Texas Longhorns quarterback David Ash ably masked the pain inside as he announced his retirement from football on Sept. 22, 2014, because of concussion symptoms that wouldn’t go away.
“I’m at peace with that,” Ash said then of giving up football. “God has given me a peace.”
Only it wasn’t true.
Ash struggled to cope with an unknown emptiness. Seeking answers through his faith, Ash said he was “in kind of a rough place” and “was kind of running away from the pain I felt” when he set off on missionary trips overseas. Those eye-opening journeys ultimately helped him put his personal anguish into focus and, through a series of coincidences, brought him full circle back to football.
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Now 2 1/2 years later, Ash, equipped, he says, with medical clearance from a neurosurgeon at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is embarking on an improbable football comeback, starting by participating in Texas’ Pro Day on Tuesday. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound former four-star pro-style quarterback prospect and all-state punter out of Belton, will attempt to show NFL scouts, foremost, that he boasts an NFL-caliber right leg, and also that his lightly used right arm is worthy of consideration, too.
At a time when football-related brain trauma is front and center, when more and more former players like Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett are going public with their struggles with brain damage, and some players are choosing to retire at a young age because of concussions, Ash, 24, is going against the grain. Eager to rekindle extinguished dreams, Ash said he is making a medically informed decision and that he is cognizant of the risks.
Unwittingly, he chose last week, Brain Awareness Week, to announce his comeback plans through Texas’ media relations department.
“There’s a lot of people who immediately are like, ‘What are you doing, it’s crazy, it’s just a game, why are you throwing your life away for a game?’ ” Ash told the Star-Telegram in a recent, hour-long interview. “I understand where they’re coming from. Obviously our lives are sacred and you don’t want to just throw something so sacred away. ... but if you let fear win the day, you’re not going to make the most of it.”
‘It’s worth it’
Ash is acutely aware of the increasing medical information available about football-related head trauma and the potential to develop brain disease such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, that has been discovered in the brains of 91 of 95 deceased NFL players who donated their brains for autopsy.
North Richland Hills resident Cyndy Feasel, who recently published a book detailing the tragic demise of her late husband and former Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman Grant Feasel due to CTE, is on Capitol Hill this week speaking with lawmakers.
Obviously everyone who’s playing football is taking a risk. You just have to be able to judge what that risk is.
David Ash, former UT quarterback
Over the past decade, multiple concussion lawsuits have been filed against the NFL and NCAA. A Fort Worth law firm filed two concussion lawsuits in January, one against the NCAA and Big 12, and another against helmet maker Riddell.
“Obviously everyone who’s playing football is taking a risk. You just have to be able to judge what that risk is,” Ash said. “He (the doctor) said there’s no greater risk for me to play than anybody else. So to me, it’s worth it.”
Concussion symptoms started to consistently dog Ash after an initial concussion sustained against Brigham Young in the second game of the 2013 season, his junior year. Throughout the entire next year, despite a battery of tests, doctors could not pinpoint why the symptoms continued to resurface.
When symptoms again returned after Ash played in the 2014 season opener, doctors feared they were missing something that could put him at risk, and the consensus was that he should quit. It wasn’t until this past year that neurologists at UT-Southwestern made a breakthrough. Ash said for the first time, doctors took into account his history of migraine headaches that dated to middle school, in conjunction with effects of a concussion.
Doctors formulated a new diagnosis and treatment, both of which Ash declined to discuss in specific terms. Since last April, Ash said, he has been symptom-free.
Ash said he did not want to identify the doctor who cleared him to play football, or make him available to comment for this article. Ash acknowledged the sensitivity surrounding football-related head trauma and said he wants his doctor to be able to provide an honest assessment without judgment from media and others outside of the medical profession.
He said his parents are both accepting of his decision, and that his father encouraged him to try to break into the NFL as a punter. However, through Ash, both his mother and father declined to comment.
‘Only so many jobs’
Ash’s chances of leaving his job as a loan officer at Fairway Independent Mortgage in Round Rock for the NFL aren’t great. He would love to sell a team — in the NFL or CFL — on filling two positions with one roster spot as punter and backup — or third-string — quarterback.
Ash attempted 612 passes in his Texas career with half coming in the 2012 season. When forced to retire, he asked then-coach Charlie Strong if he could work out as a punter. Strong told him punters sometimes have to make tackles, too, and nixed the request.
I would bet somebody is more than happy to take a look at him as a punter.
