Texas quarterback David Ash has heard the comments and filtered through the feedback on social media.
He knows lots of well-meaning individuals believe he should have punted his favorite sport after missing 10 of the Longhorns’ 13 football games last season because of concussion-related issues.
“A lot of people told me, ‘You need to give it up. You need to quit,’ ” said Ash, who acknowledged having multiple heart-to-heart talks with his mother about his return to the Longhorns this season. “In my mind, I always knew I was always going to play again.”
That is because every time someone urged Ash to become a former athlete, he reflected on the story of an Olympic gold medalist he admires: Eric Liddell, the son of Scottish missionaries who represented Great Britain in the 1924 Summer Games in Paris.
Liddell, a devout Christian whose story is depicted in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, won medals in the 400-meter dash (gold) and 200-meter dash (bronze). But he refused to compete in his best event, the 100-meter dash, because one of the qualifying heats fell on a Sunday. Liddell declined to run on the Sabbath because of his religious convictions.
Liddell’s athletic pursuits created a family rift. His sister questioned why he would leave the rest of the family in China, where they served as missionaries, to pursue Olympic glory. Ash, also a devout Christian, said Liddell’s response to his sister mirrors his answer to outsiders who believe he should have quit football.
“He said, ‘I know God made me for China. But I also know that God made me fast. And when I run, it brings him pleasure,’ ” Ash said. “So, for me, it is the same deal. People say, ‘Why are you coming back to play? You can quit now. You did the best you could.’
“I just can’t do that. I feel like this is where God has placed me. This is the talent he has given me. And whenever I work hard and I play hard, it pleases him and gives him glory.”
Against that backdrop, the only quarterback on the Texas roster who has thrown more than 13 passes at the college level is preparing to become the focal point of efforts to improve last year’s 8-5 record that led to the departure of former coach Mack Brown. Ash, a junior, is 14-7 as Texas’ starting quarterback, including two bowl victories. He’s got a career completion rate of 63.2 percent with more touchdown passes (30) than interceptions (18).
Charlie Strong, the Longhorns’ first-year coach, has stressed that he needs Ash to remain healthy and productive if the Longhorns are to improve on their status as the No. 24 team in the coaches’ preseason poll.
Strong said fall drills have revealed “a different David Ash” to first-year staffers who saw their quarterback miss several spring practices with a fractured foot that limited his participation in off-season workouts.
“In the spring, he didn’t say much because he got injured. Then, he really wasn’t locked in with the team because he wasn’t there,” Strong said. “But now, with him being around, it has helped. He doesn’t mind speaking his opinion and saying what needs to be said. He has that confidence now. He wants that leadership role.”
Ash put himself in that position heading into last season but suffered a concussion in the team’s second game, a 40-21 loss at Brigham Young. After being cleared to return, he suffered a season-ending concussion Sept. 21 in a 31-21 victory over Kansas State.
Ash has not been a part of contact drills since that contest. Nor will he take another hit until the Longhorns’ opener at 7 p.m. Saturday against North Texas.
“If we take one, we might not have him in the first game,” Strong said. “There’s no reason for us to see how tough he is.”
Strong said he witnessed that during film study of last season, when Ash completed 60.9 percent of his passes (seven TDs, two INTs) and averaged 50.6 rushing yards per contest in limited duty. Strong also saw a reckless approach in those videotapes that must change.
“He’d take off and run with the ball and try to run over a defensive back or linebacker. He would hit them front up,” Strong said. “So I stopped it [after one hit] and said, ‘What are you trying to prove?’ He didn’t have an answer for me I was like, ‘You are a quarterback. Get down. I don’t need to see how tough you are. I need you to play the next play and manage things.’ ”
If Ash manages the Texas offense in every game this season, Strong said he’s “got enough around him” to make the offense productive. If Ash misses multiple games or forces too many plays on his own, Strong indicated it could be a tough transition year because backups Tyrone Swoopes (sophomore) and Jerrod Heard (freshman) lack Ash’s tangibles and intangibles.
Asked about plans to change his approach after meeting with Strong, Ash said: “He’s right. I’ve taken hits that are not necessary. I’m going to start being smarter. To have the confidence of your head coach makes you want to play and take that next step for him.”
Ash insisted he is “not concerned” about how he will respond to the first hit of the 2014 season.
“Bring it on,” he said.
With Ash sidelined, the Longhorns ended last season with a 30-10 loss to Baylor in a winner-take-all matchup to settle the Big 12 championship. Texas running back Johnathan Gray, a former Aledo standout, said he has seen a more vocal, more confident Ash during fall drills.
“He’s not really down on himself anymore,” Gray said, noting that all players become discouraged while rehabilitating from injuries. “He’s telling people where to be, what to do. He knows what he has to do to help the team and still be a part of the team with staying healthy. He knows that it’s his job as the quarterback to be a leader for the team and step up, regardless of what happens. I can’t wait for the season to start and for him to excel.”
Ash acknowledged fleeting moments last fall when he wondered if he would be cleared medically to return to football.
“That creeped into the back of my mind,” Ash said. “But I’ve made it clear from the beginning that I wanted to come back. My parents just said they support me, whatever I want to do. I want to play. So I’m going to play. I’m better now. I’m sharp as a tack.”
He’s also ready to prove something to his doubters. Just like his hero, Eric Liddell, did 90 years ago.