BY ANDY BAGGOT
MADISON, Wis. — Jake Ferguson slid behind the desk in his grandfather’s home office recently and did his best to bring clarity to a bewildering conversation.
When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on college sports, few participants have a more all-encompassing view of the matter than Ferguson, the junior tight end for the Wisconsin football team.
He’s one of the veteran leaders of the Badgers, one of the best at his position in the country with an NFL future to boot. He’s started every game of his college career — caught at least one pass in each — so he’s got a lot pain, sweat and effort invested in the moment.
Ferguson desperately wants to play this season, to help bring a Big Ten Conference championship to his hometown, and it gnaws at him that, for now, that will not happen.
“It’s always been football for me,” he said. “If I didn’t have football, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
Wisconsin Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson (84)
But amid the disarray created by COVID-19 — two Power Five leagues, including the Big Ten, have postponed their 2020 seasons — Ferguson has also come to appreciate that there’s a flip side to all of this chaos.
He knows what it’s like to be quarantined for two weeks because someone on the team tested positive for the coronavirus.
He knows that Big Ten decision-makers agonized over the details before electing to postpone the season.
Ferguson has seen first-hand how much the lost season weighs — the widespread financial and emotional implications — because his grandfather has shouldered a good chunk of the burden.
“I just ache,” Wisconsin director of athletics Barry Alvarez said. “I come home from work and I’m sick inside with what’s going on.
“But I can live with the decision we made.”
Standing a few feet away from his grandson, a gorgeous summertime Friday unfolding outside his home, Alvarez repeated his fundamental concern. Could he look at the family of a recruit and tell them, with his trademark confidence, that their son or daughter would be safe competing for the Badgers at the moment?
“I’ve got to look parents in the eye, including my daughter, and say, ‘We really care about your kid. We’re going to look after your kid,'” Alvarez said.
One room away his daughter, Dawn Thomas, was making breakfast for her youngest son.
“I can’t say that right now,” Alvarez said. “I don’t feel comfortable saying that and I’ll stand by that. We all want to play, but it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is the health and welfare of our kids.”
Even if it means millions of dollars in lost revenue to Wisconsin Athletics and years of complicated recovery.
Since the shutdown was announced last week, Ferguson said he’s taken a simple piece of advice from Alvarez to heart.
“Put your head down,” Ferguson said, “and just work your tail off.”
That approach has served Ferguson well thus far. In two seasons with the Badgers he’s caught 69 passes for 863 yards and six touchdowns in 27 games. He projected to be a major target for UW quarterbacks in 2020, partly because two elite playmakers — running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Quintez Cephus — left as underclassmen to jump to the NFL. But also because of his NFL profile, reliability and skill.
Ferguson, who played at Madison Memorial High School, said he’s tried to be a positive force around his teammates despite the uncertainty. He spoke of card games and golf tournaments. He talked about keeping an even keel.
“Trying to keep their heads up as much as possible,” he said. “I’ve got guys who are like, ‘This is it for me. Football’s done.’ I’m like, ‘You don’t know that. Just keep working.'”
Ferguson planned to meet with Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst even though he knew it might be a short visit.
“Not many questions that can be answered,” Ferguson acknowledged.
This coronavirus journey has been a strange one indeed. For the Badgers, it began at the same time Ferguson and his teammates were about to dive into a series of 15 spring practice sessions. Instead, campuses were shut down — classes were finished online — the NCAA abruptly shelved its March Madness itinerary and sports leagues around the world temporarily ceased operations.
In early June, with clearance from the Big Ten, the Wisconsin campus reopened to accommodate voluntary conditioning workouts by the football and volleyball teams. The activity was punctuated with protective masks, physical distancing, multiple COVID-19 tests each week and heightened cleanliness.
“It was rough the first couple days,” Ferguson said, noting how players and strength coaches were prohibited from celebrating milestone performances in the weight room. No back slaps, hugs or high fives. No shared meals or locker room gatherings, either.
“Not having that,” he said, “is really tough.”
Ferguson said the threat of COVID-19 reared its head a couple times during voluntary workouts.
“You start thinking of buddies that might get it and stuff and you think, ‘This is real,'” Ferguson said. “I couldn’t imagine losing a teammate.”
When the Big Ten released its schedule earlier this month, Ferguson and his teammates got their hopes up. Ten league games. Home season opener with Indiana on Sept. 4. It was enticing even though Camp Randall Stadium would be devoid of fans.
“At first, all I thought about is, I want a season,” Ferguson said. “Guys were putting in the work. That’s one of the things that separates us from other places. Our guys are here to work.”
But the Big Ten announced it would not have a football season and that all fall sports were postponed. After breaking the news to his team, Chryst suggested his players go out and have fun playing some football. Ferguson described a field overrun with mask-wearing teammates having a good time.
“Seeing that,” he said, “makes you want to play.”
Ferguson said he’s going to treat the upcoming offseason like spring ball and “just get ready for whenever that next time is.”
There’s been talk of staging a Big Ten season starting in January. Alvarez heads a committee of league ADs and coaches, including Chryst, to explore that and other options.
Alvarez said he asked his grandson for his thoughts on such a concept.
“I think we’re both pretty much on the same page right now,” Ferguson said.
As the discussion unfolds, Alvarez was asked if he’ll use Ferguson as a conduit to his teammates.
“I don’t want that burden on him,” Alvarez said. “I care about him as my grandson and I want to do what’s best for him.
“I don’t want to burden him with my problems, my issues. He’s worried about training and school.”
“School and training,” Alvarez said with a laugh.
Major college football is fraught with issues right now. While the Big Ten and Pac-12 have shut things down citing medical concerns, the ACC, Big 12 and SEC are planning to play.
Questions and motives abound. Will major college football games be played this fall or will there be an unconventional replacement on display when the calendar turns to 2021?
What gives Ferguson confidence that he and his teammates will play this season?
“Hope,” he said. “Football’s never done me wrong. I just have a feeling that this isn’t it.”