Mack Ferko’s career as a running back ended before it even got started.
As a young Butte boy, Ferko saw his dreams of running the ball and scoring touchdowns come crashing down the second he stepped on the scale before his first season of Little Guy Football more than a decade ago.
“I came into weigh-ins all excited,” Ferko remembers. “My dad told me, ‘Hey, if they give you the chance, run the ball.'”
Little Guy Football has limits on the size of players who can carry the football. The big players are marked with a dot on their helmets.
“I was holding my helmet all proud, I stepped on the scale and I just felt this thump down on my helmet,” Ferko says as he slaps his Montana Tech helmet to demonstrate. “It was so disheartening to see that. I was ‘oh, man.’ I’ve been the offensive or defensive line ever since.”
That split second might have dashed the dreams of touchdowns — or at least his dad’s dreams of scoring touchdowns — but it turned out to be a good thing for Montana Tech.
Ferko, a junior on the hill, is the centerpiece of the Oredigger offensive line heading into a season full of high expectations.
The 2010 Butte High graduate has started every game on the offensive line for the Orediggers the past two seasons. This year, Ferko has moved to center, a position that is critical in new coordinator Corey Fipps’ offense.
“What coach Fipps wants to do is run one play about every 14 seconds,” Ferko says. “That’s what our goal is right now.”
That just might be more difficult than it sounds, especially for Ferko.
Unlike traditional offenses, Fipps’ system has the center bark out the signals before centering the ball. That is usually the job of the quarterback.
Just about every one of those snaps is a shotgun snap, too.
“It’s all shotgun besides our victory and spike,” Ferko says. “It’s a high-octane offense. We want to get that ball to the quarterback quick.”
At one of his previous schools, Fipps’ offense ran 138 plays in one game. The team scored 95 points.
The Orediggers don’t plan to be in shootouts quite like that, and head coach Chuck Morrell says 138 snaps is not even close to the team’s goal. Still, expect the offense to be busy.
Nobody will be more busy than the center.
After the play call is signaled in, Ferko is charged with leading the linemen to the line. Then he gets set, checks out the defense and calls out the pass protection.
After getting the snap indicator from the quarterback, the center will possibly make a last second call to the guards and then snap the ball.
“That all has to happen in 14 seconds,” Ferko says. “It’s going to be a show.”
So, it takes some smarts to play the center position, especially in the new Fipps system. That is a department that has never been a problem for Ferko.
The business major carried a 3.8 GPA through Butte High. He’s been an Academic All-Conference player throughout his career. He could graduate next May. Instead, Ferko will stick around one more semester and graduate in December 2014.
“I wasn’t in National Honor Society,” Ferko says with a laugh. “I didn’t show up for that. It was during wrestling season.”
Arie Grey coached Ferko, who earned seven high school letters while competing in football, wrestling and track, two seasons at Butte High school. Grey calls the lineman a leader.
“He is a great kid,” Grey says. “He is a very hard-working, coachable kid.”
Ferko was a three-year starter at Butte High. He started on the defensive tackle as a sophomore as a freshman under coach Greg Salo, earning All-Conference honors.
Like he did with Oredigger teammate Mike Waldman, one of Ferko’s good friends, Grey moved Ferko to the other side of the ball. He started at right guard as a junior before moving to right guard as a senior, when he became an All-State player.
“I came to Tech because coach (Bob) Green wanted me to play defensive line,” Ferko says. “When coach Morrell came he switched me to offensive line.”
That move was an easy one for Ferko.
“Butte High’s offense is basically the same as coach Ted Schlafke’s when he came here with Morrell,” Ferko says of the former offensive coordinator who now coaches at Western Illinois. “It was a pretty easy learning curve.”
After two years in Schlafke’s system, Ferko says the move to the Fipps version of a wide-open attack hasn’t been a huge deal.
“We’re mostly a spread offense, zone, fast-paced, high-octane, get the ball out,” he says.
Ferko adds that the new pace designed to keep the defense off balanced has an added bonus. It is fun.
“You’ll have the defensive guys (yelling at) each other, ‘What’s the call, what’s the call?” Ferko says. “Then you teakettle them. That’s what I like.”
Ferko hasn’t missed a game with the Orediggers. For the second straight year, though, he has missed the majority of preseason camp.
Last year it was Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, a rare virus that attacks the facial nerve.
Two days before camp, Ferko was hit with the syndrome which paralyzed the left side of his face and ultimately left him deaf in his left ear.
“It didn’t droop or anything, I just couldn’t move it,” Ferko says, describing the effects on his face. “I had to wear an eye patch for two weeks on the left side.”
Ferko’s doctor recommend he take a medical redshirt year. He would have none of it, even though the condition threw off his balance.
“I knew I could come back,” Ferko says. “I could still contribute to the team, even with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome. I came back about two days before (the season opener) and started against Eastern (Oregon). My conditioning came into play there, big time.”
This year, Ferko could be looking at the same timeline before the season opener, which is Saturday against Eastern Oregon in LaGrande.
Ferko suffered a concussion on one of the first days of camp, and he has had to go through the proper protocol before being cleared to practice fully. He returned to full participation on Thursday.
“Oh yeah,” Ferko says when asked if he will play Saturday. “We’re pretty excited. We’ve been working our tails off and we’re pretty excited to go out and play someone other than the Diggers.”
Ferko doesn’t remember how he suffered the concussion. He just knows that it was bad.
“I couldn’t walk. They had to cart me off the field,” he says. “I couldn’t get into my locker. The combination, I didn’t know it. I couldn’t see the lines.”
Fortunately for Ferko, the concussion came early and he had time to heal up before the opening game that he and the Orediggers have looked forward to for some time.
After going 1-9 in his junior and senior seasons at Butte High, Ferko was part of a Tech team that struggled to an 3-8 record under Morrell’s first year in 2011.
So, like his teammates, Ferko was enjoying all that comes with coming off a playoff appearance and the No. 7 ranking in the NAIA preseason coaches’ poll.
“It’s cool walking around town. We have some swag now,” Ferko says.”Right now we have to put the blinders on and focus on Eastern. The preseason hype, that’s always awesome. We get all the fans excited and get fans at the games to show what we’re really about.”
Ferko, who wears No. 64, is listed as 6-foot-1, 295 pounds. He’s more like 6-foot, 275 pounds. He says he runs the 40 in about 5 seconds flat.
That’s pretty good speed for a lineman. It’s not fast like Orediggers Zack Kinney, Brandon Moss or Zach Bunney. It certainly isn’t fast enough to make his coaches decide it is time to give Ferko the carries he dreamed of when he first put on his Little Guy football uniform.
However, Ferko says he’s ready in the unlikely event he is ever called upon to run the ball for the first time in his decade-plus career playing tackle football.
“I think I could,” Ferko says before thinking about the deep group of Oredigger running backs, led by Pat Hansen. “I guess I’d be Pat’s backup, is what I should say.”
Until that time, though, the son of Bill and Alana Ferko is perfectly happy with where he is at.
“I’ve always been in the trenches,” Ferko says, “but that’s the life I like.” 1 comment