Brian McDonald-Ashford is out for the season because of knee surgery. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Whether bobbing and weaving on the freeway or zigzagging on the gridiron, BYU running back Brian McDonald-Ashford is fast.
The 5-10, 210 senior made the drive from Los Angeles, Calif., to Provo in a mere seven hours during the break caused by the Sept. 11 World Trade Center/Pentagon/Pennsylvania tragedy. Brian has battled through his own tragedy since then, having suffered a season-ending knee injury against Utah State last month.
Here is a player who:
* Ran with one shoe off and one shoe on.
* Stands 5-10, but had to guard a 7-1 center.
* Has a brother who coaches 1AA football.
* Scored his first receiving TD this season.
* Changed his name before this season.
* Had 60 tickets requested for the Mississippi State game.
* Had a season-ending injury in the Utah State game.
A week ago he underwent orthoscopic surgery for an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction.
Prior to that USU game, the native of Buena Park, Calif., used his 4.52 forty time and his north-south running ability to forge ahead of his last season's pace. He scored six touchdowns, compared to eight last season, and he scored his first TD off a pass reception.
That TD reception came as time expired at halftime of BYU's 44-16 victory at Cal-Berkeley. "His touchdown slash broke their back," said BYU Coach Gary Crowton of Brian's 53-yard pass reception from Brandon Doman.
"No one knew I had the ball," said McDonald-Ashford of that first-half run at Cal. "We had practiced that play all week where I would be one-on-one with a linebacker. When Coach called it, I knew it would be a touchdown all the way.
"Their (Cal's) secondary didn't notice I had the ball until I was at the five-yard-line. Rod Wilkerson threw a good block and I dodged one of their players, but I had no clue how much time was on the clock."
Some coaches and many fans were calling for McDonald-Ashford to run out-of-bounds to set up a possible field goal, but Brian's determination gave BYU a 21-7 halftime lead.
McDonald-Ashford opened the season by scoring a hat trick, three TDs, against Tulane in the Black Coaches Association Classic in Provo. That was when fans first got wind of Brian's name change as he added Ashford to his last name.
Brian's biological father is George Ashford, and he legally married Brian's mother, Juanita, seven years ago.
"I wanted to pay tribute to him for sacrificing so much for me," said Brian of his decision to add Ashford to the McDonald name BYU fans had learned to cheer as he logged 464 yards last season. After the 70-35 triumph over Tulane, Brian phoned his soft-spoken Dad who appreciated his surprise gesture of adding Ashford to his jersey.
In that Tulane game, he caught the first of eight passes this season with a broken thumb.
"I don't know how I broke it, but it happened in the first quarter," says McDonald-Ashford of the break on the tip of his left thumb. Through five games he tallied 251 yards rushing and would have been the mainstay during BYU's 24-20 victory at New Mexico when Luke Staley missed the game as a precautionary measure.
But McDonald-Ashford remained at home trying to strengthen his injured knee in a comeback effort or looking at the remote possibility of securing a medical redshirt season (five games played in a season may exceed eligibility limits).
This desire to persevere isn't the first time for McDonald-Ashford who led his high school team in rebounding as a 5-10 basketball player with a 34-inch vertical leap.
"It's just desire," said McDonald-Ashford of his rebounding prowess. One of his proud moments in basketball was being assigned to guard 7-1 Eric Chenowith (drafted in the second round by the New York Knicks in the last NBA draft). Brian held Chenowith to 40 points, but it was 10 points below the average of the fourth-leading scorer in University of Kansas history.
Another thing McDonald-Ashford learned from basketball was that he couldn't drive left, something he has no problem doing as a running back.
Brian comes by his speed by following his brother's footsteps. Older brother George McDonald is currently coaching the wide receivers at Northern Illinois University. George was a talented kickoff return specialist and Big 10 Conference 60 meter champion while competing for the University of Illinois with a career ending in 1999. George got Brian an autographed football of teammate Simeon Rice (defensive end for Tampa Bay Buccaneers) after the Illini played in the 1994 Liberty Bowl.
The Illini brought Brian back on a recruiting trip, although their stable of running backs was full. McDonald-Ashford's other recruiting trips were to Missouri, Arizona State, and San Diego State. He also made an unofficial recruiting trip 30 minutes down the road to UCLA.
All of these recruiting trips were out of junior college. He was recruited by Texas and several Pac-10 schools like USC and Arizona out of high school, but he passed his SAT exam too late to qualify for those schools.
McDonald-Ashford's routine as a high school senior was to play a game on Friday nights, then wake up at 8 a.m. on Saturdays to take the SAT test again and again.
"I'm not a good test-taker," says McDonald-Ashford. So the junior college route was the avenue he chose to take out of high school.
At Cerritos College he played in two Strawberry Bowls, earning MVP honors the second time with a two-TD, 275-yard rushing performance against Santa Ana College. In junior college he had nine consecutive games rushing for 100 yards.
Cerritos JC is coached by Frank Mazzotta, whose son Casey played at BYU. Former Cougar cornerback Heishi Robertson (1998-99) was also a graduate of Cerritos.
Because of Mazzotta and Robertson, BYU became a consideration for McDonald-Ashford. Jernaro Gilford hosted McDonald-Ashford on Brian's recruiting trip to Provo. Now Gilford, Josh Brandon, and Mike Rigell are roommates to McDonald-Ashford.
