GLENDALE, Ariz. — When Ryan Ferguson and his dad travel this week to Glendale, Arizona, for the Super Bowl, it will be a bucket-list experience.
And yet for them it will be so much more.
For Ferguson, a Missouri native, it’ll be a chance to thank his father, Bill — the man who never stopped fighting for him while he spent 10 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
“Being able to do this with my father after all he’s done for me, sacrificing 10 years of his life to prove my innocence — that’s when it became real,” said Ferguson.
The father-son pilgrimage came about last month when a ticket distributor who had heard about his story offered Ferguson an all-expenses-paid trip to Sunday’s game. The 30-year-old, who now lives in Florida, was released from prison in 2013.
Innocent and serving time
Ferguson’s 12-year nightmare began on November 1, 2001. He and his friend Charles Erickson, both then 17, were drinking illegally at a college bar in Columbia, Missouri. About five blocks away, Columbia Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt turned off his computer after a long night and left the newsroom shortly after 2 a.m., according to court documents.
In the newspaper’s parking lot, someone struck Heitholt from behind and strangled him with his own belt.
Police interviewed a janitor, Jerry Trump, who said he couldn’t identify the people involved in the slaying. But two years later, Erickson told police he had “dream-like” memories of committing the crime, according to court documents.
Ferguson told police that he remembered driving Erickson home before going home himself. But after Erickson implicated him and Trump changed his account, Ferguson was charged with murder and convicted in 2004.
When Ryan’s father, Bill Ferguson, awoke the day after his son’s arrest, he was devastated.
“‘Oh my God, I got to get to work,’ ” his father, now 70, recalls thinking. “It’s like watching one of your children drowning. I had to do something.”
“I started reading the police reports over and over,” said the real estate agent. “I made a timeline and flow chart of all the depositions. I started questioning people on my own, and I dug up a lot of witnesses.”
Each week, Ferguson’s father visited his son in the maximum-security prison where he was held. They would share updates, compare notes and work on the case together.
Ferguson served a quarter of his 40-year sentence while his family and friends campaigned to free him. After two key witnesses admitted that they had lied, a court of appeals overturned his conviction in November 2013 and Ferguson walked free.
Erickson is serving a 25-year sentence in a Missouri prison. No one else has ever been charged in the case.
Life after prison
“Can you imagine wiping out everything you did in your 20s?” Ferguson said. “That’s what it (spending 10 years in prison) is like.”
After he was freed, Ferguson did not feel safe in his hometown. The case had gotten a lot of attention locally, and a lot of people knew who he was. Ferguson said he feared the legal system which had put him, an innocent man, in prison.
“I love Columbia, Missouri,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the authorities, I’d go back.”
While in prison, he worked out religiously and began writing his first book, about physical fitness. Upon getting out, he moved to Florida, became a certified personal trainer and earlier this month, published “Stronger, Faster, Smarter: A Guide to Your Most Powerful Body.”
“The crazy thing is I saw him more when he was in prison,” said his father, Bill Ferguson, who still lives in Missouri. “He’s been incredibly busy. We get together around once a month.”
Football has always been a way to bring the father and son together.
“I played football in college and high school. He was brought up on it,” Bill Ferguson said. “It’s a vernacular for us, a way for us to get together and have something to talk about.”
A Super time to reconnect
For the elder Ferguson, the best part of the Super Bowl trip will be getting to spend a few days with his son.
“We’ll get to watch one of the greatest sports possible, and we’ll get to spend a lot of time, just the two of us, together,” said his father.
Ram Silverman, co-founder of Texas-based Golden Tickets, had watched CBS’s “48 Hours” special about Ferguson a few years ago. In November, he saw a follow-up about Ferguson being released from prison and wanted to do something nice for him.
“Whatever cost we incur, it’s worth it,” Silverman said. “He’s got an amazing attitude. After talking to him a number of times, I can’t wait to meet him.”
It took Silverman about a month of trying to connect with Ryan Ferguson on Facebook and other channels before his offer was taken seriously.
“It seemed like one of those things that were too good to be true,” said Ferguson. “In my life, I’ve learned to leave things alone that are too good to be true.”
Paul Fitzgerald, first learned of the story then uploaded the story to iReport.
At first, Ferguson didn’t have much of a reaction to the Super Bowl offer.
“The excitement, joy and happiness didn’t hit until I talked to my dad,” he said. “We were screaming on the phone, ‘Yeahhhhh!’ ”
While Ryan doesn’t have a Super Bowl favorite — he’s just excited to see “amazing people do amazing things” — his dad is rooting for the Seattle Seahawks in their matchup with the New England Patriots.
“When we were in Seattle, we were so impressed with their spirit,” said Bill Ferguson, referring to a trip in 2014. “It’d be difficult for us not to be supporters.”
The father and son leave for Arizona on Thursday and will spend a long weekend together, reveling in football fandom and their shared bond.
And making up for lost time.
“Being locked up for 10 years meant no college and I never even sent a text or posted a Facebook update or used a smartphone,” Ferguson told iReporter Paul Fitzgerald. “I will get to go to the Super Bowl with my dad. It’s a dream come true. This is a golden opportunity and one that I will never, ever forget for the rest of my life.”