Duke Fergerson - Harlem's Head Hellfighter

Twenty years after his departure from pro football, former Seahawk Duke Fergerson came back to the game and found his mission - to bring high school football back to Harlem.

“We, as a community…as a neighborhood…as a society…have to accept responsibility for them (the children of the communities). We have to be very mindful in creating real pathways…so that our communities don’t explode” - Gayle Stevens Haynes, Provost, Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus

It was forty years after Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African-American graduate of the United States Military Academy, and almost thirty years before the legendary Tuskegee Airmen took to the skies in World War II with great distinction. It was a time, as before and after, when America’s need for its people of color to serve was followed by its refusal to accept that service as an admission to equality and real citizenship.

With World War I in full bloom, the first effort to organize a colored National Guard regiment in New York City was sponsored by Charles W. Fillmore, a colored citizen, in June of 1916. The effort to secure proper approval of this regiment was taken up by Gov. Charles S. Whitman, who had followed the gallant fight of Negro troops of the Tenth Cavalry against Mexican bandits at Carrizal in May of that year.

By the first of October, ten companies had been formed, and the regiment was recognized by the State of New York and given its colors. By April of 1917, the regiment had reached peace strength, with 1,378 men, and was recognized by the Federal Government. Two weeks later, the organization was authorized to recruit to war strength. The first battalion of four companies was recruited in Manhattan; the second battalion in Brooklyn, and the third from Manhattan and the Bronx.

Training the men proved difficult at times. At first they were drilled in Lafayette Hall at 132nd Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City. But the hall was too small, and many of the fifty squads which drilled nightly had to take to the streets to carry out their maneuvers. Later, they went for three weeks to Camp Whitman in central New York. An announced plan to send the regiment to train at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina caused a storm of protest from the town’s residents. And although the men were subject to withering racism and segregation, the Spartanburg training proved a success. On December 3, 1917, the Navy Department notified the transport's commander to put to sea.

Upon arrival in France, they were fired upon almost immediately - it is said that some members of the 369th were killed by U.S. Marines who could not abide the presence of colored soldiers. Because no white soldier would fight alongside them or be assigned to their units, they were assigned to the French Fourth Army. But when they did see action, the men of the 369th came to be known among the French and the Germans as "Hell Fighters." The regiment participated in the action which followed the German offensive on the 15th of July, 1918, when the Germans were reinforced by released prisoners from Russia, and they were at maximum force. The Germans had broken through the British line, and had torn through the French at Montdidier.

The Hellfighters proved themselves to be one of the most efficient military units of all the Allied forces. They served for 191 days in action and were cited for bravery eleven times. The entire regiment received the French Croix de Guerre for gallantry under fire. Individually, 171 of its officers and enlisted men were decorated with the Croix de Guerre or the Legion of Honor. Officers and soldiers were constantly encouraged by the gratitude of the French, who never failed to show their appreciation for the wonderful fighting prowess of the men of the 369th.

Credited with being the first group of musicians to introduce jazz to Europe, the 369th Regimental Band, led by Lieutenant James Reese Europe, became famous on the battlefronts. Its Drum Major was Sergeant Noble Sissle, later to become known on Broadway as a singer, conductor and composer. The band played for both American and French units in camps, hospitals, and for civilians behind the lines.

The story of the 369th, of its hard fighting in France, of its return to America, and of its triumphant procession through the streets of New York City under the Victory Arch, is a priceless piece in the lineage of African-American military service.

And still, as with so many other men of color who had served their country with unquestionable skill and gallantry, the Hellfighters of the 369th found themselves victims of the same racism and class conflict they were hoping to have left behind. America, having benefited from the courageous actions of these men during wartime, had no use for them at peace. It would not be the last time.

In June of 1944, a young black second lieutenant boarded a military bus in Fort Hood, Texas and was ordered to the back of the bus by the driver. The officer refused, and by his refusal, was charged with insubordination. The nine judges at his court martial were impressed by the man’s record and unconvinced by the contradictory testimony of his accusers. It took only minutes for the soldier to be found not guilty. The second lieutenant asked for and received an honorable discharge.

The name of that second lieutenant was Jack Roosevelt Robinson. Through his own breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Robinson would virtually split the 20th century into two parts and prove to generation after generation of courageous people of color (or, indeed, any courageous individual who chose to see the value of the changes to come) that athletics could set the pace and forward the cause.

