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Hoops dream fouled by drugs, jail

Former UVSC player Will Ferguson injured his back while playing for a college in Kansas, leading to a 17-year addiction to painkillers.
Former UVSC player Will Ferguson injured his back while playing for a college in Kansas, leading to a 17-year addiction to painkillers.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

Will Ferguson doesn't know how he injured his back during his junior year at MidAmerica Nazarene University. He figures it was wear and tear.

An all-state basketball player on the undefeated 1985 Provo High School state championship team, Ferguson played a lot of basketball after hitting his full height of 6 feet 6 inches between his sophomore and junior years.

His play earned him a scholarship to Utah Valley Community College, a two-year school at the time. A couple of years later he transferred to MidAmerica Nazarene, a Division II school in Olathe, Kan.

In Kansas, a team orthopedic surgeon operated on a damaged disc in Ferguson's back. He prescribed Percocet for pain. Ferguson had gone under the knife before for an injured arch. He took prescription painkillers then without a problem. But the back was different.

"I continually hurt, and I was always taking pills," he said.

And, according to Ferguson, the doctor had no qualms about dispensing them.

"All I know is if I needed more, I got more," he said. "That's when I started having problems. They would prescribe it to me like crazy. I'd always get a script."

Ferguson said the doctor cautioned him about addiction, but he doesn't recall being asked if he had a problem.

"He'd talk to me about it, but he'd always give me more (pills)," he said.

Going into his senior year, Ferguson hurt four more discs in his back and underwent surgery again. He felt pressure from coaches, teammates and himself to get back on the court. He couldn't miss his senior year. Percocet got him through.

After graduating with a degree in business management, Ferguson moved back to Utah. It was then that he realized he was addicted.

With his Kansas connections gone, he caught himself plotting each morning how to get meds on his own. He spent his days doctor shopping, phoning prescriptions into pharmacies using an illegally obtained physician's ID number and writing his own prescriptions. He knew every pharmacy on the Wasatch Front.

"I almost have a Ph.D. in how to work doctors, you could say," Ferguson said.

He said he popped as many as 120 Percocet tablets a day at the height of his addiction.

Police arrested Ferguson, a divorced father of two children, for prescription fraud three times, the last time in 2003. Prosecutors charged him with more than two dozen felony counts, though they could have charged him with thousands. He spent seven months in jail and six months on home confinement. He went to rehab several times. Unlike some opiate addicts, he never turned to illicit drugs like heroin.

Still, a doctor a few years ago told him his liver was so badly damaged he had six months to live. "I'm afraid to have it checked (again)," he said.

Ferguson has battled addiction for 17 years now, his most recent slip coming a year ago. Going to pharmacies to get medication for his mother who was dying of cancer proved too much of a temptation. He's been clean since a rehab stint last December.

Though the felonies on his record make it difficult to find a decent job, he recently hired on with an iron works company. Even so, his outlook remains upbeat.

"He's a character. He's seldom unhappy," said Craig Drury, his basketball coach at Provo High who took him on as a freshmen coach for a season a few years ago. "If laughter was going on somewhere on the team bus, you can bet Willie was there."

Ferguson comes around once in a while to shoot hoops with his players, Drury said. He also hopes to play some rec league basketball this winter.

"Not in a million years" did Ferguson think the sport he loved would figure into the scourge of his life.

"You tell yourself this is the last script. It went from days to weeks to years. I look back and the time flew. It's just such a waste."