Portland Thunder’s Perez Ashford: Personal Protector Extraordinaire
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
What doesn’t happen often, except to the Portland Thunder this year, is a bar ball.
A routine play turns into a panicked free-for-all as the ball careens wildly off iron, falling to the ground, where a kicking team recovery typically results in a red zone possession or a backbreaking touchdown.
In the past three games, the Portland Thunder have managed to avoid a turnover on a bar ball* thanks to new wide receiver Perez Ashford’s quick reactions and playmaking ability.
“Being a punt returner [in college] really helped me, seeing the way the ball comes and seeing where it’s going to hit…you know when the ball’s going to come at you a little bit crazy, because it’s headed toward the bars,” Ashford said.
It’s not all old hat, however. The biggest difference for Ashford as he’s made the transition from a returner to the personal protector position in the AFL is having to watch the returner while also keeping an eye on the ball and keeping his mind on the eight men rushing down the field to deliver hits.
“Right when you turn around, just about everybody’s on you already. So you have to find the most dangerous man – find that guy that’s headed right toward you, and be prepared for that shock when you turn around and he’s there,” Ashford said.
On a typical return, he’s standing at the 10-yard line, as he was advised by veterans Kyle Rowley and Duane Brooks. Brooks is the Thunder’s main kick returner, so he is very aware of what he needs from a personal protector.
Depending on the type of return, Ashford could be looking to pull, to influence the direction of Brooks’ run, or he might find himself just needing to block the first guy he can find.
But when it hits the fan (or, more accurately, the ball hits the iron), all the plans go out the window.
The first thing going through Ashford’s mind when he sees the bad bounce coming is just “Get the ball!” Other than that, it’s all about determining what the bounce is going to look like. Sometimes it bounces far, sometimes high, sometimes sideways.
“It’s a lot like fielding a baseball,” said Ashford. “I used to play baseball, and I think that helped me a lot, too.”
Ashford is also the team’s backup returner, so he could end up being the guy being protected someday.
“I would say [my favorite part is] getting that ball and running with it. It’s kind of hard for me, because it’s unexpected when it comes to me,” said Ashford. “That’s the most fun part for me.”
Although Ashford has had more opportunities for returns than most personal protectors would get at this point in the season, the special teams’ highlights of the season have been when Brooks breaks through the line of oncoming defenders for a huge return.
“Well,” said Ashford, “I also like blocking when Brooks springs it downfield and knowing I got that block that got him free.”
*For reference purposes, a kickoff hitting the bar or taking an unexpected hop is referred to as a bar ball, whether or not it actually hit iron.
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Alex Morgan, 25, is a forward for the Portland Thorns. She recently signed with the club in January of 2013 after playing for the Western New York Flash and the Seattle Sounders. She rose to prominence because of her success playing for the United States women’s national soccer team. Morgan was the youngest player to represent the U.S. during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She will once again represent team USA this summer as they prepare to head off to Canada for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Photo credit: Alex Morgan's Facebook page
Meyers Leonard, 23, was the 11th overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft. Over the past few years he has been diligently working with the Portland Trailblazer’s coaching staff in order to refine his game. The Illinois alumni’s hard work has been paying off considering he’s having the best season of his career.
Photo credit: Meyers Leonard's Facebook page
Kaylyn Kyle, 26, is a Canadian soccer player who currently plays for the Portland Thorns. She is also a member of the Canadian women’s national team. Kyle was part of the 2012 Canadian national team that defeated France in the bronze medal game. She is also an ambassador for, Right To Play, which is an organization dedicated to using soccer as a resource to educate and empower children from disadvantaged communities.
Photo credit: Kaylyn Kyle's Facebook page
Gaston Fernandez, 31, is a striker for the Portland Timbers. The club signed the Argentinian striker back in January of 2014. During his MLS debut with the Timbers he scored an equalizer goal that extended the Timbers unbeaten home record to sixteen.
Photo credit: via forums.bigsoccer.com
Marcus Mariota, 21, is coming off one of the best seasons any Oregon Duck quarterback has ever experienced. He is the first Hawaiian-born athlete to ever win the Heisman trophy. This season he also led the Ducks to a 12-1 regular season record. Duck fans everywhere will be anxiously waiting to see where Mariota goes in this year’s NFL Draft.
Photo credit: via Oregon Football's Facebook page
Ellie Cribbins is a second year Blazer Dancer for the Portland Trailblazers. Cribbins is originally from Portland, Oregon but attended Oregon State University. This season proved to be a unique one for Cribbins since her sister also made the Blazer Dancers last August.
Photo credit: via Ellie Cribbin's Facebook page
Jake Gleeson, 24, is a New Zealand born goalie that is currently playing for the Portland Timbers. He signed with the club in February of 2011. Gleeson has taken pride over the past few years of being a young player who has worked his way up the ranks.
Photo credit: via solofutbol.cl
Janie Takeda, 21, is a senior outfielder for the University of Oregon. The Dallas Charge of the National Pro Fastpitch League recently drafted her 26th overall. Takeda was also selected to play on the United States women’s national team during the 2015 summer season. She is set to graduate from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication this spring.
Photo credit: Janie Takeda's Facebook page
Damian Lillard, 24, was the NBA’s 2012 Rookie Of The Year. He was the 4th Portland Trailblazer to ever win the award. Since then he’s been named an All-Star twice, as well as an All-NBA Third Team selection. Lillard had one of the most rememberable performances in Trailblazer history after he hit a three-pointer that defeated the Houston Rockets in game 6 of the 2014 NBA Playoffs.
Photo credit: Damian Lillard's Facebook page
Maggie Rouse, 20, is a junior cheerleader for the University of Oregon. She just completed her third year on the team. When she tried out as a freshman she never expected to make the squad. Yet, here she is two years later. She is currently majoring in Educational Foundations.
Photo credit: Maggie Rouse's Facebook page
LaMarcus Aldridge, 29, is widely considered to be one of the best power-forwards in the NBA. The Texas native is averaging 23.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game this season for the Portland Trailblazers. He is also a four-time NBA All-Star. On March 10th, 2015 Aldridge became the Trailblazers all-time leading rebounder.
Photo credit: LaMarcus Aldridge's Facebook page
Kaytianna McMillan is a gymnast for the Oregon State Beavers. Over the course of 2014 McMillan battled a series of injuries, yet she was still able to overcome them in order to become the Co-Champion of the 2014 NCAA University Park Regionals. Oregon State will be lucky to have her for the next couple of years.
Photo credit: Oregon State Athletics website
Devon Allen, 20, just completed his freshman year as a wide receiver for the Oregon Ducks. Not only is he the starting wide receiver for the Ducks he also runs track for the Oregon Outdoor Track and Field team. He recently earned a Gold Medal in the 110 meter hurdles during the 2014 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Although he is recovering from a torn ACL we hope to see him back on the field during the 2015-2016 season.
Phot credit: University of Oregon Facebook page
Chase De Leo
Chase De Leo, 19, currently plays center for the Portland Winterhawks. His quickness and overall creative offensive game earned him an invite to Team USA’s selection camp back in December of 2014. Of all 30 players who were invited, he was only one of 2 WHL players.
Photo credit: Chase De Leo's Facebook page
Darron Thomas, 24, is a professional quarterback for the Portland Thunder of the Arena Football League. During his college days he played for the Oregon Ducks. While starting for the Ducks he led to the team to the 2011 BCS National Championship game, as well as the 2012 Rose Bowl. The Texas native recently partook in the NFL Veteran Combine with the hope of upstarting his NFL career.
Photo credit: Portland Thunder Facebook page