He has accounted for 10 touchdowns in a single game — TEN!
He already has broken or matched state records for touchdowns and combined yards in a season.
And it’s a virtual lock this weekend that Ashante Worthy will become the first player in New Jersey’s rich football history to throw and rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season.
“He’s one of the best players you’re ever going to see at the high school level in Jersey and in any other state,” said Chris Melvin, a local recruiting analyst. “I’ve seen great quarterbacks and I’ve seen great running backs — and he’s a combination of both. That’s a rarity.”
Despite doing things on the football field people swear they’ve never seen before, Worthy, a senior quarterback at Freehold Boro High, isn’t sure where he will play college football next year. In fact, you’re more likely to find him watching Disney movies at home with his two young daughters than rummaging through recruiting mail.
So who is Ashante Worthy and how did he end up being the best football player in New Jersey still looking for a home next year?
Well, that’s complicated.
On Saturday, Worthy gets one more chance to make an impression on the grandest stage when he leads upstart Freehold Boro into the Central Jersey, Group 4 title game against Long Branch at Rutgers.
Then he will go back to his two other full-time jobs: Being a father and trying to repair a difficult academic situation and boost his grades enough to become eligible for a Division 1 scholarship. He traces some of the struggles to a rough stretch around the time his first child was born in January of 2015, less than two months after his freshman football season ended.
“At that point in time, I thought my life was over,” he admitted. Worthy, who agreed to speak publicly for the first time about his children, said he thought he would be forced to drop out of high school, give up sports and get a job.
It has taken nearly three years, but Worthy now says his children have inspired him to do better in school.
“It made me work harder,” he said. “Now I know that I have two little girls looking up to me, so I just try to do right by them so they can have everything I had when I was a kid growing up.”
For now, that means putting his hard days behind him and pushing forward.
“Like a lot of people in high school, sometimes you have kids or you make mistakes or whatever happens,” Freehold coach Dave Ellis said. “Ashante, at the end of the day, he made the most out of his situation.”
There’s still work to do — a title to win, parenting skills to learn, college requirements to meet, time to find.
It’s all part of the Worthy story, and one that began with moves people still talk about almost a full decade ago.
‘A SPECIAL PLAYER EVEN THEN’
The first sign was Capture the Flag. At Freehold Learning Center, Worthy, then a third grader, dazzled playing the game at recess. The object is to steal the opposing team’s flag and bring it safely back to the other side, and Worthy was a master, shaking, juking and sprinting from one end of the playground to the other.
“I would just make everybody miss,” he said.
Around the same time, Worthy began playing Pop Warner football for the Freehold Giants, where similar scenes unfolded: With the ball in his hands, he would bounce, spin and maneuver past defenders on long touchdown runs.
His mom, Tyree Brooks, said Ashante initially struggled identifying which holes to run through, so he would create space and improvise.
“Ashante would run 15 yards backpedaling and the coaches used to have a heart attack when he did that,” Brooks said. “Everybody’s like, ‘What are you doing?!’ Then the next thing you know he’s in the end zone.”
When Worthy reached Freehold Boro High, he started as a freshman for the varsity team as a linebacker and slot receiver. With his versatility and talent, Ellis was certain he had a budding superstar on his hands.
“We knew he was a special player even then,” Ellis said.
Worthy became a father in January of 2015, just after his freshman season. Later that year, as a sophomore, he became the team’s starting running back and rushed for more than 1,400 yards, emerging as one of the state’s top young tailbacks.
Despite his success, Worthy, behind the scenes, was struggling to deal with fatherhood and his schoolwork. His grades suffered, scaring off recruiters and placing his college hopes in jeopardy.
A high school career that started so promising suddenly was teetering.
‘A DIFFERENT PERSON’
Worthy has two daughters: Aubrey, 2; and Alexis, 1. They are separated by about 18 months and have the same mother, although she and Worthy are no longer dating, Brooks said. The status of the couple’s relationship, along with other factors, has created friction at times as Worthy and the mom co-parent, Brooks added.
The mother of Worthy’s children said she was not comfortable providing her name during a phone interview due to age of her children. But she called Worthy an “amazing father” and said “whenever he has time, he’s always there for his kids.”
Brooks and the children’s mom are the primary caregivers, Brooks said. Both Brooks and the children’s mom declined to discuss specifics of the custody agreement, but the mom said her and Worthy “share custody.”
Both women said Worthy is involved and helps out.
