Ashton Clark has a firm grip on the football. And the torch.
Both are in his hands this season, and the Eastern Washington senior wouldn’t have it any other way.
Clark is going on three seasons as the Eagles’ punt returner, and as a receiver already has 17 catches for 310 yards and a pair of touchdowns this year.
The torch? That was passed three weeks ago at Oregon State in Clark’s first game as a senior captain and the Eagles’ first without standout receivers Greg Herd, Brandon Kaufman and Nick Edwards.
As the game ended and the Eagles celebrated a momentous 49-46 victory – their first over a Pac-12 school – Clark found Edwards on the sideline. “I turned to him and said, ‘We finally did it,’” Clark said.
“And I gave him a hug.”
That hug was more than skin-deep, representing years of work for Clark and the entire corps of receivers. Like many Eastern recruits, Clark was a lightly-recruited, 165-pound wisp who didn’t discover the game until he reached high school in Vancouver, Wash. Basketball and baseball were his games of choice – or rather, his mother’s.
When he later asked his mother why he didn’t play football sooner, she replied, “‘Because I didn’t want you to,’” Clark said.
He soon learned why. Playing both receiver and cornerback, Clark dislocated his shoulder enough on defense “that I didn’t want to stick my arm out anymore.”
Except to catch passes, enough of them to get the attention of Division II schools Western Oregon and Central Washington, plus Eastern Washington.
College already had his attention; he wanted to be the first in his family to go beyond high school. “When I was younger,” Clark said, “College wasn’t an option – it was something I was going to do.”
Along with high school and current teammate Steven Forgette, Clark was sold on Eastern’s family atmosphere, which on the football team transcended age and position.
But like others, the family had a pecking order, which kept Clark off the field for two seasons: his redshirt year in 2009, and the following year when he served on the scout team.
He made the trip and suited up in Frisco, Texas, for the FCS championship game, but the season “was definitely frustrating,” Clark said. “But I knew at one point I would get that chance.”
That came sooner than he thought, in the biggest venue he would ever see in an Eastern uniform. Six minutes into the Eagles’ 2011 season, Clark found himself in Husky Stadium, watched by 58,000 fans, but momentarily overlooked by the Washington defenders.
Seconds later, Clark was in the end zone with a 32-yard touchdown catch from Bo Levi Mitchell.
“It was crazy, a shock to me, catching the ball and seeing nobody there – it was something I’d been waiting for for a long time,” Clark said.
Waiting, but hardly idle. Even as Kaufman, Herd and Edwards studied the game, Clark would study them.
“I think all three of those guys are different, and from each one I took something away,” Clark said. “With Kauf, it didn’t matter how many injuries, he was going to play through it. … Greg played every down. … Nick, he had the knowledge aspect and the consistency, and he was going to give you that fourth-down catch every time.”
By the end of the 2011 season, Clark had 33 catches for 436 yards and four touchdowns. The numbers were even better last season: 49 catches, 650 yards and five TDs, including a game-winning, 20-yard pass from Vernon Adams against Montana.
“With Vernon, I think about it: If this turns into a scramble drill, where am I going to get to?” Clark said. “You have to be ready for it at all times.”
Not everyone was ready for the departure of the “Trio,” especially when Kaufman announced in January that he would pass up his final year to turn pro. Along with fellow senior Cory Mitchell, it would be up to Clark to pass the torch to a new group of receivers.
“He’s a hard worker in everything he does,” receivers coach Junior Adams said. “He does everything you ask him to do, a benchmark even for the guys who graduated last year.”
Clark carried the torch through spring ball and into the summer. “We don’t have coaches out there in the summer, so I wanted to make sure I was a leader and I was showing them the right way,” Clark said.
“Even if I wasn’t a captain I wanted to be a leader of the receivers, but the guys wanting me to be their captain, that definitely was a huge honor.”
Says redshirt freshman receiver Cooper Kupp, “He (Clark) has taught me so much, and he’s been so consistent. He’s someone that I try to take after, and always does his job.”
And after this job is over, Clark said he hopes to put his recreation management degree to work in some kind of coaching or working in a recreation facility.
“A job with kids and sports – that’s definitely in my mind,” Clark said.
That, and passing the torch to a new generation of kids.