Over the summer, Ashton Grant was at his father’s home with his younger brother when his phone rang.
When the Manchester native looked to see who was calling, he saw Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski’s name.
A few weeks earlier, as Grant finished a month-long internship with the Browns, Stefanski approached him to see if Grant wanted to be considered for a new position the team had created: the Bill Willis Coaching Fellowship.
When he answered the phone, Stefanski offered Grant the job.
“Before he could get the final words out I said yes,” Grant said. “I was relieved and excited. Not many people get an opportunity like this so I was just thinking to myself how I can make the most of it.”
On July 14, Grant was officially named the first recipient of the Willis Fellowship, beginning his season-long tenure with the Browns. The fellowship was established this year for “a rising minority coach with a focus on the offensive side of the ball,” the Browns’ website says.
The fellowship was named in honor of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Willis, who played for the Browns from 1946-53. Willis was one of the first African Americans in the modern era to play pro football. Willis was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1977 and died in 2007.
“I think creating this position was an incredible move,” Grant said. “If you look at the landscape of professional football, there aren’t many minority coaches. I think this is a great way for young coaches like myself to gain knowledge, build relationships and get an in-depth look of what it’s like to coach football at the highest level.”
Grant mainly works with running backs coach Stump Mitchell, but he also helps out others, including Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.
“The experience has been mind-blowing,” Grant said. “It seems like every day I am learning something new, whether it be a new scheme, thought process or just how to go about my everyday business as a coach.”
He described his daily routine with the Browns as similar to a graduate assistant at the collegiate level.
“A lot of film breakdown, organizing run and pass lists, communicating information to players, helping out with the scout team at practice, wherever they need me really,” Grant said. “On a game day I am usually up in the coaches box tracking information from the game. What plays are we calling, when are we calling them, things of that nature.”
The moment Grant stepped onto the field at FirstEnergy Stadium was when it finally hit him that he was on a NFL coaching staff.
“It was during one of our team scrimmages and it was my first time in the stadium,” Grant said. “Just a surreal feeling. I’ve always dreamt of being a part of an NFL organization.”
Grant’s football journey began when he started tackle football in Rocky Hill when he was 6 years old. Two years later, his family moved to Manchester. From 2009 to 2012, Grant played at Manchester High. After graduating in 2013, Grant played a prep season at East Coast Prep in Great Barrington, Mass. From there, he played at Assumption College in Worcester.
Grant was a part of the program’s first two Northeast-10 Conference championships in 2015 and 2017. The Greyhounds qualified for the NCAA Division II tournament each year from 2015-2017, the first three NCAA tournament appearances in team history.
By the time his collegiate career was over, Grant had rewritten the school record book. He holds the records for career receiving yards (3,204), career touchdown receptions (36), the top three spots in single-season touchdown receptions — 13 in 2016, 11 in 2015 and nine in 2017 — and is tied for most touchdown catches in a game (3), which he achieved three times. He’s also second in career receptions (228) and second, third and fourth in single-season receiving yards — 965 in 2015, 919 in 2016 and 874 in 2017.
“He was exactly what he is right now, a great leader, an unbelievably hard-worker,” former Assumption and current Holy Cross coach Bob Chesney said. “Nothing was ever just handed to him. He put in not only what was expected of him, but he put in a whole lot of extra work. He eventually led a whole group of receivers to do the same.”
In 2018, Grant participated in rookie mini-camps with the Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears and the Oakland Raiders.
“Those experiences helped me out a lot. I learned a lot of things that I didn’t see in college,” Grant said. “Different tips and tricks for my game as a receiver. Different note-taking skills and work habits. Coming from a Division II program into the NFL, almost everything is brand-new. It got me ready for what to expect from the players.”
Later that year, Grant participated in a mini-camp for the Salt Lake Stallions of the Alliance of American Football. He was cut two weeks before training camp.
“Once I stopped playing there I knew my days playing were pretty much over,” Grant said. “At first I didn’t want to coach. I didn’t want anything to do with football. Glad I got over that quick.”
After returning to Assumption to finish his sociology degree, Grant reached out to Chesney, who moved to Holy Cross in 2018.
“My mom was always in my ear telling me when you’re done playing you should coach,” Grant said. “I didn’t want to hear any of it until I was done playing and I was finishing my final semester at Assumption and I realized I missed the game too much.”
Grant was a volunteer special teams quality control coach for the Crusaders in 2018. Holy Cross finished 7-6, capturing the Patriot League title and qualifying for the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Grant feels that playing under Chesney was beneficial in his transition into coaching.
“We had a pretty close relationship when I was a player but it blossomed into something more once I started coaching,” Grant said. “Having him there was a huge help because he was so approachable. I wasn’t nervous about asking questions about certain things and he’d let me pick his brain all the time. He’s someone that I aspire to be like in this profession.”
In December 2019, Grant applied for the Browns’ Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, a program offered by each NFL team to minority coaches. Grant was one of six hired by the Browns in June. During that fellowship, he worked with the defensive line for the final three weeks of Cleveland’s offseason program.
After applying for the Willis fellowship, Grant went through “a few weeks of interviews” before getting the job. More than halfway through his tenure with the Browns, Grant’s colleagues have been impressed.
“Ashton has done an excellent job in all facets of the job, but more importantly, he truly embodies what the organization had in mind when the idea of this fellowship came to fruition,” Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson said. “Bill Willis, as well as Marion Motley, were such key players in breaking the color barrier in professional football and their character, determination and endurance is why the game is what it is today. I’ve watched Ashton bring those same qualities to work on a daily basis and I’m looking forward to watching his continuing growth through this opportunity.”
Grant hasn’t thought about his next step once his tenure with the Browns is over. He said he wants to learn as much as he can this season. But he hopes more NFL coaching is in his future.
“I’d say my ultimate goal is to be an offensive coordinator in the NFL,” Grant said. “I straddle the fence on whether or not I would want to be a head coach. But at this moment, I think being an OC is where I’d want to be.”
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