While growing up in San Luis Obispo, senior defensive end Jack Ferguson played in the shadow of his future team, dreaming of the day he could take the field with Cal Poly football.
He never thought he would play a different sport for the Mustangs, but Ferguson’s collegiate athletic career has led him straight to Cal Poly Rugby.
Currently, Ferguson is going through rigorous training to bulk up for the National Football League (NFL) Pro Day, where scouts come and watch the athletes showcase their strength, speed and athleticism. His trainers worry that he is burning the candle at both ends, lifting in the morning and playing rugby at night. Ferguson, however, is not as worried.
“Maybe some cuts and black eyes here and there,” Ferguson said. “I’m not too worried about anything too serious — knock on wood.”
An average day for Ferguson entails six or seven hours of lifting, conditioning and practicing.
“I enjoy it because I love being in the weight room or on the field,” Ferguson said. “To me, that’s just having fun.”
According to Cal Poly Rugby head coach James Tesoriero, Ferguson’s work ethic has been contagious to his whole team since first joining after football season.
“[Football transfers] have very good training habits,” Tesoriero said. “Their work ethic coming from that varsity sport lifts the level of the other guys.”
Though the sports seem relatively similar on the surface level, the transition from football to rugby is anything but simple. In rugby, it is a penalty for the defense to tackle an opponent without wrapping their arms around the offensive player. In football, Ferguson does not have to worry about wrapping his arms around every opposing player he tackles, as long as they still go down.
“Often when we transfer footballers into rugby they’re a little bit expensive, as in they make a lot of good tackles, but they pick up a lot of penalties,” Tesoriero said. “At the moment, there have been no issues with Jack.”
To ease the transition, Ferguson had a little help from his friends. Four Cal Poly football players decided to play rugby this season, including senior center Joey Kuperman, who also lives with Ferguson. Kuperman played rugby for years before college, so he has the skill set to teach his rookie roommate a thing or two.
Ferguson also made sure to do his homework before stepping on the rugby field.
“A family friend of mine who heard I was playing rugby actually gave me ‘Rugby for Dummies’,” Ferguson said. “I sat down for like three days and read the book front to back and I learned so much.”
According to Ferguson, the biggest difference between football and rugby is not the tackling, but the conditioning. Instead of playing in short five-second bursts, as in football, rugby is continuous. There are no huddles after every play and very few dead ball periods for winded players to catch their breath.
“In football, there’s still the constant movement, but in rugby, you have to be able to take off for the ball whenever,” Ferguson said. “It’s so much less structured and you have to have your head on a swivel at all times.”
Though Ferguson’s main goal is to carve out a spot in the NFL like previous Cal Poly defensive linemen such as Nick Dzubnar and Josh Letuligasenoa, he has drawn some interest from professional rugby teams overseas after playing in just two matches in his lifetime.
Tesoriero has ties with Australian rugby clubs which have picked up many Cal Poly athletes in the past.
“He’s obviously ambitious about his American football,” Tesoriero said. “If that doesn’t work out, then there’s a big future for him in rugby.”
Obviously, there is a learning curve Ferguson needs to adjust to before he can compete at a professional level, but Tesoriero thinks he can get there.
“It’s just a matter of him getting as much experience in as little of time as possible,” Tesoriero said. “So sending him down to Australia would be a bit of a crash course and [would] really accelerate his development.”
Ferguson had some reservations about jumping into a new sport, but not because of the physical differences in the two games. He was primarily worried about stepping on anyone’s toes, as he was unsure how the club would react to a football player waltzing into the starting lineup of a sport he had never played. So far, the rugby club has welcomed the six-foot-two-inch, 270-pound human wrecking ball with open arms.
“I’m super grateful they’re giving me this opportunity,” Ferguson said. “They easily could have said ‘Screw this guy, he thinks he can come in and play,’ but I’ve tried to be as humble and respectful as possible.”