Almost ninety years after the origin of the Harlem Hellfighters and more than half a century after Robinson’s pioneering actions, a man named Duke Fergerson is passing those lessons on in his own way, with his own set of Hellfighters.

The Self-Made Man

“It takes a long time to become a person” – Candice Bergen

The exceptional life that Duke Fergerson has created did not have auspicious beginnings. An Idaho native, he graduated from high school in 1972 in Merced, California, barely able to read and write. His grades were horrific and his SAT score was 540, which was Fergerson’s wake-up call. Without the benefits derived from a legitimate education, he could see himself drifting into the kind of life his own father had led – relying on handouts and dying in front of a liquor store at the age of 41. So, after graduating from high school, he taught himself to read and write at a high school graduate level, went to junior college, to Washington State and then transferred to San Diego State, where he earned a degree in political science.

What he always had was football. Fergerson was a good enough wide receiver at San Diego State to be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1976. He was eventually sent to the Seahawks in the trade that brought Tony Dorsett to Dallas. ’77 was his best year (he caught 19 passes for 374 yards and 2 touchdowns in his rookie campaign, finishing second on the team in receiving behind Steve Largent), but every year after that in Seattle, he saw his stats decline. Fergerson was traded to the Bills in 1980, catching 3 passes for 41 yards that year.

After the 1980 season, Fergerson retired and took a sabbatical from the game – a sabbatical that in his mind, would likely last forever. "I purposely and emphatically stayed out of football," he recently recalled. "I had gone on with my life. I had not intended to get back into football. Really, I wanted to develop my life separately apart from athletics." During his pro career, Fergerson had taken additional college courses and hired tutors to expand his intellectual reach and prepare for life after football.

Over the next two decades, Fergerson was a success by any standard. He worked on several political campaigns, did post-graduate work at Harvard, lived on both coasts and overseas. He also became involved with The Staubach Company, the massively successful corporate and retail real estate company formed In 1977 by former Dallas Cowboy quarterback and Hall Of Famer Roger Staubach. It was on a economic development project in Harlem in 2002 that Duke Fergerson’s life once again merged with the athletic world.

It was here that he would find his mission.

From Humble Beginnings…

“Duke is focused on one thing – he wants to be a better role model” - Gil Brandt

One day in 2002, Fergerson walked by a Harlem park and saw some kids playing football. He gave some tips to the kids, a Pony League team sponsored by the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and came back the next day. Soon he became their leader by proxy after the team’s coach quit without notice. Fergerson then discovered what he was up against when he coached the team in actual games – parents yelling at coaches and players throwing garbage at referees on a field that the team didn’t have permission to use. The field was covered with, in Fergerson’s words, “dog stuff” and broken glass. “I was delighted when the season ended”, said Fergerson. “This justified why I stayed away from football.”

One of his players, a 15-year old, upped the ante when he asked Fergerson where he could play football when he began attending high school. The boy had outgrown Pop Warner football, and Fergerson soon discovered that due to the financial outlay and practice space needed, Harlem had no high school football programs in place. “I knew I couldn’t walk away”, Fergerson said. “The kid had asked me and trusted me, and I couldn’t abandon him.”

By the spring of 2003, Fergerson had recruited over 70 kids from subways, basketball courts and the streets and began a series of practices on the baseball and basketball facilities at the Colonel Young Park on 145th Street and Lennox Avenue in Harlem. He did this despite the fact that his embryonic team had no uniforms, no pads, no blocking sleds or other practice equipment, and no guarantee that the Public Schools Athletic League would give them the go-ahead to play against other PSAL teams with official approval.

There was little encouragement when Fergerson looked to local educational and community leaders for help – he was either told that football would cost the community too much money, or that Fergerson would have extreme difficulty imposing a regimented football program on Harlem’s street kids. All Fergerson knew was that he had a park full of kids who were waiting to prove something. “What it came down to is this: New York is great if you’re a developer”, he said. “It’s not great for kids, because they don’t generate revenue for the city or state. But if we can afford to send somebody to jail when they do bad, why can’t we afford to help them do something right?” Fergerson also received opposition from other area schools who felt his idea to recruit from 13 Harlem schools put their own teams at a disadvantage. Never mind that Fergerson’s kids had nothing but the desire to be a team and join a league at that point.

