Ashton Grant couldn't put his pencil down.
Grant — a former wide receiver at Assumption College and quality control coach at College of the Holy Cross — was taking a deep dive into the new offensive installs of the Browns' new playbook. He had an interview with offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt the next afternoon for the Bill Willis Coaching Fellowship, and he wanted to feel as prepared as possible.
The Browns sent Grant a playbook at 8 p.m. on the night before his interview, which was set for 3 p.m. the next day. He didn't fall asleep that night until 3 a.m. after hours of taking notes and preparing for a complete breakdown of the plays with Van Pelt. Grant's former college roommate quizzed him late that night, and his mom quizzed him again the next morning after he managed just five hours of rest.
For Grant, the long hours paid off. He was named the first-ever recipient of the Bill Willis Coaching Fellowship, which the Browns created for a rising minority coach with a focus on the offensive side of the ball. He will spend a full season with Cleveland's coaching staff and assist coaches with week-to-week game plans and talent evaluations. Grant will have a plethora of resources to network with other coaches, gain valuable knowledge on the implementation of NFL-level coaching methods and improve his path to a professional coaching career.
"I told Coach Stefanski when he called me that if he saw me in person right now, he probably wouldn't stop laughing — I was smiling from ear to ear," Grant said. "I'm just ready to go and excited to get out there. The opportunity is huge. I'm just thinking about how I can be of service to all the coaches and players I'll be working with."
The Browns created the fellowship to provide opportunities and experience to minority coaches, who have historically faced barriers in their pursuit of entry-level positions and promotions. The fellowship was named after Willis, who along with teammate Marion Motley, overcame many obstacles to become two of the first African-American professional football players in the modern era. Willis played with the Browns from 1946-53 and was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
After his pro football career, Willis had an active role in the Ohio Youth Commission and helped troubled youth in the community. He was also instrumental in establishing a high school graduation program for adjudicated youth to learn employment-related skills and have an opportunity to live a successful life.
Willis, who passed away in 2007, was also an assistant recreation commissioner in Cleveland and worked with the Browns in encouraging children to participate in youth football leagues
"I think he would be very pleased and proud," said Bill Willis Jr., the son of Willis Sr. "He was very much focused on taking advantage of partnership and opportunities. It is an honor for him to be remembered by the Browns in this way — not only for contributions to the team, but in his contributions to the community once he left the Browns."
Before entering a coaching career, Grant played in the Alliance of American Football with the Salt Lake Stallions and participated in training camps with the Chiefs, Bears and Raiders. At Assumption, Grant was a standout wide receiver and captain and accumulated numerous accolades.
Grant was one of several candidates who applied for the Bill Willis Coaching Fellowship. He was a familiar face among Browns coaches after his work through the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, a separate opportunity each NFL team offers to minority coaches during offseason programs.
Grant helped coach the defensive line in his previous fellowship with the Browns. Even though his area of expertise was at the wide receiver position, Grant welcomed the challenge of coaching on defense after speaking with Stefanski, who told Grant that the best candidates for top coaching positions are experienced on both sides of the ball.
"We put him out of his comfort zone," Stefanski said. "He did a really nice job, and (defensive line coach) Chris Kiffin was impressed with him and how he worked with the whole defensive staff. Ashton really did a great job throughout the process and really won the job."
Now, Grant will work with the Browns for a full season as part of a program built to give minority coaches a chance to accelerate their coaching path and succeed in the NFL. The Browns have been committed to promoting diversity in football, and the Bill Willis Coaching Fellowship is another step to make a difference.
"It's a really big deal to me and our group," Stefanski said. "We talk a lot about affecting positive change, and we feel like we can make a positive impact by adding a young minority coach to the offensive side of the ball in this position named after a paramount figure in the history of pro football and the Cleveland Browns. We have several young coaches on our staff, and I want to be very intentional about how we develop our coaches. With this program, we get to add this hardworking, smart, young coach. The emphasis is on his career, and we hope we can give him a positive experience in the beginning of what we hope is a very long career."
Grant will assist virtually in the training camp portion of the fellowship before switching to in-person coaching at the conclusion of camp. He participated in several video meetings during his previous fellowship, which lasted three weeks, and will work alongside running backs coach Stump Mitchell to develop first- and second-down strategies, coordinator Mike Priefer with special teams and Stefanski with special projects throughout the season.
The experience could lead to bigger coaching opportunities for Grant in the future. For now, he's just focused on helping the Browns win.
That was his mindset when he sat down and memorized the Browns' new playbook in less than 24 hours, and he knows that mentality will carry over well with his new gig.
"I'm not thinking that far down the line," Grant said. "I usually like to be wherever my butt is. I'm just excited to get with the Browns and get going on everything."