A Ravens coach called Patrick Queen the morning of June 21 with devastating news: Jaylon Ferguson, a teammate for the past two years, a friend who’d grown up just 25 minutes away in their native Louisiana, had died hours earlier.
“I was just sitting there shocked and broke out crying, really, and then I still couldn’t grasp it,” Queen, a third-year inside linebacker, said. “It took me, probably, a good, two, three days just to calm down and be able to accept it. But it’s still tough.”
With the Ravens reunited in Owings Mills for training camp, Queen, his teammates and their coaches are walking a tricky emotional tightrope: reckoning with the lingering trauma of Ferguson’s sudden passing while preparing for a pivotal 2022 season, all amid questions over star quarterback Lamar Jackson’s uncertain future in Baltimore.
In a meeting ahead of the Ravens’ first full-team practice Wednesday, coach John Harbaugh addressed Ferguson’s death in person with his team for the first time. He said he told his players “that the only thing I can think to say is that I really don’t know what to say.”
Ferguson, 26, a fourth-year outside linebacker and father of three, was found unresponsive in a North Baltimore home less than a week after the Ravens finished their mandatory minicamp and departed for a summer hiatus. An autopsy found Ferguson died accidentally from the combined effects of fentanyl and cocaine, according to a spokesman for the Maryland medical examiner’s office.
Harbaugh, who in 2016 also dealt with the death of Ravens cornerback Tray Walker, said the team has made grief counselors available, but “everybody handles it in their own way.”
Queen said he wants to remember the “good things” about Ferguson’s life and legacy. Veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell said he hopes the Ravens can show Ferguson’s family just how much he was appreciated in Baltimore; the team is planning to honor Ferguson this season, possibly on its uniforms.
“You do the best you can with it,” Harbaugh said a news conference Wednesday. “But our hearts are always going to grieve for Jaylon; they’re always going to go out to [his fiancee] Doni [Smith] and the family. And that’s kind of where it’s at.”
Campbell called Ferguson’s passing “hard for all of us.” When he reported for camp along with other veterans, conversations with teammates turned to the player affectionately known as “Sack Daddy,” a nickname that was a nod to his defensive prowess in college.
“You definitely have that sense that you lost a really good friend, a person that you cared about,” Campbell said. “It’s definitely still hard, but I think that it’s something that we have to kind of manage as a team. I know that a bunch of guys want to do something for him this year, and for his family, to show our appreciation for his friendship and to try to help his family out. …
“That’s one of those things where it’s heartbreaking, and you just pray for his family and try to make sure that whatever we can do to help each other through the process, we try to do it as a group. But it’s something that I’ll probably think about every day this season.”
Ferguson’s death stunned teammates, who a day after his passing recalled recent locker room conversations they’d had with the 2019 third-round draft pick.
Ari Miller, a licensed professional counselor who serves as Johns Hopkins’ assistant director of student-athlete mental health and performance, said losing a teammate “really feels like a loss of a family member.” Miller, who’s worked with teams reeling from a sudden death, said it’s important that players feel comfortable accessing their feelings of loss. In settings where players are discouraged from being “open and honest” about their grief, Miller said, it can be difficult to process tragedy.
“Social support and being able to feel — that is an essential piece to moving through the grieving process. And experiencing loss together can sometimes help with that,” Miller said in an interview. “That sense of community and coming together in that way is really valuable.
“Training camp or practice or something that’s already planned for a team can aid that. It can be really helpful for coaches and teammates just to be physically together to emotionally support each other and to move through this as a unit, as a family. I think it can be really productive. Sometimes that common goal that a team works toward unifies them, regardless of a tragedy, and I think that dynamic can really help with a healthy, natural process of experiencing loss.”
The Ravens have already made clear one goal for their 2022 season: Get to the playoffs. Undercut by injuries all last season, the team fell short of the postseason for the first time since 2017. Campbell, 35, who re-signed with the Ravens in April for another shot at the Super Bowl, said the team’s dreary finish last year — six straight losses that knocked the Ravens from the top of the AFC to a disappointing 8-9 record and last-place finish in the AFC North — left “a bad taste in your mouth the whole offseason.”
The biggest question in Baltimore, though, is the future of Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player and one of the league’s biggest stars.
Despite a disappointing 2021, Jackson entered camp in line for by far the biggest contract in franchise history. He resumed negotiations with general manager Eric DeCosta at the Ravens’ June minicamp, and a recent megadeal for Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray — a five-year extension worth $46.1 million annually, including $105 million fully guaranteed upon signing — could serve as a baseline for further talks.
Jackson, who told reporters Thursday he remains optimistic about reaching a deal with the Ravens, is entering the final year of his rookie contract. He’s also representing himself in negotiations, a rarity among NFL players. Asked if he is comfortable going into the season without a contract, Jackson said there would be a “cutoff” to the talks at some point; he didn’t specify when. He’s declined to say whether he’d be willing to play this season without a deal done.
“It’s obviously a very strange situation for everybody else, including me,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “But whenever I talk to him, he’s always like, ‘I’ll get it done when it gets done.’ So, for some reason, people can’t really believe that. But all the guys on the team know that’s kind of true, and when he feels like he wants to do that, he’ll do it.”
The Ravens have six weeks before their Sept. 11 season opener to take care of business. Their preseason schedule kicks off in Baltimore on Aug. 11, and training camp closes to fans on Aug. 17. The team’s last round of roster cuts will be made Aug. 30.
In Owings Mills, the Ravens have made an unusual camp feel like business as usual. On one practice field Wednesday, the team’s outside linebackers worked through pass-rushing drills. On another, Jackson connected with receivers on downfield throws as fans clapped in delight. Harbaugh moved from station to station, checking in with players and coaches as they labored through a humid afternoon practice. Their work was just getting started.
“It never actually gets easier, but at the same time, you know it’s coming, and you just do it,” right guard Kevin Zeitler said. “Before you know it, it will be over, and then we’ll be on to the season, which is where the fun really starts. So bring it on.”