Gil Brandt, NFL Media’s personnel guru
Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys personnel director who is currently NFL Media’s personnel guru, said it would be a long shot for Ash to get a serious look at quarterback, but punter could be a different story.
“I would bet somebody is more than happy to take a look at him as a punter,” Brandt said. “Teams would have their medical teams interview him and ask for his medical records. If he passes, a team would take a look. The window of opportunity I think is there for him.”
Ash has not contacted an agent nor has he had contact with any NFL teams. Dallas-based NFL agent Jordan Woy, whose clients include former Cowboys Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, was not optimistic about Ash’s chances of landing in the NFL at either position.
“I don’t like to discourage anyone’s dreams, however it will be very difficult to get into the NFL after several years of not playing,” Woy said. “The best thing that he has going for him is that he is young. Teams would rather have a young player who is eligible for the practice squad than an older player if they are signing someone. With that being said, it will be a tough road. The NFL is a competitive business and there are only so many jobs.”
Ash played a total of 25 games in his first two seasons at Texas. But he played in only four in his last two.
The concussion against BYU derailed a season Ash believed had big things in store for himself and the sliding Longhorns program under then-Coach Mack Brown. Ash played in two more games, but struggled with lingering head issues. Ultimately he missed 10 games that season.
In 2014 he started the season opener against North Texas under new coach Charlie Strong. Ash tossed a touchdown and ran in another. Even better, he didn’t take a noticeable hit to the head all game. Which made it all the stranger, and admittedly scary, when later that night the familiar dizziness, sleeplessness and other symptoms mysteriously returned.
Three weeks later, he was announcing his retirement.
“I never really got to see if maybe we could have turned that corner and got back in the national picture again,” Ash said. “I think a lot of things would have been different if I had been able to finish out my career at UT. I finally established myself as a leader, got the respect of my teammates and really, I knew the game of football inside and out.”
Then even as he completed his undergraduate degree in corporate communications and then a master’s in finance in 2016, he continued to deal with symptoms. But then a series of events occurred that made Ash, always of strong faith, believe that maybe a higher power was now working in his favor.
‘Might be a solution’
Those soul-searching trips overseas had opened Ash’s eyes to a wider scope of suffering, and with football off his radar, he decided to make a bigger commitment. He became involved with an organization that would set him up in a country for a two-year period where Ash could “use my master’s in finance to help people.” The CEO of the organization, Ash said, was best friends with a neurologist in Chicago. Interested in researching football-related brain injuries, he wanted to speak with Ash.
“He starts asking me questions and it was actually stuff that I had never — I can’t even remember how many different doctors UT sent me to trying to figure out what the deal was — he actually had some ideas I had never heard of,” Ash said. “I thought maybe it might be a solution.”
Ash played a total of 25 games in his first two seasons at Texas. But he played in only four in his last two.
The Chicago neurologist, who Ash declined to identify, encouraged him to keep seeking a solution. Ash listened and decided to visit UT-Southwestern at the recommendation of a friend.
“I saw that doctor and he referred me to another doctor, referred me to another doctor, and they got together and they had a lot of data to crunch from all my years at UT and what had been happening since I was out of football,” Ash said. “They were going through all the possibilities, and after lots of tests they narrowed it down and figured it out.
“I was still at that point planning on going overseas. I felt that was what God was calling me to do.”
But as his symptoms cleared, and cleared for good, suddenly anything seemed possible again.
Ash said he started watching football games again, and liking it. He picked up a football again. The old feeling was coming back, and he started to seriously mull the idea of punting. He started kicking balls at area high schools, and struck up a relationship with former NFL kicker and Austin resident Raul Allegre. And then in January, after receiving medical clearance, he started throwing again with designs of making a run at playing quarterback.
“Whenever I stopped playing football and I decided I was going to try to go away from football, there were so many days I would just pray to God and ask him, ‘Could I just please play football again?’ ” Ash said. “And so I felt like maybe he was answering my prayers and I decided to follow it.
“Then, finally, I was like, if a scout asked me right now, why can you not play quarterback? I would really not have an answer, like I don’t know why.”
Ash isn’t expecting a miracle Tuesday after only a limited period of serious training time. If he gets no bites, he said he’s prepared to put in a full year of training and try it again in 2018.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Ash said. “Sometimes we don’t know why, but whenever an opportunity presents itself, I think you just try to make the most of it.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan