HYRUM — When Gaje Ferguson is faced with a challenge he isn't sure he can handle, he summons the strength he needs from the memory of two little boys who never got the chance to play high school football.
Their names are written on his cleats. Their love is what he feels when he's struggling. Their memory is what he honors with every accomplishment — on and off the football field.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about them," said the junior fullback, his voice wavering with emotion, while talking about his two younger brothers. "I wake up in the morning, go to bed at night, and they're in my thoughts. When I step onto the field, I say a prayer up to God just saying, 'Let me feel my brothers when I'm playing this game.' It's nice to know they're here."
A tragic car accident stole 7-year-old M'Gwire and 10-year-old Bridger from the Ferguson family two years ago on Dec. 18. They were the youngest of four boys in a family of nine children. Gaje is the oldest son, and he took it upon himself to teach the youngest boys how to play the game the Ferguson family loves.
"Some of the best memories I have is just being outside, in our yard, playing football with them," said Ferguson, a starting fullback and outside linebacker for the Mountain Crest Mustangs who face Timpview in the 4A championship Friday night at 6:30 p.m. in Rice-Eccles. "Just teaching them things that I knew, hoping to put them ahead, give them an advantage I didn't have. That's the way we bonded was through sports."
Gaje was 15 when his brothers were killed in a car accident that also injured two of his sisters. His other brother, Colten, was 13 at the time, and Gaje said the two older boys would pair up with one of the younger boys and the four of them would play two-on-two football for hours at a time.
Ferguson smiles when asked to describe his younger brothers. "Bridger was a fighter," he said. "But he was also very gentle, very nice. M'Gwire was a softy. But he was tough. He took a lot of teasing with three older brothers."
Ferguson said his life changed in many ways after he lost his brothers. In suffering an imeasureable loss, he also discovered how generous and loving people could be.
"I couldn't be thankful enough for this community," he said. "I wish I could show more thankfulness towards them, actually."
He said the family had massive medical bills after the accident and the community set up funds, organized fundraising dinners, activities and auctions. People he'd known all his life, and people he'd never met showed up with groceries, cooked meals and helped with projects around the house.
"People all over pitched in," he said. "People who were enemies in sports, reached out to comfort me. There was never a time when I didn't have someone who wanted to help. Never going through something like that, I didn't know what to expect. If I didn't have that support, I don't think I could have done it. Just having the support from everybody really helped, knowing everyone was there for us."
It showed the teen that family isn't just those who share your name, but also those who share your burdens and pain.
"I was 15 when it happened, and at that age, you don't really realize what a community can do, and the effect they can have on people," he said. "When everyone pitches in just a little bit, it can help so much. That's what happened. People from around the valley pitched in and they were able to help us get through it."
Mountain Crest head coach Mark Wootton said the tragedy rallied the team, the school and the entire Cache Valley community. The team gave the family football jerseys with the numbers worn by the boys and a football.
"It was really tough," the coach said. "You just try to be as supportive as you can. I think the kids and the community really rallied around him, and they want him to do well."
Wootton said Ferguson is a gifted athlete who is a key contributor to the Mustangs' success this season.
"He's just a distruptive force defensively," said Wootton. "He's very athletic, very physical and very fast. He's one of our best kids on the field. He makes a ton of plays; he's very determined and he has great focus."
Losing his brothers changed the way Ferguson viewed the games they loved to play together. Just summoning their memory makes him a better person and player, he says.
"I definitely have more energy, especially in big games when I think about them," he said. "I think about them being here and what they would want me to do if they were on the sidelines watching with the rest of my family. What would make them proud as younger brothers?"
He feels them most when he's just laughing and having a good time with the brotherhood created by the team.
"Sometimes when I'm out here having a good time, a couple of times at practice, I can literally feel them around me," he said. "It's very heartwarming, brings tears to my eyes. I can look up and thank God for letting them still be a part of my life."
But sometimes when he's made a mistake or having a hard time, he asks them for a little assistance.
"It helps me get my focus right," Ferguson said. "Even if I'm not the best player out there, I have them standing behind me, and I can make the play that is needed. I just want to be someone that if they were here, they could look up to."
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