CHAMPAIGN — When she was 10 or 11 years old, Ashton Washington used to try to talk back to her parents in an effort to be forced to stay home.
She had a bigger plan. She wasn't acting out for the sake of it, but rather trying to get out of going to every sporting game, every practice, every workout. Her father was a youth coach and her younger brother, Parker, was a player. Sports surrounded her, and at a young age, she could have stood for a break every here and again.
Sports have always been a big part of her life. She was on the high school varsity basketball team as a freshman, watched her high school classmate Steven Sims get recruited by Kansas and took mental notes of the recruiting process and the ins and outs of the trade. As Parker got older, she watched him go through a similar process, seeing it work from both sides before he committed to Penn State.
Recruiting and football became a passion. She parlayed that into a job as the Director of Operations/Recruiting for The Old Coach, a media outlet dedication to statewide coverage of Texas high school football. Washington was the head of social media for the company, helping to build a strong reputation with parents, coaches, and student-athletes across the state of Texas.
She turned that into a job as the business and game day operations specialist for the XFL's Houston Roughnecks last season, and on Tuesday she was announced as the Director of High School Relations for the University of Illinois football team. She's the first African-American female staff member in the history of the Illinois football program, and does it at just 23 years old.
"This is something I’ve truly, truly taken in as a trailblazer," Washington said during a Wednesday Zoom meeting with reporters. "It’s not just for African-American women, it’s for other women behind me. That’s my main goal for young girls who are looking up to me right now is that it’s possible for them to do the same if they are planning to go down this same route. ...
“I don’t like to say age is a factor in this. I feel like I’m prepared, I feel like I’m ready to take on this big role and, of course, this trailblazer role. This is something I think that not every 23 year old right now can take on. It’s going to be big for me to uphold the university morals and conduct and just be a reflection of the football team.
"That’s going to be my main goal. My main goal right now is to get these kids ready for Illinois, show them we’re here, we love them, we love the state and outside the state in different demographics that we’re recruiting now."
In February, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said, “One of these days, you’re going to see a female walking down these hallways too. That’s a big deal for me. Diversity is definitely important to me.”
Washington takes over for Joe Price, who was with the program for one year before taking a job at the University of Texas-San Antonio. Price, she said, was a mentor to her and helped her establish a connection with Illinois Director of Recruiting Pat Embleton. Washington said Smith told her during a Zoom call that her name frequently came up at the end of staff meetings.
Washington graduated from Huston-Tillotson University with a bachelor's degree in mass communication in 2019.
"Ashton Washington brings a unique skill set to the Smith Center, really something that no one else in the building has at this time," Smith said in a statement. "She is high energy, extremely organized, and brings a different perspective in how we will engage with recruits when they are on the University of Illinois campus.
"Ashton is a great fit with our staff and program. I can't wait for all of us to be together again working toward bringing the best student-athletes we can to our campus."
Her passion blossomed as a sophomore in high school. She watched as Sims, who now plays for Washington's NFL team, went through a process as a lightly-recruited player before landing at Kansas.
“I was kind of watching backdrop and learning from his recruitment process of what to do with an athlete that doesn’t have any offers on the table," Washington said. "That taught me a lot with that and it triggered. I was like, ‘This is something that I really, really like.’ I didn’t know what to call it at that point; whether to call it, ‘Hey, I love recruiting or I just love this recruitment process of helping him.’ "
Washington said she wants to "wrap her arms" around the state of Illinois and will be building networks and relations with high school coaches and recruits, not only in Illinois but in other parts of the country where Illinois has focused its recruiting efforts.
In state recruits, though have been sparse. Illinois didn't sign an in-state recruit in the Class of 2020 and none of its four verbal commits in the Class of 2021 are from Illinois.
She speaks with passion, direction and an organized mindset when she talks about her new job. She's no longer the 10- or 11-year-old trying to get out of going to everything football. Washington can't get enough of the game.
"Now look at my life, it’s all about football," Washington said. "Football never stops. Recruiting never stops. It’s a full circle now."
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25
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