Basketball a haven for Ferl during turbulent times
By CHRIS LARICK
During the turbulent times of the early 1970’s, Rob Ferl and other athletes of his age often found a safe haven in sports. In Ferl’s case, that often meant basketball.
“At that time it was toward the end of the Vietnam War,” Ferl said. “There was Civil Rights unrest and the Kent State shootings.
“There was kind of an unrest in the universe. We dealt with that a lot within the context of basketball. I remember during the time of the moon landings, our coaches — Harry Fails, Paul Freeman and Tom Ritari —were taking us everywhere to play basketball. We would just go. Some of us kids in Conneaut were tucked away from the unrest by the fun context of sports and basketball. During many of the big events in the ‘60s and ‘70s we were tied up in basketball.”
Those thoughts, of course, are in retrospect. Ferl and his teammates were too busy playing the game to spend a lot of time philosophizing about current events at the time.
Feel, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame onApr. 2, spent a lot of time with one of those teammates.
“Tim Richards (who is already a member of the ACBF Hall of Fame) and I go way back to when we were 11 and 12 years old,” Ferl said. “We played on opposing baseball teams. We spent a lot of time playing against and then eventually alongside each other.”
The best basketball team Ferl and Richards played on was the 1970 team (they graduated in 1972) as sophomores.
“We went to Canton and pretty far in the tournament,” Ferl said. “Scott Humphrey, Al Razem, Jeff Puffer and John Colson were on that team. We had a some talented guys and were scoring a lot of points. We got far that year because we would press the ball. I remember as a sophomore (the Spartans) scoring 100 points in a game, back before the three-point line. At times we’d score a lot.”
At that time Conneaut was coached by Harry Fails, with Paul Freeman and Tom Ritari as assistants. All three are in the ACBF Hall of Fame.
“Those guys were great coaches,” Ferl said. “They would teach kids. When we were coming up in the eighth and ninth grades Tom Ritari was important in that. Harry Fails and Paul Freeman were superstars in county (coaching) history.
Ferl’s years in high school were banner times for the county and the Northeastern Conference. Among the opponents Ferl recalls are Eugene Miller of Ashtabula and Ernie Pasqualone of Geneva.
“At the time the NEC was a huge league,” he said. “In 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1972 it was a strong league. We were in the Star Beacon all the time."
Ferl, 6-foot-5 at the time, played strong forward, averaging about 19 or 20 points a game his final two years, earning all-county and All-NEC honors.
“I finished somewhere in the top 25 all-time in the NEC,” he said.
In addition to basketball, Ferl played safety and end in football and outfield in baseball.
“To play three sports back in the day was not uncommon,” he said. “Sports were so important to us growing up.
“We all learned a lot about life and success through sports, especially basketball. We played all seasons. We’d all go up to the basketball courts in the summer. Our metaphors for life came out of basketball and sports. You don’t see that at the time, but increasingly as you look back. What you learn about leadership and success comes from your coaches and people on successful teams that made it happen.”
At the end of his senior year Ferl won the Bob Smith Memorial Trophy as the best senior athlete in all sports. He also graduated near the top of his class.
He went on to play basketball at Hiram until injuries “took that out of the equation” as he puts it. He continued to play baseball at Hiram while studying biology. After graduating from Hiram he went on to take his Ph. D. at Indiana University at the time Bobby Knight as a coach and Isiah Thomas as a player were there.
“I played a lot of AAU basketball there,” he said. “I played an awful lot of basketball in Indiana.”
Ferl went on to become a molecular biologist and eventually moved from Indiana to Florida. He is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Florida.
“I still kept on playing basketball,” he said.
He has been at the University of Florida for 36 years now, now spending most of his time as a research scientist.
“I have done a lot of work on the space program at Kennedy Space Center,” he said. “I spent six summers in the Arctic. Science takes me a lot of interesting places."
He met his wife Mary-Blythe, who is from Lakewood, at Hiram. She is a historian, working at the Florida Museum of Natural History, part of UF.
“In my later years, basketball has become harder and harder for me,” Ferl said. “Mary-Blythe got me into running marathons. We come up regularly to Cleveland to do the Cleveland Marathon and Half Marathon.
Rob and Mary-Blythe have a son, Evan, 31, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, Courtney.
Ferl’s father, Joe is a member of the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club Hall of Fame. His mother, Joanne, still lives in Conneaut.
“It’s a special thing,” Ferl said of his own upcoming induction. “I’m incredibly honored, especially when you look at the people in there, all those great athletes, to be placed in that group.”