Personal draft-day call: Jaylon Ferguson's aid to tornado victims

Like many NFL draft prospects, Jaylon Ferguson had long dreamed about hearing the phone ring with the call that would change his life.

Instead, the sounds that Ferguson will always remember on draft day were the strong winds and blaring tornado sirens that woke him up during the night. Then, the lights went out.

Ferguson spent the early hours of April 25 fighting to stay up until the morning. His concern was no longer about whether he would get picked in the first, second or third rounds. It was whether his roof would remain on his house in Ruston, Louisiana, and if anything would come crashing through the windows.

"I came outside and saw that we were blessed to not be touched," Ferguson said. "But a couple of people around us weren’t."

The deadly tornado touched down for eight minutes, cutting a track of 6.8 miles through Ruston. The 135-mph winds wrecked 500 homes, caused $9.1 million in damage to city property and led to two casualties (a mother and her high school son were killed when a tree fell on their house).

The planned draft celebration with teammates wasn't going to happen for Ferguson, who was selected in the third round by the Baltimore Ravens. The NCAA's all-time sacks leader spent most of the draft joining the 5,000 volunteers in helping the recovery from the worst catastrophe in the history of the northern Louisiana city.

"I think Jaylon understood how Louisiana Tech offered him the opportunity to become the man he is," Ruston mayor Ronny Walker said. "He wanted to give back to the community that helped him so much over the years. For him to do that, that was incredible."

Ferguson, his father, and teammate Willie Baker aided in the search for people while removing uprooted trees from the streets. They later bought water and pizza to hand out to people in need.

"I think that tells you an awful lot about his character," said Rick Petri, the defensive line coach at Louisiana Tech. "Where others were saying things about his character. This tells you what his true character is."

The character question

Every time Ferguson met with an NFL team for a pre-draft visit, the first question was always about his character.

Why was your combine invitation rescinded?

Twelve days before Ferguson was headed for Indianapolis, the NFL notified him that he was banned from participation after a background check turned up an old conviction for simple battery -- from his freshman year, when a fight at a McDonald's resulted in a deferred judgment and a $189 fine.

The league later allowed Ferguson to attend to speak to teams, but still barred him from on-field drills and testing.

“I was disappointed, because I felt like it was something I worked hard at and earned the right to do in college," Ferguson said. "But at the same time, I understood, because there are rules. But I am still blessed to get the opportunity to play NFL football, so I don’t really hold it against anybody. Now we’ll move on to the next phase."

Since that incident four years ago, Ferguson built a reputation at Louisiana Tech for being soft-spoken and laid-back. The player affectionately known as "Sack Daddy" displayed passion on the field but never created problems off of it.

He is seen as a father devoted to his son. He is remembered for staying for a fifth year so he could become the first member of his family to earn a college degree.

"To be honest with you, [the questioning of Ferguson's character] kind of rankles me a little bit," Petri said. "For what he’s taken darts thrown at him is absolutely ludicrous. I would be terribly shocked and disappointed if that was ever a factor."

The Ravens did their homework before making Ferguson their second pick in this year's draft. Team officials met with him at the combine and brought him to their facility for one of their 30 pre-draft visits. Ravens scouts spoke with coaches and teachers at Louisiana Tech.

"We have an outstanding comfort level with him," general manager Eric DeCosta said. "So, I think he’s a good fit."

'This is where you belong'

After drafting wide receiver Marquise Brown in the first round, Baltimore knew it had to address its next biggest need with its next pick. Losing Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith in free agency left a major hole at pass-rusher for last season's No. 1 defense in the NFL.

The problem for the Ravens is they didn't have a selection in the second round and they didn't pick again until late in the third round. All of their attempts to trade up for Ferguson were unsuccessful, and DeCosta paced anxiously outside the draft room.

Fortunately for Baltimore, Ferguson was still on the board when it was on the clock with the 85th overall pick.

"You’re big, physical and get to the quarterback and stop the run," coach John Harbaugh told Ferguson on the phone moments after the Ravens drafted him. "That’s why we wanted you. This is where you belong."

There is a feeling of fate when it comes to Ferguson ending up in Baltimore. Two months after Suggs left the Ravens, the team brought in the pass-rusher who broke Suggs' NCAA sacks record.

Ferguson trailed Suggs by 1.5 sacks entering his final college game, and he eclipsed Suggs with his second sack late in the third quarter of the Hawaii Bowl.

"I’m a speed-to-power guy just like him," Ferguson said of Suggs. "He’s a good role model."

Ferguson was named the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year after accruing an FBS-leading 17.5 sacks last season and received the Most Valuable Player award at the Hawaii Bowl. He put pressure on quarterbacks on 19.1 percent of his rushes, which ranked second to Josh Allen (the No. 7 overall pick).

The slide for Ferguson, who was projected by some as a first-round pick, probably came from an underwhelming pro day. After showing up 10 pounds heavier than his playing weight last season, Ferguson ran the three-cone drill in 8.08 seconds, one of the slowest times for an edge rusher since 2000.

The Ravens, though, were sold on Ferguson after their last talk with him.

"I told [owner Steve Bisciotti] that you were the best pass-rush interview I ever had," defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale told Ferguson after he was drafted by the Ravens. "When you started talking about pass-rusher, your eyes lit up."

Just like many steps in the draft process for Ferguson -- from the pulled combine invitation to the disappointing pro day to the tornado during draft week -- even the biggest phone call of his football life proved difficult.

Ferguson had stepped outside during that part of the third round, and the Ravens couldn't reach him after a few attempts. Baltimore had to call Ferguson's agent, who handed the phone to the elated player.

"It was call of a lifetime," Ferguson said. "It is an opportunity of a lifetime."