PARIS HILTON ONCE wore his clothes. That summarizes just how far McDonald Ferguson, a tackle on the '96 team, has come in the world of athletic-apparel design and manufacturing. But long before his company, FG Athletics, outfitted everyone from peewee football players to Ja Rule, Magic Johnson and Ms. Hilton—before his company became a multimillion-dollar business—Ferguson knew that fashion design was what he was cut out to do.
It started as a hobby. His mother, Yvonne, was a seamstress in their native Bahamas and would make the clothes that McDonald, then 11, would design. Then it became a passion. He studied art fanatically in junior high and high school ("I got only one A, and that was in art," he says. "That's the only class I would go to") and majored in fine art at Florida. After injuries plagued his career in Gainesville and kept him from pursuing pro football, he turned to fashion.
He got his big break, or so he thought, in 1999 when his former coach at North Miami ( Fla.) High hired him to make the team's uniforms. "I was really excited," recalls Ferguson. "But with this being my first job I didn't know I had to stitch around the numbers. So during the team's first game, the numbers started falling off. Coach had to take the players off the field because they had no numbers. I was like, Oh, my gosh. I started slowly walking out so no one would notice me, and soon I was out of the stadium."
Ferguson, now 35, and his business have come a long way. Based in Hialeah, Fla., FG Athletics, of which he is president and lead designer, manufactures more than 5,000 pieces of apparel a month, making everything from athletic underwear to hats and socks. Its main focus is on uniforms for youth, high school and college football teams; Prairie View and Southern are among the schools he has outfitted. In 2003 Ferguson scored big with his jersey dresses, college team jerseys designed specifically for women, which were sold in Finish Line stores nationwide. Hilton sported a version of the dress in the 2006 movie Pledge This!
Ferguson says FG Athletics does more than $2 million in revenue each year, a relative sliver of the sports-apparel pie, but his vision for the company is the same as the one of the 1996 Gators: to go all the way. "I'm sure if I continue doing what I am doing, my company will be on top of the map," he says. "One day I will definitely be one of the big boys."