They did, however have a name – after gaining approval from an Army general, Fergerson gave the Hellfighters name to his team that, technically, didn’t exist yet. “Like us, the 369th regiment had no place to train.”, he said. “But they fought with a level of distinction that was undeniable, and they came back to Harlem heroes.”

Undaunted, Fergerson put a plan together. As a former NFL player, he was eligible for a $10,000 stipend from the NFL’s Youth Football Fund. He also enlisted the support of Staubach and former Cowboys Vice President of Player Personnel Gil Brandt, as well as former Brigham Young University football coach LaVell Edwards (who was in Harlem on a Mormon mission) and Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright. Fergerson’s football connections provided crucial ballast in the form of name recognition, and Wright’s local influence landed Fergerson a meeting with New York City’s Department of Education and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Fergerson put it to Klein that although there was a recruiting advantage on the surface, the 60-year void of football in Harlem was a handicap that made such an advantage necessary – he’d have to create a tradition on the fly. Klein was also moved by the fact that Harlem would need additional help with players due to their lack of facilities and equipment. Klein waived the rules and approved the plan to form a football collective. The Hellfighters were given a one-year waiver and set up with a four-game pilot schedule in 2003 that would test the feasibility of football in Harlem from the standpoints of student interest and financial resources.

A Passion For The Game

“They were willing themselves to lose. Cultural habits held them back. It had nothing to do with anything else. You’re dealing with kids who are used to freeform, freestyle, ghetto activities. It took time (for them) to adjust to a different culture. I had to be a drill sergeant.” - Duke Fergerson

Bolstered by Klein’s approval and newfound community support, Fergerson got to work with a vengeance. He scheduled more spring and summer practices and found a base of operations for his team – the high-achievement Thurgood Marshall Academy, a college prep school with a disciplined curriculum and an emphasis on student development. Principal Sandye Martin saw the benefits of Fergerson’s plan and offered her full support. Players were required to attend a two-hour study hall before each practice, and Martin herself was not above calling a player out, no matter what school he may have attended – when one of the Hellfighters’ most talented players repeatedly yelled at a referee in the team’s first-ever game, Johnson came out of the stands and suspended him from the next contest. Fergerson was in complete agreement with the suspension – self-respect and respect for others were inviolable tenets on which he had based his life, and his players would either follow his lead or go find something else to do.

In truth, Fergerson lost a number of kids through that first preseason due to the stringent academic and behavioral requirements he had established, but he refused to back down. He knew full well that a lack of discipline would result in a circular route back to a lesser existence. “When I yell at my players, I’m not yelling at them – I’m yelling at that way of life”, Fergerson said.

The players who stuck with it understood. “This program isn’t only producing athletes”, said quarterback Rodman Crenshaw, “it’s producing student-athletes. Coach Duke is tough on us because he knows what we’re capable of. When we give him less, he doesn’t accept that.”

Meanwhile, logistics were still an issue. Fergerson had purchased the necessary equipment for the team with his $10,000 stipend and additional funds from the New York Jets organization (who saw their involvement with the Hellfighters as another arm of their “Generation Jets” program, which helps New York children in a number of ways – with sports, nutrition and scholastics), but the uniforms and pads didn’t arrive until the day before their first game. The team was schlepping from field to field, eventually practicing on concrete – and because of the delay in the equipment’s arrival, they had to go from basic drills to full contact football literally overnight. Still, after so many months of struggle and preparation, Duke Fergerson’s dream would be realized – the Harlem Hellfighters were about to take the field for the very first time.

The Hellfighters Hit The Road

“The thing about this team is that the guys know adversity. Every week, they have responded to the challenge. They’ve stepped up. I know they are going to come out and play hard” – Duke Fergerson

Given Fergerson’s motivation in building his team, the Hellfighters’ first game at Garden City High School in Long Island was certainly ironic – the spot was open to play because the team from Mepham High, Garden City’s original opponent, has lost its season due to a scandal involving hazing and sexual assault.

“This is what you’ve asked for”, Fergerson told his players in the visitors’ locker room on November 1, 2003. “All I ask is that you don’t quit out there, even if it’s 38-0 in the first quarter.” No chance of that. 26 young men of color and one white Mormon (Ron Shepard, who had been nicknamed “Shockey”) burst onto the field ready for their first real taste of football. They faced a superior opponent and an enemy crowd, and found themselves outmatched and down by the score of 34-0 with less than two minutes to go. Then, Hellfighters quarterback Jachin Brown hit receiver Raymondo Townsend for a 37-yard TD. The Hellfighters lost that first game 34-6, but the crowd, aware of what the team had been through and the distance they had traveled, gave them a standing ovation as they left the field.

