Ashton Grant's colleagues could only watch as he did the seemingly unthinkable.
It was early in the season and Grant, the first recipient of the Browns' Bill Willis Coaching Fellowship, was stumped. The offense was set to install a new play and Grant wasn't quite clear how it was supposed to work.
So, Grant went straight to the source. He knocked on Kevin Stefanski's door and started firing questions at the Browns head coach and offensive play-caller.
"You hear all of the horror stories of NFL coaches and quality control coaches. You don't just walk into their office," Grant said. "I'm still a little bit naive, it's only my third year coaching. I don't know the exact hierarchy. If I have a question, I thought it'd be cool to go get an answer from the guy who calls plays."
What happened next symbolized why Grant's first year coaching in the NFL was so fulfilling.
"Coach Stefanski was actually really cool about it," Grant said. "He walked me through the talking points, taught me the play, why it would work, why it may not work and I walked out learning a bunch. I went back later and apologized and he said, 'No, I want you to do that. My job is to develop you as a young mind so come in here, ask questions and do whatever you have to do to feel like you're getting something out of your experience.
"It just blew me away right there."
Grant's experience is one the Browns hope to see repeat itself year after year.
The Browns created the Bill Willis Coaching 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.
Grant first arrived in Cleveland last June as one of six coaches from various levels in conjunction with the NFL's Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship. A former wide receiver at Assumption College and quality control coach at the College of the Holy Cross, Grant impressed Browns coaches by fully embracing a switch to the defensive side of the ball while working closely with defensive line coach Chris Kiffin.
"Everything was new," Grant said. "To be honest, when I thought about defensive line, I thought it was just four or three guys rushing the passer. I didn't think there was any technique to it, any scheme or system to it. Sitting down and listening to Coach Kiffin talk about the different games they run and the plans to execute their job, it was almost mind-blowing to me that there's different games within the game of football.
"There's the full scope of football. There's the game that the defensive line plays, the offensive line, all the little schemes that go into the big picture."
A whole new world was opened to Grant, and he tackled it with an open mind and lots of questions. His curiosity and eagerness paved the way for an even bigger and longer opportunity when he became the team's first-ever recipient of the Bill Willis Coaching Fellowship.
Grant worked closely with the offensive staff throughout the year, particularly running backs coach/run game coordinator Stump Mitchell, and handled a number of important tasks, such as constructing the scripts and call sheets for practices.
"The coolest part is how comfortable I got with the players," Grant said. "There was a moment in time when I put on a couple of pounds, and Austin (Hooper) and Kareem (Hunt) let me know about it. You can have all these ideas about NFL players before you get into a room with them. It's so awesome that once I got there, these are guys that just love to play football. If you bring something of value to them and you can get them information, they'll listen to you and respect you."
Grant would also pitch in with the training staff and even the equipment staff if they needed any assistance. He was among the numerous members of Stefanski's staff who worked behind the scenes to make what fans see on Sundays as flawless and smooth as possible.
"All of those little things may go unnoticed," Grant said, "but I took a lot of pride in doing that kind of stuff and getting it to those guys in a timely manner."
Grant will be back with the Browns for 2021 and he's expecting more to be put on his plate. His open-minded approach won't change a bit, and he plans to ask just as many questions.
That's the way the Browns prefer it as they hope to continue to develop young coaches like Grant, who they've already seen grow and develop into a coach with loads of potential and staying power.
"What the Browns are doing is unbelievable, just as far as creating a position to get minority coaches like myself involved in the NFL," Grant said. "I think it takes a lot of lack of ego because it's been such a way for such a long time. For Kevin Stefanski and the Haslams to go out of their way and create a position for someone who might not look like them or might not come from the same background, it means a lot.
"Every day I wake up, I think of that and I think of the Bill Wills Coaching Fellowship."
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