During his eight year career in the National Football League, former Cincinnati Bengals’ wide receiver Cris Collinsworth endured a number of painful leg injuries.
A damaged ankle suffered during the 1984 season voided a five-year contract he signed with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits the following offseason because it made him uninsurable. A knee injury later forced the Pro Bowler to miss a combined 11 games during the 1987 and 1988 campaigns, which ultimately became the final two of his career because the ensuing structural damage left him unable to find a contract on the free agent market.
But this particular leg injury felt much worse, and it wasn’t even his.
This time, it had been suffered by his youngest daughter Ashley, who was lying on the ground in tears, holding her broken leg.
On a warm afternoon, she had tried, like her older brother Austin, to perform a trick on the tire swing in their backyard. But Austin, who now plays football at Notre Dame, had the physical ability to switch his body from one side to another without much trouble. Despite her best efforts to duplicate her brother’s talent, Ashley’s timing was off, and within seconds she was flying off the swing as her father watched in horror.
“That one I’ll never live down as long as I live,” Cris says. “She was just a little tiny peanut of a thing.... It was the worst parenting moment that I think I’ve ever had in my life.”
But despite Cris’ remorse as his daughter recovered over the following month, Ashley made sure her father didn’t feel any blame.
“All she did for the next five weeks was try to cheer me up,” Cris recalls. “She was still her bright, bubbly self as she sat there in her little pink cast and tried to make me feel better the whole time.”
Ashley’s leg fully healed, something that would later certainly become clear during an impressive high school track and field career that has continued at Harvard. But before taking up the sport, in her early years, Ashley instead put her legs—and her cheerful personality—to good use through her passion for dance, a hobby of hers since she was three years old.
“She would put on costumes and dance around the house,” Cris explains. “Whatever music was on, she was just one of those happy lights of a person. She entertained us all and just had a very vivacious, energetic personality that always seemed to brighten the room when she walked into it.”
As she grew up, Ashley used that effervescence to continue putting a smile on her father’s face—and even a tear in his eye.
“The big pouffy costumes, the hats that flowed in every way that make a dad cry, and then when the dance recital day comes around and they play the sweet little ballet numbers, and those three, four, five year olds are up there looking like beautiful ballerinas—that’s what I’ll remember most from those early days,” Cris says.
Meanwhile, though her father became increasingly well-known as a NFL commentator—a career path he took up soon after his playing days came to an end—Ashley says that fact didn’t make her childhood any different than that of her friends.
“He was always just a father to me,” she says. “He was always there, he was always the coach of all our teams, he was just like a normal dad.”
As she moved into her teenage years, Ashley continued to follow her passion for dance, later becoming captain of the Highlands High School team as a senior. But upon arriving at the school, she decided to put her talented legs to a new test by joining the track and field squad.