Worthy, meanwhile, is quiet and reserved by nature, and he values privacy when it comes to his personal life. He was hesitant to speak publicly about his daughters, fearful of exposing them in the age of social media trolling.
Worthy said his favorite pastime is curling up on the couch and watching movies with his daughters. Even though the movies are geared to toddlers, he relishes the quiet time together.
“They like to watch movies, so I just lay down and watch the movie with them,” Worthy said.
Brooks said she’s shocked by how “unselfish” Worthy is when it comes to his children and accepting responsibility as their father.
“He’s young, he’s still learning,” Brooks said. “But he plays with them. He spends time with them. He has a good support system. He does.”
Freehold wide receiver Quincy Davis, who also is a cousin of Worthy’s, said Worthy plays an active role in his daughters’ lives and that “he’s always playing with them when they’re around him.
Brooks said she knows her son is balancing a lot — school, football, children. It’s why she said she assumes a large role in the kids’ lives.
“When I talk to him, you sometimes see the frustration come out, that it’s a lot for him,” she said. “My goal is to take some of that pressure off of him and make sure that he can focus on what he needs to focus on for the future.”
Worthy said his children inspired him and gave him incentive to do better in school. He wants to provide for his daughters one day, and to do so he said he needs to attend college and succeed in the classroom.
Ellis, his coach, said he saw a change in Worthy not long after he became a father. Worthy now takes his schoolwork seriously, and he even made the honor roll this year for the first time, Ellis said. He takes his athletic achievements in stride, deflecting credit and praising his coaches and offensive line during interviews.
“His light bulb went off,” Ellis said. “I don’t really know how else to describe it, but Ashante gets it now. He understands the academic part. He understands being a leader. Ashante turned the corner this year. He’s a different person.”
‘WINNING, WINNING, WINNING’
The other pivotal moment for Worthy came early last season, when Freehold’s starting and backup quarterbacks both went down with injuries. With no place else to turn, Ellis approached Worthy and asked if he could try playing quarterback.
In Worthy’s first start against Manalapan, Ellis kept the game plan simple and ran a Triple Option offense that wasn’t much different from Worthy’s prior role as running back. Freehold struggled in a 14-0 loss.
The next game, Ellis switched to the spread offense, emphasizing Worthy’s ability to improvise and make plays. Worthy notched seven touchdowns in a 52-27 rout of Monroe, and Freehold would go on to win its next six games.
“That’s when we realized we had something,” Ellis said. “I knew this offense could potentially be a big problem.”
Worthy is the engine behind an offense the team nicknamed “headache” because that’s what it gives opponents. The punt team, meanwhile, is dubbed “migraine.” The team deploys Worthy as its rugby-style punter, allowing him to kick or run on fourth down, depending on the defensive look. Ellis often begs Worthy to actually punt the ball since he never wants to come off the field.
In turn, Freehold entered the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, partly because it forfeited its first game for using an ineligible player. They were the bottom seed no one in New Jersey wanted to face, and promptly knocked off No. 1-seed Nottingham and No. 5-seed Brick Township.
Worthy, meanwhile, also is a strong defensive cornerback, but Ellis has resisted allowing him to play him on both sides of the ball, fearful he might get injured. Worthy wanted to play defense so bad he had his mom call Ellis this summer to make another plea.
Ellis relented during last week’s semifinal playoff game against Brick Township, when Freehold was struggling to cover the opponent’s top receiver. Ellis inserted Worthy on defense and he responded with two interceptions, a pass break-up and a solo tackle — in his first six plays.
“Everything for him is geared on winning, winning, winning,” Ellis said. “Sometimes he feels like with him not playing defense we have less of a chance of winning. It all circles back to winning. That’s what drives him.”
Worthy now has a few other things driving him: The prospect of a state championship and improving his grades to earn a college scholarship. Ellis believes Worthy could be a late qualifier, but it’s going to be close.
Meanwhile, recruiting analysts and coaches say Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, Temple and Monmouth are among the schools that have shown interest in Worthy. If he doesn’t qualify, Ellis said Worthy will attend prep school or junior college.
“Being a ball carrier with his skill set, colleges will be very interested in him if he’s eligible,” said Adam Friedman, Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst from Rivals.com. “How elusive he is, how strong he is as a runner, the quickness out of his cuts and his vision definitely make him a college prospect.”
Worthy thought his life might be over at 16 when he became a father, but now he’s realizing his future once again appears limitless.
“I feel like I’m getting to where I need to be,” Worthy said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Matthew Stanmyre may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattStanmyre. Find NJ.com on Facebook.