By Ryan Stuart
For The Signal
When the public thinks of star athletes, it’s easy to get lost in stats and incredible moments that happen under the lights every week, but their achievements off the field can go unnoticed. In reality, sports are more than just numbers and highlights.
Hart High School’s senior cornerback and slot receiver, Ashton Thomas, is a shining example of what it truly means to be an athlete. He has ambition, he has passion, but most importantly, he has heart. His dedication to his community both on and off the field is paramount to the person he has become.
On Friday nights, Thomas can be seen flying around the turf with a big “33” screen-printed across his chest. With nearly 900 receiving yards on 62 catches and 11 touchdowns, not to mention the six turnovers he’s caused on defense, he has been one of the driving forces that have propelled Hart as it attempts to redeem itself this season after a first-round playoff loss in 2018.
“I’ve worked hard this offseason to become a leader for the team,” Thomas said. “Whatever I can do to contribute to the team, to make plays, to keep us relevant during the playoffs, I’m going to do it.”
Thomas did more than his part last Friday to help the Indians advance in the CIF-Southern Section Division 4 Playoffs. He caught the ball 11 times for 127 yards and a touchdown in a thrilling victory over Chaparral High School. However, it was more than his actions on the field that motivated his team to come back from a halftime deficit.
He has been known to have a strong locker room presence, stepping up as a leader when his team needs one. Down 10-6 at half in a win-or-go-home game, Thomas took it upon himself to rally his team. He delivered an electrifying halftime speech and amped up his team for a sensational second-half battle.
“He’s an ambassador for comradery on the team,” head coach Mike Herrington said. “He’s the one that tries to motivate people and get them back in the game. He’s kind of the guy the team rallies around.”
Herrington’s words only reassured what Conita Reed, Thomas’s mother, has known for years.
“People naturally gravitate towards him and follow his lead,” Reed said. “I’ve been told that since he was in elementary school. He is a natural leader.”
However, Thomas doesn’t just use his leadership skills to lead his team to a comeback. He spends a lot of his free time volunteering as a coach for young football players at Formula4Speed, an organization that gave him the tools to succeed under the Friday night lights.
Thomas’s influence and his dedication to football and these kids have cemented him as a role model for the next generation of high school football players. Any given week, young Hart hopefuls can be heard yelling, “throw it to number 33,” from the stands.
“Some of our younger kids look up to him,” Daniel Terry, founder of Formula4Speed said. “They come out to his games. He has a very positive effect on the young guys.”
Whether he is coaching at Formula4Speed or performing on the field, Thomas enjoys being a mentor to these kids. He lives for the work he does, contributing to their development as both athletes and upstanding people.
“After the game, the kids just ran up to him and he was talking to them,” Reed said of Thomas’s demeanor after Hart’s 28-21 rout of West Ranch in late October. “That means a lot to him because that is what he was given. Formula4Speed has been very influential in his development over the last four or five years. He believes what’s given to you, you should give back and pay it forward.”
Although Thomas is revered by his teammates and young fans, the path to greatness can be treacherous without help. Even the greatest influencers need inspiration of their own.
From a young age, he looked up to Ray Lewis. Lewis’s hard work and determination taught Thomas to persevere through rough patches in life and come out stronger on the other side. The Hall of Fame linebacker motivated him to start playing football, but his mother was skeptical.
“Initially, I didn’t want him to play,” Reed said. “It was me that was afraid, not him. That translates onto the field because he is fearless. He will play against the biggest kid, or the tallest kid and his thing is, ‘they can’t beat me.’”
Eventually, Reed gave in and allowed Thomas to play. He started with flag football and transitioned into tackle football as he got older. It was that decision by his mother when Thomas was just four years old that brought him to where he is today.
Now, as a respected player, who is viewed by Coach Herrington as a future Division I athlete, Thomas finds inspiration elsewhere. His mother’s grind to provide for both him and his older sister as a single parent motivates him to elevate his game every week.
“She inspires me to get up,” Thomas said, “to go out and achieve. She’s always working hard to give me the stuff that I need, or to give me the stuff that I want around the house. There is so much stuff that she’s done for me, so I never let a practice, never let a game go by without giving it my all.”
After moving her family to California in 2015, Reed started working two jobs to provide for her and her two children. She did what she believed was necessary to give her kids the life she knew they deserved.
“I wanted to provide him with the best opportunity possible,” Reed said. “He works hard, so he deserves the opportunity. When you recognize the gift in someone, you want to work that much harder to make sure that they have every opportunity that they can to develop that gift.”
As a truly humble person, Thomas recognizes the sacrifices his mother made to get him to where he is today. Now, he wants to use the gift Reed helped him develop to go to college, and hopefully the NFL, so he may be able to return the favor.
“I want to be able to provide for her like she has provided for me,” Thomas said. “She’s always working hard to make sure I’m ok, so I’m working hard every day. I want to be able to buy her a house.”
Although she is grateful to have a son who wants to give her the world, Reed never expected to gain anything from her sacrifice, she only wanted a better life for her children. She believes the choices she made were part of her duty as a parent.
“I did it for him because he is my child,” Reed said. “I love him for wanting to give back to me, but just as I am his inspiration, he is mine.”
To her, watching him play the game that he loves every week is enough of a reward.
“When I see him play, I see a different person,” Reed said. “I see the making of a man when I watch him play. He’s a good kid. I’m very proud of him.”