When I first interviewed Vagas Ferguson we instantly bonded. Not only did we both go to the University of Notre Dame, but we both have family in Richmond, Indiana. I have fond memories of summertime visits to my great aunt’s farm in Richmond, and Vagas was thrilled to talk to someone who had not only heard of Richmond, Indiana, but had spent time there as well. I very much enjoyed hearing about the journey Vagas took from Richmond to Notre Dame, and the experiences he had there as a student-athlete. I hope you do, too. Here is former Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Vagas Ferguson’s story!
“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.” The concept that student-athletes at Notre Dame are students first, and athletes second, was very appealing to Vagas and his family. This was a huge selling point used by ND recruiter Brian Boulac, who was the driving force behind Vagas’ 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 grandparents’ 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 do for them on the field.”
The cultural make-up of Notre Dame in the late 70s was very complicated. While the University, much like the rest of the country, was doing its best to move forward it still had growing pains during the process. “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 in my kids and grandkids today. I have bi-racial grandkids. They don’t even see that kind of stuff at all.”
The Notre Dame Value Stream became ingrained in Her students’ lives without us even noticing. We all had highlights during our collegiate careers, students and student-athletes alike; whether it was a big play on the football field or a successful presentation in class. But the moments that we hold most dear of our time at Our Lady’s University are really much more basic than any of those big moments. “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.”
Not only did Vagas learn the value of hard work as a Fighting Irish football player, he also learned that quit was not a word in his vocabulary. His favorite on the field moment is a shining example of the never say quit attitude that he and his teammates shared. “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 20-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, including Coach Devine, 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 me 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.”
Vagas reminisced about what made Coach Devine such a great Notre Dame football coach. “What made Dan Devine good as a head coach is that he surrounded himself with good position coaches. These guys had great instincts and tremendous knowledge of the game. 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 Devine, was not able to do that.”
“I had two backfield coaches when I was at Notre Dame, but my primary coach was Jim 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 someday.’ 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 try to stay in touch with him to this day.”
I hope you enjoyed reading this excerpt from Vagas Ferguson’s story. Vagas is definitely one of my favorite Notre Dame running backs. Who are your favorites?
Cheers & GO IRISH!