Camp Randall 100: Rufus Ferguson

Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player Rufus Ferguson
Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player Rufus Ferguson

The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.


The spirit and the crowds are back at Wisconsin and there’s no question that the Pied Piper of Madison is Rufus Ferguson. … Ferguson sends electric shocks of excitement thru the admiring throngs when he gets his hands on the football and does wondrous things.

— Chicago Tribune sportswriter Roy Damer


BY MIKE LUCAS | UWBadgers.com Senior Writer

Posed Photo of Wisconsin football player Rufus Ferguson (#21) running at the camera and carrying the ball with his helmet off on the Camp Randall Stadium field.
Rufus Ferguson

Wisconsin’s embattled head coach John Coatta recruited Rufus Ferguson out of South Florida — Miami’s Killian High School — and predicted that the 5-foot-6, 195-pound Ferguson would put fannies in the seats of Camp Randall Stadium with his flamboyant personality and unique running style.

The summer prior to his freshman year in Madison, he served as a congressional page in Washington, D.C.  When he got to campus, he was already answering to a nickname. After stealing 42 bases in 19 American Legion baseball games, Ferguson was tagged as the “Roadrunner.” Beep, beep.

Freshman coach LaVern Van Dyke loved telling the story of picking up Ferguson at the airport on his official recruiting visit. It was a typical winter day in the Midwest — windy and below freezing — when Ferguson stepped off the plane dressed for South Beach, not central Wisconsin.

Van Dyke easily picked Ferguson out of the crowd and shouted out his name, whereupon an innocent and puzzled Ferguson inquired, “How’d ya know it was me?’”

Four years later, no introductions were needed. Ferguson evolved into an explosive tailback and genuine crowd-pleaser — spiking attendance at Camp Randall Stadium. Just like Coatta said he would. But Coatta never got a chance to really coach him. He was fired after Ferguson’s freshman season.


Rufus “Roadrunner” Ferguson was featured on the cover of the 1972 Wisconsin football media guide. An action shot of No. 21 — cradling a football in his right arm and making a cut off his right foot — was superimposed over an aerial view of a sold-out Camp Randall Stadium.

The cover included the ’72 schedule and some pertinent information on Ferguson. Like the fact that he had rushed for the all-time school record of 1,222 yards in 1971 and he was being touted as an All-America and Heisman Trophy candidate going into his senior year.

The cover also noted that the Badgers averaged 68,148 fans per game in ’71 and ranked No. 3 nationally in attendance, a remarkable four-year turnaround. In 1968, they averaged 43,459.

UW athletic director Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch had done a tremendous job stumping the state and reviving the base. Oh, yes, the Roadrunner had something to do with the renewed enthusiasm, too.

The spirit and the crowds are back at Wisconsin, wrote Roy Damer in the Chicago Tribune, and there’s no question that the Pied Piper of Madison is Rufus Ferguson.

Damer went on to write, Ferguson sends electric shocks of excitement thru the admiring throngs when he gets his hands on the football and does wondrous things.


I hope John Jardine doesn’t make Rufus stop doing that little dance in the end zone. The dance is flagrantly doggy and if anybody but lovable and effervescent Rufus did it, he’d be run out of town. … Rufus and the rest of us get such a lift from it.

— Wisconsin State Journal sports editor Glenn Miller
on Rufus Ferguson’s end zone dance — “The Roadrunner Shuffle”


Photo of Wisconsin football player Rufus Ferguson (#21) carrying the ball and pointing down field during a game at Camp Randall Stadium
Wisconsin football player Rufus Ferguson (#21) carries the ball and points down field during a game at Camp Randall Stadium

 

Even though frosh were still ineligible to compete in 1969 — the NCAA didn’t clear them for participation until 1972 — the Badgers got their initial glimpse of Ferguson when he was the MVP of the freshman team. He definitely stood out. He ran for 380 yards and six touchdowns in just two games.

As a sophomore, Ferguson posted modest numbers — 130 carries for 588 yards and six touchdowns — but still led Wisconsin in rushing.

