Saint proves value of work......
Saint proves value of work
Ambrose urges kids to get an education
Saturday September 20, 2003
By Jeff Duncan
Ashley Ambrose has a message for kids, especially those in the New Orleans public school system.
Don't quit. Don't lose hope. Don't give in.
The walls might be peeling and the books might be outdated, but you can make something of yourself.
"It can be done," Ambrose said. "You've got to put your mind to it. You've got to want to do it."
Ambrose, a starting cornerback for the Saints, "is the perfect example of that," Fortier High School football coach Robert Welch said.
Welch was an assistant coach at Fortier when Ambrose played there in the late 1980s. A skinny and precocious young defensive back, Ambrose graduated in 1988, ending a remarkable five-year streak that saw four future NFL defensive backs emerge from the Uptown school.
Kevin Lewis, who was the school's valedictorian in 1984, played for the San Francisco 49ers from 1990 to 1992. Maurice Hurst, who graduated in 1985, played for the New England Patriots and Saints. Aeneas Williams, who graduated in 1986, has enjoyed a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams. And Ambrose has played for Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Atlanta and New Orleans during a stellar 12-year run.
"I think all the guys made it because they all worked so hard," Welch said. "Ashley was determined to be successful. He was so talented but he was always a good student, too. He's one of the greatest people you would ever want to meet."
While Ambrose's career has allowed him to see the world and enjoy a life of wealth he never dreamed possible, he's never forgotten his roots. And now that he's back in his hometown, he's determined to make a difference.
During his first stint with the Saints in 1999, he developed a program called the "Ashley Ambrose All A's Club" (for Ashley Avery Ambrose) that rewards football players who excel academically at inner-city schools.
He donated more than $4,000 to Fortier last month when Welch discovered he needed to replace 23 helmets that were more than 10 years old. Like many schools in the Orleans Parish school system, Fortier didn't have the money to buy new helmets.
"We would have been in major trouble if it wasn't for Ashley," Welch said. "Helmets are the most expensive piece of equipment we have. We'd have had to tell kids they couldn't dress out for the (Ponchatoula game), and that's just not fair."
And Tuesday, Ambrose will be one of several Saints, led by wide receiver Joe Horn and running back Deuce McAllister, who will speak to students at John McDonogh Senior High School, the site of last spring's fatal shooting in the school gymnasium.
"I truly believe it's up to you, as a kid," Ambrose said. "I just don't understand what's going through a lot of these young kids' heads. A lot of these kids, they think they're gangsters already. It shouldn't be like that. It's way different from when I was growing up. You see one out of so many now that try to play it straight."
Perhaps, he thinks, they'll listen to him. He was one of those one in so many.
For most of his youth, Ambrose bounced around New Orleans before his family finally settled in the Gert Town neighborhood when he was a teen.
He enjoyed a typical childhood, hanging with friends, playing ball in the streets and testing his mother whenever he had the chance.
One night, he and a buddy decided to test their parents by missing curfew. When Ambrose finally strolled home that night, his mother -- and a stern lecture -- was waiting on the porch.
"My friend wanted to do it again," Ambrose said. "The difference was I didn't want to do it again. He did. And that friend right now is in jail."
In fact, Ambrose said his two best friends from high school are both incarcerated. One in Sacramento, Calif. The other is serving eight years for armed robbery in Jackson, La.
"It depends on what you want in life," Ambrose said. "I didn't want to be like that. I wanted to be successful."
Ambrose never thought that success would come by way of the football field. He didn't start playing organized ball until he reached Fortier.
"When I finally did try it, I was good enough to play," Ambrose said. "It just came natural. I was so athletic."
While his skills started to develop, Ambrose went to work in the classroom. He earned a scholarship to Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Miss., where he graduated in four years with a degree in industrial engineering. He earned the diploma by attending summer school for four consecutive years.
"I was scared if I came home and stayed home a lot I wouldn't want to go back," Ambrose said. "I wanted to be the first one in my family to finish college. My stepdad used to tell me all the time, 'Always think of education. One in so many million get to go to the NFL.' That always stuck in my mind. How am I going to be that one?"
Since entering the league as a second-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 1992, Ambrose has started 125 games and picked off 36 passes. His interception total ranks sixth among active players.
At 33 (his birthday was Wednesday), he is the oldest starting cornerback in the NFL. His 125 starts are the fifth most by an active cornerback.
Moreover, despite his age and slight -- by NFL standards -- 5-11, 197-pound frame, he's missed only one start in the past 113 games, a streak that dates to 1996.
Ambrose thought he would end his career with the Atlanta Falcons, where he started 48 consecutive games the past three seasons. But the Falcons, citing salary-cap restrictions, unceremoniously released him Feb. 21.
The news disheartened Ambrose. After moving three times in the previous five years, he and wife Monica had finally rooted in Atlanta. They had a house in the Atlanta suburbs across the street from good friends, Falcons teammate Ray Buchanan and his wife, Sheree. Daughter Aisha was enrolled in one of the top schools in the area, Greater Atlanta Christian School.
"I was disheartened because he really wanted to be a part of this team; he wanted to stay here," said Buchanan, who said he talks to Ambrose three or four times a week. "Me and him couldn't do anything about it."
It was the first time in Ambrose's career that he'd been forced into free agency because of someone else's decision. He wasn't on the street long. On March 3, two days into free agency, he signed a four-year, $7 million contract with the Saints.
His professionalism and veteran leadership have been welcome additions to the Saints' locker room. When young cornerbacks are brought to camp, coaches pair them with Ambrose and instruct them to watch his technique and fundamentals.
"He's got a classiness that he brings to this team in all parts of it: in his game, his mannerism, on and off the field, in the locker room," said defensive backs coach Greg Brown, who also coached Ambrose for the 2000 and 2001 seasons in Atlanta. "He's a technician. He brings a veteran savvy to the team. He's not only survived but thrived for 11 years in this league. That's a statement. Boy, are we thankful that we've got him."
In the fourth quarter of the Saints' 31-10 win against Houston on Sunday, Ambrose showed his skills are still NFL caliber. His quick hands deflected a pass into the arms of Darrin Smith for an interception. One drive later, his jarring tackle on tight end Billy Miller dislodged the ball into the arms of Derrick Rodgers, who rambled 40 yards for a touchdown.
"We've bonded from Day One," said cornerback Fred Thomas, who played behind Ambrose for one season at Mississippi Valley State and will start opposite him Sunday against Tennessee. "Ever since I've known of Ashley Ambrose, I've never heard anything negative about him, on or off the football field. And since I've gotten to know him here, he's proven that. He's just a great guy."
Ambrose contributes to a team in other ways.
"To everybody else, Ashley's kind of smooth and quiet," Buchanan said. "But behind the scenes, he's one of the funniest dudes you'll ever meet. He's a straight-up comedian. He brought a lot to the team as far as being that guy who would be funny, keep the team loose."
For Ambrose, the chance to play for his hometown team in the final years of his career is the best ending possible. He would love to top it off with a playoff run -- or even better, a Super Bowl title.
"It's a trip," Ambrose said. "I wasn't one of those kids who said, 'One day I'm going to be in the NFL.' I can honestly say I had no idea. To this day, I really think it was just destiny. It was just God's plan for me to be here."
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