Wiedmer: Riley Ferguson's 'PawPaw' nearly a Vols star

Wiedmer: Riley Ferguson's 'PawPaw' nearly a Vols star

July 7th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Vols T logo

Vols T logo

As the longtime pastor of Gunnings Baptist Church in Blountville, Tenn., Bob Ferguson has begun to hear the words almost daily.

"So you're Riley Ferguson's grandfather?" they'll ask the Chattanooga native and 1964 Kirkman High School graduate. "You must be so proud. We're so happy Riley's a Tennessee Vol."

And the preacher certainly is proud that his grandson will compete for the starting quarterback job at Tennessee as a true freshman out of Charlotte when practice begins next month. Bust-a-gut proud. Cow-over-the-moon proud, because Tennessee's his school, too. At least in Big Orange spirit.

As Bob said last week, "I've been a Tennessee fan all my life. I would have been happy wherever Riley went, even Alabama. But I was praying he'd choose Tennessee."

And yet it should have been the other way around, grandson compared to grandfather. Would have been, too, if not for timing and fate and pure bad luck.

If life had treated Ferguson the way it should have back in the mid-1960s, a lot of folks would be asking Riley: "So you're Bob Ferguson's grandson? That guy was one of the best Big Orange basketball players ever."

There is not the slightest hint of bitterness in Bob Ferguson's voice when he begins to retell the story of his youth. The story of a dysfunctional family eventually destroyed by divorce. Of a less than stellar academic career at Kirkman. Of a later knee injury that ended a possible NBA career before it could begin.

Or as Hiwassee (Junior) College's all-time scoring leader said with much more humor than hurt: "I'm 6-5, but I don't stand up straight anymore. Back then, though, this white boy could jump."

Ferguson could jump and shoot and rebound and defend so well at Hiwassee for coach Dwain Farmer that then-UT assistant Stu Aberdeen told then-UT head coach Ray Mears in the winter of 1966: "We have to have this guy."

They apparently had to have him so much that when the Vols stunned No. 1 and unbeaten Kentucky on the Wildcats' way to that year's NCAA title-game loss to Texas Western, Mears introduced recruit Ferguson to the Stokely crowd as "the best junior college player in the nation."

Said Ferguson 47 years later: "I wasn't, but I obviously liked the sound of it."

He liked it so much he signed with Mears, but when he arrived for fall classes there was no housing for married students. Ferguson had lived apart from his childhood sweetheart and wife Brenda (formerly Brenda Finney) his first year at Hiwassee, but now the couple had two children -- Bobby Jr. and Don (Riley's father) -- and the family needed to be together.

After temporarily finding housing in a Knoxville lawyer's guest house -- "We had to move when his brother-in-law unexpectedly came home from overseas," Ferguson said -- there was nowhere to put the family.

Having never played a minute for Mears, Ferguson again wound up with Farmer, who had moved from Hiwassee to Tennessee Wesleyan.

He played so well there that he made the United States' Pan American Games team in 1967, despite his first knee injury.

Then Ferguson, who averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds his final year at Wesleyan, received an invitation to the New York Knicks' training camp the following year.

"That Knicks team had Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Walt Bellamy, Phil Jackson," Ferguson recalled. "They were on their way to winning the NBA title. But I could rebound, I could scrap, and I was holding my own until I hurt my knee again."

When the Knicks cut him, he came home to Chattanooga, where he taught sheet metal and welding to troubled youth for a government program run out of the Warner Park Field House.

"If we taught them well enough," Ferguson said, "they didn't have to go to jail."

Yet rewarding as that work sometimes was, there was a void that only the Lord could fill. Bob Ferguson became a pastor, moving his five children all over the country -- Arkansas, Texas and Indiana before finally settling in Blountville, which is, according to the 67-year-old minister, "one hour and 29 minutes from Neyland Stadium."

Like any proud grandparents, Bob and Brenda already have planned to take in as many Big Orange games as possible, probably wearing replicas of the No. 10 jersey Riley has been issued.

"Though I actually lived in Neyland Stadium for a few days before I left for Wesleyan, I never went to a football game there until I became the pastor at Gunnings Baptist," Ferguson said.

"But it's electrifying. Though Riley didn't tell anybody in the media, he told me that when he went to Neyland for a game he knew that was the place he wanted to be."

It is the story we all love to hear about here in the South: a family's love of a particular Southeastern Conference school passed from generation to generation.

And Bob Ferguson won't be the only extended member of Riley's family making multiple pilgrimages to Neyland to watch No. 10.

Bob's younger brother David -- he also married his childhood sweetheart, but never left Chattanooga -- also plans to attend.

"Sharon and I will get up there as often as we can," said the 64-year-old David, who works for a division of Covenant Transport. "I play on a Senior Olympics basketball team, and those guys are already bugging me for tickets."

Thanks to a recent article in Inside Tennessee magazine detailing his near career with the Vols, a few more folks are starting to bug Bob Ferguson about his Big Orange past, so much so that he recently told Riley, "See, PawPaw's famous, too."

Replied his grandson: "Aw, PawPaw."

Yet David Ferguson said of Bob, a member of the Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame: "I was there. I saw him. In his prime, my brother could have played against anybody."

Instead, that opportunity now falls to his grandson in a different sport.

"Absolutely not. I couldn't be happier," Bob Ferguson said when asked if he has regrets. "Wherever I've been, whatever's happened in life, I've always been a huge fan of the Big Orange."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com