Every half begins with a kickoff. In a typical Arena Football League game, you’re likely to see 15-plus kickoffs, a few of which will go through the narrow uprights for a touchback, some of which will be onside kicks, and you’ll have a couple of electrifying returns.
What doesn’t happen often, except to the Portland Thunder this year, is a bar ball.
A routine play turns into a panicked free-for-all as the ball careens wildly off iron, falling to the ground, where a kicking team recovery typically results in a red zone possession or a backbreaking touchdown.
In the past three games, the Portland Thunder have managed to avoid a turnover on a bar ball* thanks to new wide receiver Perez Ashford’s quick reactions and playmaking ability.
“Being a punt returner [in college] really helped me, seeing the way the ball comes and seeing where it’s going to hit…you know when the ball’s going to come at you a little bit crazy, because it’s headed toward the bars,” Ashford said.
It’s not all old hat, however. The biggest difference for Ashford as he’s made the transition from a returner to the personal protector position in the AFL is having to watch the returner while also keeping an eye on the ball and keeping his mind on the eight men rushing down the field to deliver hits.
“Right when you turn around, just about everybody’s on you already. So you have to find the most dangerous man – find that guy that’s headed right toward you, and be prepared for that shock when you turn around and he’s there,” Ashford said.
On a typical return, he’s standing at the 10-yard line, as he was advised by veterans Kyle Rowley and Duane Brooks. Brooks is the Thunder’s main kick returner, so he is very aware of what he needs from a personal protector.
Depending on the type of return, Ashford could be looking to pull, to influence the direction of Brooks’ run, or he might find himself just needing to block the first guy he can find.
But when it hits the fan (or, more accurately, the ball hits the iron), all the plans go out the window.
The first thing going through Ashford’s mind when he sees the bad bounce coming is just “Get the ball!” Other than that, it’s all about determining what the bounce is going to look like. Sometimes it bounces far, sometimes high, sometimes sideways.
“It’s a lot like fielding a baseball,” said Ashford. “I used to play baseball, and I think that helped me a lot, too.”
Ashford is also the team’s backup returner, so he could end up being the guy being protected someday.
“I would say [my favorite part is] getting that ball and running with it. It’s kind of hard for me, because it’s unexpected when it comes to me,” said Ashford. “That’s the most fun part for me.”
Although Ashford has had more opportunities for returns than most personal protectors would get at this point in the season, the special teams highlights of the season have been when Brooks breaks through the line of oncoming defenders for a huge return.
“Well,” says Ashford, “I also like blocking when Brooks springs it downfield and knowing I got that block that got him free.”
*For reference purposes, a kickoff hitting the bar or taking an unexpected hop is referred to as a bar ball, whether or not it actually hit iron.