Note: The following appears in the Syracuse gameday football program
He absolutely hated it.
Thinking the same way that probably most nine-year-olds new to the sport do, the Richmond, Va., native went into his first practice thinking he would play quarterback. He was really only trying out for football because he wanted a pair of Michael Vick’s first cleats, and his mom would not buy them for him to use for soccer, his chosen sport at the time.
During his first practice, he “got dealt a bad hand” by getting moved to defense, and the feeling of getting hit repeatedly at nose tackle almost ruined Ferrell’s future in the sport before it even got started.
He came to the sideline crying after the third play of his first game, a preseason jamboree matchup, but a pep talk from his brother was all he needed to flip the switch.
“After that pep talk, I went out there and dominated for the rest of the game. That’s my first memory of football. It was a tough one. It was horrible at first.
“But…I loved it,” he admitted with a smile.
Still, Ferrell did not necessarily picture football as a part of his future. Enrolled in Benedictine College Preparatory, an all-boys military Catholic high school, Ferrell thought he was going to join the military after graduation.
“I still played football (in high school)…I loved football, but I didn’t dream about playing in college. I didn’t think that would ever happen. But my sophomore year was my first year on varsity, and after that, I started getting recruited. I got my first scholarship offer from North Carolina, and I started thinking that I might actually be able to go to college for this one day.
“Clemson offered me when I was a sophomore, and then coach (Brent) Venables came to visit. I met him, and I loved him. My mom loved him, too, and she trusted him. She understood what I understood…I loved it here, and the people here were great.
“The atmosphere and being around the coaching staff…I felt like they really cared about their players. That’s what led me to here, and I committed the summer after my first visit.”
Ferrell said his relationship with Venables is a lot like that of Daniel and Mr. Miyagi from the movie, The Karate Kid.
“The biggest thing I liked about coach Venables was that he was very up front with me. I could tell just from talking with him that he was a real guy. I tell people this all the time…Clemson wasn’t really where I wanted to go to school, but Clemson ended up being what I really needed.
“Clemson has made me a better man. Coach Venables was someone who I felt like wasn’t going to take it easy on me and was going to give me what I needed to become better in life, as a person and a player.”
Venables had him ready to contribute on the field. After redshirting in 2015, Ferrell shared Clemson’s 2016 defensive rookie-of-the-year honors with Dexter Lawrence, producing a team-high 24 quarterback pressures in 15 games, all of which he started.
In the 2017 season, he became just the third freshman or sophomore in Tiger history to earn AP First-Team All-America honors, joining the ranks of Sammy Watkins and Deshaun Watson. He was second in the ACC in sacks and tackles for loss, as he earned First-Team All-ACC accolades.
But he does not place his focus on “stats pinnacles,” as he would rather be remembered for his work ethic and the kind of person he is. And there was one outward aspect of his gameday routine that he became known for and demonstrated just that…an arm sleeve with the words “Dream with me, baby” on it.
“The saying ‘Dream with me, baby’ comes from an old defensive line coach. He was asking us to do different things that we hadn’t necessarily done before in a gameplan. He would say ‘Hey, y’all, we’re going to be ok…just dream with me, baby…think how I think.’ I took that saying, and it reconciles with how I feel what my purpose in my life is.
“The place that I come from…I feel like a lot of people don’t have the hopes and dreams, or even the thought that they can have a better situation than they do. But I’m a true testament that you can do whatever you set your mind to…through me having the right attitude, having the right people behind me and having someone who believed in me.
“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish your dreams, and I believe I’m doing that. I put it on my sleeve to let anyone know…not just the people where I come from, but anyone…you can do it. And if you need someone to be behind you and give you some motivation, I can be that person.”
“This experience has meant the world to me. It’s molded me for the rest of my life. Obviously, college, in general, is going to be different, but coming here and going through football, social life and academics…it’s been life-changing for me, because it’s something that I didn’t think I was going to get a chance to do.
“Out of high school, I thought I was going to join the military. I didn’t think I was going to go to college, and for me to, by luck, choose a school like Clemson…a school that made me a better person by not taking it easy on me, not telling me what I wanted to hear, not letting me do whatever I wanted to do…I’m very thankful for it all, and I’m very blessed.