The foursome now compete in their apartment PlayStation Tournaments using the College Football 2000 version to play the current opponent the week of the game. The roommates alternate quarters and BYU always wins.
McDonald-Ashford has contributed to many victories at BYU as opponents have found few ways to stop the fleet-footed back.
McDonald-Ashford was slowed last season twice by losing a shoe. He lost his shoe at the Air Force Academy game last season and at Virgina (see the cover on this game program).
"I didn't know my shoe came off until I ran out of bounds," says McDonald-Ashford. "Wearing mid-tops helps my shoes stay on better now. Virginia was my coming out party. The team was counting on me because Luke (Staley) was hurt."
At Virginia, he rushed for 86 yards and scored three touchdowns to help BYU secure a come-from-behind, overtime victory, 38-35.
Aside from being a strong inside runner, other trademarks of McDonald-Ashford are his hair style and use of nasal strips on game days.
"I don't know if those things work or are just a fashion statement," says McDonald-Ashford. "I also put glare-blockers under my eyes. It took me a while to get accustomed to these things, but Margin Hooks was the 'man' when I got here and he told me to use them."
Brian's hair style has changed from an Afro, to braids, to being shaved when it gets over 100 degrees. When he shaves his head, he has to get a pad adjustment because his Afro has been scrunched by his helmet.
At BYU, he finally switched from wearing jersey number four, which was worn by his brother in high school. Jersey number four is worn by Gilford, so McDonald-Ashford picked number one as the only single digit he liked.
And six is the amount of touchdowns he has scored this season before he had orthoscopic knee surgery a week ago. Surgery had been postponed after the USU game to give him a chance of playing again this year. He returned to practice a couple days before the Air Force game last month, but the knee wasn't stable enough.
He was hopeful of returning to play for the Mississippi State game on December 1. That game was originally scheduled for Sept. 14, but was postponed because of the aforementioned WTC tragedy. Brian had 60 tickets lined up for his cousins, aunts and uncles who live within driving distance of Starkville, Miss. Both of his grandmothers are from Indiana where he has been to visit a couple of times.
Nevertheless, family and fans can be proud of what Brian did in less than two years.
Few and far between are the season-ending injuries experienced by BYU gridders.
Trainers and modern medicine have helped athletes like BYU's Brian McDonald-Ashford recover from traumatic injuries.
Among past BYU athletes who have suffered career-ending injuries in their college careers are quarterback Gifford Nielsen (1975-77), wide receiver Jay Miller (1972-76) and fullback Kent Nance (1962). And who can forget the 1992 season when BYU ended up starting a fourth-string quarterback named Tom Young in the Aloha Bowl or All-American tight end Itula Mili missing the 1997 Cotton Bowl?
Nielsen, 6-5, 203, was from Provo, and went on to play for the Houston Oilers. He was injured in game number four of his senior year. Nielsen was considered one of the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy in 1977, and Sports Illustrated magazine was on hand when he suffered his knee injury against Oregon State at Corvallis, Oregon.
Colorado State was the next game for BYU after Nielsen was injured. CSU was stunned when then unheralded quarterback Marc Wilson threw for seven touchdowns in the 63-17 victory at Fort Collins, Colo.
"Nielsen's MCL injury in the '70s would only keep him out of the lineup two to three weeks nowadays," said BYU Trainer George Curtis. "Utah State's Emmett White doesn't have an ACL, but he's able to play around it."
Curtis points out that Teag Whiting, Ifo Pili and Brandon Stephens on this year's team all have torn MCL injuries, but are now able to play.
"We have learned some things about rehabilitation," said Curtis. "Within three days we had Whiting leg-pressing 580 pounds to help his ligaments heal faster."
Whiting's knee injury in the UNLV game was a grade three tear, but he was helped by wearing a knee brace. He sat out the USU game and then started against New Mexico.
Miller, 6-0, 185, from San Jose, Calif., set an NCAA single game record of 22 catches in one game against New Mexico in 1973. That sophomore season Miller caught 100 passes. Miller's season-ending broken shoulder blade injury came in a Labor Day practice during September 1974 just before the first game.
Nance, 6-3, 193, was a blue-chip athlete from Madera, Calif., in the days when freshmen weren't eligible to play immediately for the varsity. In the opening game in 1962 at the University of Pacific in Stockton, Calif., Nance's knee was injured by an opponent.
"He (Nance) was the finest prospect we had obtained in years," said Dave Schulthess, BYU's longtime sports information director. "He could long jump over 24 feet."
Nance had four surgeries on his knee and did play in future years, but his career was not the same.
Speaking of four, that's how many quarterbacks the Cougars used in 1992. After John Walsh went down against UCLA, Steve Clements was out for the season in a play at Hawai'i and was replaced by Ryan Hancock. Hancock, who went on to pitch in the major leagues, ended up being a second-team all-conference quarterback that year. Hancock suffered a major knee injury in the final regular season game at Utah, paving the way for Young to go against Kansas.
And Mili's final game as a Cougar was in the 1996 Western Athletic Conference Championship at Las Vegas. Fortunately, BYU had another quality tight end in Chad Lewis, who now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. Mili went on to play in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks.