Growing up in a small, football-obsessed town in Louisiana, Jaylon Ferguson knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wrote his goals in permanent marker on the wall of his childhood home: Make the all-state team. Graduate high school. Go to college. Make it to the NFL.

In 2019, he checked the last item off his list when he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. His coach at Louisiana Tech University, where Ferguson had broken collegiate records, held a watch party that night. They erupted when his name was called.

But injuries led to lackluster seasons. Ferguson, who had been known for his easy gold-toothed smile and parties with inflatable bounce houses, struggled with anxiety and depression. The death of his grandmother and a destructive house fire added to his troubles.

Jaylon Ferguson’s mother, Jackie, at her home in Zachary, Louisiana. The football player died of an overdose in 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

On the night of June 21, 2022, Ferguson arrived at an acquaintance’s home in North Baltimore. He acted erratically and said he was “xanied up,” a witness told officers, according to a police report, which noted the football player had been prescribed Xanax. Ferguson passed out upstairs and was pronounced dead shortly after midnight. He was 26.

Back in Louisiana, his mother, Jackie Ferguson, read Jaylon Ferguson’s death certificate. A toxicology test had detected no sign of Xanax but found cocaine and fentanyl in her son’s system, the autopsy showed.

She was familiar with the synthetic opioid. In the months before Jaylon Ferguson’s grandmother died of cancer, Jackie Ferguson had carefully applied fentanyl patches to her legs, using gloves to prevent accidental exposure. The same drug that she had used to ease her dying mother’s pain had also taken her son’s life.

Jackie Ferguson said her son had started talking about his legacy at an early age. He used to say, “Mama, everybody gonna know Ferg, everybody gonna know my name,” she recalled last year from her home outside Baton Rouge, where a photo of Jaylon Ferguson in his Ravens uniform rests inside a glass cabinet.

Now, his name has taken on new significance. To many students in his hometown, it has become a warning about fentanyl. To his mentors and coaches, it has become a reminder to prioritize the mental health of their athletes.

Jackie Ferguson holds her son’s necklace. His jersey number was 45. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Some had tried to help him. Ed Jackson, an associate athletic director at Louisiana Tech, had talked to Ferguson about the challenges he faced after moving to Baltimore, he said. Jackson encouraged him to stay focused.

By that time, Ferguson had set new goals for the future, his mentor said: Marry his college sweetheart. See their three young children grow up. Return to Louisiana to train the next generation of athletes.

He died before he could see them through.

About the series

The reporters examined the city’s response to rising overdose deaths as part of The New York Times Local Investigations Fellowship. This is the first part in a series exploring Baltimore’s overdose crisis.