is. That is disheartening to hear that the ratio isn’t higher now. That’s disappointing. Especially this day in time, especially when you think we’re progressing, but everything shows that we’re regressing and it’s disappointing. That definitely needs improvement.
SH: Did you ever have a class taught by a Black professor.
KF: No I didn’t. Never did.
SH: How did you feel about that?
KF: I don’t know that I really have a feeling one way or the other. I don’t.
SG: Were you ever the only Black person or the only Black male in a class?
KF: No, maybe one other, but no I can’t remember being the only Black. You could count them on one hand if they were in there, but I won’t the only one.
SG: So we learned that students were pretty socially and politically active in the 80s particularly with the things going on in South Africa and I know you say you’re not really sure what other students were doing because you were in the athletic realm. Would you say being an athlete and having those requirements and those duties expected of you prevented you from being a part of the larger Black community or was it just a personal decision to not . . .
KF: No. It’s just that and like I said I fell in love so quick with my girlfriend, my wife and seriously I did and that took up, between football and that and studies, trying to graduate in four years, that took up all my time. I often said that I wish I could go back to school and just be a regular student for four years and experience all that because when you’re an athlete truly, you don’t really get to experience the, I think the full perspective of a college student, because even more so football, it looks like that more of their time is taken up now than it was even when we attended.
SH: Did you ever attend Spring Fling or Fall Fling activities when you were there?
KF: No. Like I said, I didn’t get out very much after first year, but I had a good time
ZH: Pertaining to the social life at UVa, did you find yourself going to Rugby more or going to other Black parties at the University?
KF: I went to a number of Frat parties as well my first year. I probably attended more Frat (NPHC) parties than Rugby Road. You know I heard about Rugby Road, painting of the bridge and all that stuff. I went there to see what it was like and it wasn’t my cup of tea. First year especially, you go out there and drink, have a few drinks, you come back. That was the extent of it.
SG: Do you have any memory of the role that Black Greek organizations played, maybe in a social role or a political role? What did you think about Black Greeks as far as what they did at your time?
KF: I had some friends, and I still have some friends that are in fraternities and that’s brotherhood as well and I had no problem. There were no protests, no hell raising, none that I can remember during my time there, I don’t think. The Ques might have gotten kicked off for a little while I was there, but I’m not sure but I supported them. I had no problems. Matter of fact, I was encouraged to pledge a couple of them, but with my football fraternity and everything else, I didn’t see the need to.
SH: Were you familiar with the Black Student Alliance when you were there?
KF: Yeah, like I said I was aware of it.
SH: Did you ever go to any of the events like Black Culture Week or anything like that?
KF: Yeah, first-second year, I attended that one time.
ZH: So with athletes being looked up so much upon by the student body at UVa, how do you think as a Black student athlete you could’ve helped against some of the discrimination during the time you were there?
KF: That’s a good question. I don’t know what I could’ve done other than be myself and I guess I could’ve spoke up more when I did see signs of discrimination. You know like we all should be doing when we see a discriminatory act taking place, but like I said at that time we were so sheltered. I keep saying that, but we were. It was just a big family and like Sidney said, the Black heritage we didn’t get any of that. Nobody took the time. We didn’t have advisors; we didn’t have any academic advisors that were Black or anybody. Most of the people in those positions were white at that time. Nowadays, I understand they have Black males, females in those positions which I think would’ve helped us more.
SG: Did you ever feel like you were being sold short or not given all of the options that you might have had because the advisors and Deans were white working with a Black male?
KF: I think now knowing what I know today, I would have liked to had that experience of having Black male figures in those academic advisors as opposed to the whites because I think a lot of times they look at it like oh, let’s just do enough to get him by and I think if we would have had those Black male figures, positive figures they would have encouraged us to not only just do enough to be satisfied, but do enough to excel and don’t be afraid to take that next step and branch out. I do believe some of that was let’s do enough to get him by where if we would have had the Black influence to say you know you not just gonna get by, you gonna go and you gonna excel.
SG: And being that you said the football team was like a brotherhood, do they ever invite you guys back on grounds like for a football reunion or something in the athletics .
KF: Not before Coach London. That’s one thing that Coach London, his first year back, he made sure that he let the alumni know they welcome back at any time. Matter of fact, when he first came back, his first year, second year, he had all of us back on the lawn in front of the Rotunda and we took a big commercial picture right there and he took us all out to Aberdeen Barn for a nice steak dinner and cocktails and all that stuff. Coach London is a big, big proponent of that. He wants the alumni to come back. He wants them at practice. He wants them around the football program. He wants them to talk to the athletes and I’ve taken him up on it a couple times.
SG: I think that gets back to the point that we said earlier in how the history of Black athletes wasn’t shared with y’all, but the fact that Coach London is trying to get the alumni more engaged with the current players, it’s kind of addressing that issue. I never heard of that.
KF: Yes. He wants the current players to know the players that played before them. He wants to build those relationships.