The Hellfighters finished their trial season with a record of 1-3, but they had proven beyond any doubt that they had the determination and support to make a go of it on a long-term basis. The Harlem Hellfighters Historical Society, an organization devoted to keeping the legacy of the original Hellfighters alive, offered the team storage space for its equipment at its armory. The team also gained a new support base when the NFL, from their head offices in Manhattan, became involved in a larger sense. The players were invited to a film session at the league’s boardroom office, a meeting at which former NFL head coach and Hall of Famer Art Shell and Hall of Famer Mike Haynes spoke. NFL official Keenan Davis became the team’s defensive coordinator.

The Second Season

“We don’t have much, but we have heart. We play harder than anybody” – Hellfighters running back Anthony Lowe

For their second season, the Hellfighters were finally invited to join the PSAL and play a full schedule. The team still had difficulty finding actual practice space, but they knew they would start this year as a fully formed entity. Fergerson could see the difference on the kids he had coached – and no matter what happened on the field, that was a victory in and of itself. Fergerson reminds his players that football can be more to them than just a game – they can turn their experiences as Hellfighters into careers as journalists or agents or team officials or league executives. The sky is the limit, he tells them - if you want it badly enough. To further that vision, Fergerson contacted college recruiters to see his team play.

“I want to build a program that will be here 100 years from now, that will be a constant vehicle for young men to achieve their goals and ambitions”, Fergerson recently said. “The lessons we can teach on the football field are transferable and redeemable at later stages in life.”

The Hellfighters’ first full season encompassed an entirely new world of experiences – they finished the 2004 campaign with a 5-3 record, including a trip to play the Prospect Hall team in Washington D.C. and a game against Stuyvesant High, which was celebrating its centennial homecoming. The Stuyvesant game, played on October 10, 2004, was part of a “Football America” documentary produced by NFL Films. The legendary film company would also follow the players to study hall and meetings with class counselors, as well as a team practice. When asked about the attention his team is receiving, Fergerson said, “They love it. I want them to feel like this. When we walked down the street with the cameras, you would have thought this was a team coming back from winning a championship game for the United States, the way people responded to them.”

The only thing missing was a Victory Arch – but nobody seemed to mind.

The documentary itself is a shining tribute to Fergerson’s original vision, and the players find themselves with different minds two years on. Defensive end Alfonza Coleman, one of Fergerson’s original recruits, has lost over 50 pounds since joining the team. His grades, once C’s and D’s, are now B’s. His goal is to attend college and major in accounting.

“I’m more focused now”, Coleman said. “I have more direction. And I love representing Harlem.”

A Brighter Future (speedbumps included…)

“It was all on faith. But if Coach Fergerson could come out here every day, if he could believe that there would actually be some games, then so could I” – Hellfighters wide receiver Michael Goodwin

Fergerson knows there’s no turning back now. The game of football, which he once saw as an obstruction to the life he envisioned, had become the pathway to the realization of his most important charge.

There were further bumps in the road after that first full season – according to Marty Oestricher, the New York City Department of Education’s Chief Executive of School Support Services, the Hellfighters were forced to forfeit their victories for using ineligible players. Two players were academically ineligible, and two had not submitted medical forms – a regrettable side effect of the difficulty of assembling information from thirteen schools. “It’s an unfortunate situation, but hopefully we can help them with this next year”, Oestricher said. “Coordinating records from a lot of different schools takes extra work, but is has to be done.” Fergerson simply said that he wished that the PSAL had notified him sooner. “We needed help”, he said. “We knew coordinating paperwork…was going to be problematic. We’re still in a state of shock.”

Duke Fergerson then spoke of the kids he had taken into his heart, the kids he takes to breakfast and to the movies, the kids who respect “Coach Duke” as a rare positive role model…the kids whom he has shown an entirely new world. “These kids had nothing, but somehow they found a way to play schools with new fields and beat those teams”, he said. “(They) won with a sense of self and a sense of accomplishment that they’ll carry the rest of their lives. The PSAL can’t take that away.”

Duke Fergerson is there to make sure that his lessons remain.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at doug@seahawks.net.



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