It was the calm before the shuffle, er, storm.

In the second game of the ’71 season, a 20-20 tie at Syracuse, Ferguson rushed for 149 yards and two TDs. After being pushed out of bounds on one of his runs, he unveiled a dance move, shuffling his feet while extending his arms above his head. It was the dawning of the “Roadrunner Shuffle.”

The following week, Wisconsin attracted a record crowd of 78,535 for a nonconference game against LSU. It was the first time all the seats had been filled since the construction of Camp Randall’s upper deck in 1966. The Badgers lost, 38-28. But they were entertaining. Ferguson had 97 yards and two more TDs.

“I’ll tell ya what, Rufus is a showman — he puts life into football,” said LSU coach Charlie McClendon. “But, more importantly, he’s a true player. He’s big-time. He runs so low slung that our ballplayers couldn’t get their arms around him.”

Before the ’72 rematch in Baton Rouge, LSU middle linebacker Warren Capone pointed out, “We had watched him do his dance on film all week and we were laughing at it. But by Friday, we didn’t think it was too funny. We certainly didn’t want him doing it against us.”

Usually when UW’s straight-laced coach John Jardine was asked about the “Shuffle”, he would do his own song and dance to avoid answering. “But I don’t think Rufus is a hot dog,” he allowed. “He’s that way every minute of the day. That’s just his personality. He’s always exuberant.”

The “Roadrunner Shuffle” was preserved, popularized and validated with a Ferguson poster; the off-shoot of an Edwin Stein photo appearing in the Wisconsin State Journal. Ferguson said of his Shuffle, “It’s to get the team together. It’s for player unity — it’s to give ’em pep.”

State Journal sports editor Glenn Miller was solidly in Ferguson’s corner. I hope John Jardine doesn’t make Rufus stop doing that little dance in the end zone, he wrote. The dance is flagrantly doggy and if anybody but lovable and effervescent Rufus did it, he’d be run out of town.

But Miller emphasized, Rufus and the rest of us get such a lift from it.


“I’m not a number anymore. Wherever I go people know me. They say, ‘Hey, there’s Rufus.’ And I like that … I loved the game and that’s the way it should be played.”

— Rufus Ferguson


Ferguson put an exclamation point on the 1971 season by rushing for 211 yards against Minnesota. Overall, he averaged 111.1 yards per game. In the process, he became the first player in school history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season (excluding bowls). He had 1,222 and 13 TDs.

Ferguson was first-team All-Big Ten. Plus, he was first-team Academic All-Big Ten.

Moreover, he was a second-team Academic All-American, which made him the proudest.

“Rufus has been getting a lot of publicity,” Jardine said. “But he deserves it all.”

Jardine confided that he knew that Ferguson was special after the Syracuse game.

“He ran with complete abandon,” he said. “He just gives 100 percent every play.”

Ferguson’s senior year in 1972 was a letdown from a team perspective though the fans came out in record numbers (an average of 70,454). The Badgers were 4-7 overall and tied for ninth (2-6) in the Big Ten. Ferguson’s personal expectations had fallen short, too, because of injuries.

Against Northwestern, he rushed for 197 yards. But he took a damaging shot to his brawny upper torso and his shoulder went numb. That injury forced him to miss two games. Still hurt, he vowed to play in his final appearance at Camp Randall and he did — rushing for 112 yards against Minnesota.

As for the setbacks, Ferguson insisted, “I was always prepared in case something like this happened. Life is like this. You have your ups and downs. When it’s down, you have to take it in stride. When the sun is out, prepare for rain. Right now, it’s raining for me. It was sunny all those early games.”

Nobody had a sunnier disposition than the Roadrunner.

“I’ve been happy with my last four years here, very happy,” he said after rushing for 1,004 yards as a senior and 2,702 for his career. “I’m not a number anymore. Wherever I go people know me. They say, ‘Hey, there’s Rufus.’ And I like that … I loved the game and that’s the way it should be played.”

Thin Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player Rufus Ferguson