The man behind the helmet


Remembering Ashton Dickson

On September 1, 2017, at approximately 6:45pm, the Oland Centre was quiet. There were no loud cheers, no O-Crew chants in the distance, no whistles, no music and no banter in the bleachers. Two teams were lined up on the Football field; the X-Men and the visiting Mount Allison Mounties. Suddenly, there was the distinctive sound of bagpipes, playing as part of a ceremony honouring the life a former X-Man. “Bagpipes playing,” Ashton Dickson would say. “That’s how you know you’re at X.”

Earlier this year in late June, StFX tragically lost a valuable and highly regarded member of its community. Ashton James Dickson, Ottawa native and X-Men alumnus, passed away far too soon at the young age of 25.

Ashton Photo.jpg

There is no doubt that Dickson was a triumphant powerhouse on the field. He is currently the all time leading rusher in X-Men History. He was a running back with a total of 3,178 career yards as a 5-year starter. In his final year, Dickson managed to get 866 total yards. He led the league in all rushing categories, and in 2015 was named Atlantic University Sport’s (AUS) most valuable player. That same year, Dickson played a key role in helping the X-men to their first AUS Championship win since 1996.

Dickson was known in many ways. He was the recruit with a smile that could light up a room. He was the X-Men Football player wearing the number 8. He was the teammate that was always pushing his comrades to be better. He was the mentor whose actions led more by example than words ever could. He was the ball carrier. He was both a trailblazer and a workhorse who, in his 5 years at StFX, left his permanent mark on our community. He exceled academically, he led his peers and was always a loyal friend. Ashton Dickson’s greatness went so much deeper than his athletic praise.

Travis Akers, a fourth year defensive back for X-Men football, had the chance to get to know Dickson throughout his time on the team. “There’s a lot of people who only know football Ashton, but he was so much more than that. He was an amazing, stubborn, creative guy.” He continued to explain how they had become more like brothers in their time together on and off the field. Tivon Cook, another former teammate of Dickson’s and current member of the StFX coaching staff this season, echoed Akers’ thoughts. “He deserves to be honoured, not only for the player he was on the field but also for the person he was off the field,” said Cook. “He was a really nice guy that loved having a good time, loved hanging out with everybody, and loved talking to people.”

Cook, a former Quarter Back for X-Men Football, reflected on times that he and Dickson worked closely together on the field and how he watched Dickson grow into the leader he was. He recalled his first couple of seasons being new to the team and looking at Ashton as the guy, the all-star and the one who called the shots. “He’d come right up to me and say, ‘T, give me the effing ball man. You’re going to give me the ball,’” and Cook explained that in his earlier years he would inevitably obey his upper year and superior. Half way through Cook’s third year, there was a game where the team was struggling offensively and Dickson proceeded to demand for the ball. “T, give me the ball man,” Cook imitated Dickson’s common phrase. Cook described that he looked Dickson in the eye and said “Ashton, you’ll get the ball when I give you the ball.” In that instant, Cook vividly remembers Dickson looking at him, pausing, and backing away in acceptance. It’s a moment that resonates with Cook to this day as it finally established the mutual respect the two shared on the field. “It wasn’t just him anymore, it was also me, the receivers, the defence, the linemen, and everyone.”

Nathaniel Fermin, fifth year defensive back, attested to Dickson’s respect for his friends and teammates as well. “He admired everyone on the team. Especially the O-Linemen, because he knew how important they were for the team to succeed.” Dickson is remembered for caring more about his teammates than the accolades he received on his own. Jonathan Heidebrecht, third year kicker for the X-Men, joined the X-Men football team in Dickson’s final season. His memories of Ashton involved his clear love for the team and the work they put in together. “I remember winning the Loney Bowl the first year (2015). When it was his time to take a picture with the trophy, he didn’t even care if the trophy was in the picture, he only cared that each of his brothers were in the picture with him.” Heidebrecht continued to explain, “He wanted to win more than anyone, but when it came down to it, he realized what was the most important thing in his life, which was the people in it.”

Furthermore, Dickson will be remembered as a competitive individual who pushed his teammates to attain greatness. Akers confirmed Dickson’s stubbornly competitive nature by saying, “He was just a work horse. Everything he did, he had to be the best at doing.” Fermin also reflected and told that “He was always about dedicating himself to his craft, giving his all and making sure that he never looked back and had regrets about anything, in school or on the field.” Fermin’s fondest memories of Dickson were smack talking with him in the locker room and pushing each other to be better.

Coach Gary Waterman of the StFX X-Men can still hear Dickson repeatedly saying, “Coach, give me the ball.” He reflected on how wonderful Dickson’s hunger was. “The beauty about Ashton is that he was passionate about the sport. He really believed that for us to be successful, he wanted to do more always. Every carry that was out there to take, he wanted.”

The individuals that were close to Dickson in his time at StFX were all deeply affected by the man that he was. They learnt different life lessons and grew from their respective experiences with him. Akers was especially impacted by his time with Ashton. “His whole attitude was that it doesn’t matter if you’re big, small, weak, strong. You just gotta do what you do, and what you need to get by.” A close memory that Akers has of Dickson was him always telling him to get his weight up. “He would always say ‘Get your weight up’ and that could account for anything. If you get beat at a drill - ‘get your weight up.’ If you’re in the gym and you can’t lift a weight that’s too heavy – ‘get your weight up,’” Akers said as he described the profound meaning to the phrase. “There was a time that someone creamed me on the field in second year and I fell down during a game and Ashton picked me up and said ‘Get your weight up.’ That always stuck with me and to this day if I know I can’t do something, I tell myself to ‘get my weight up.’”

The current X-Men Football season is underway and the team is dedicating it to Ashton Dickson’s memory. To each member, this season means something different. The team has placed stickers on their helmets in the shape of a football with Dickson’s number 8 in the centre. “It just means that every time you look at it, no matter what it means to you, you have to remember a greater purpose. It’s the best we can do to honour him, but it’s still not nearly enough,” Heidebrecht said in discussion of the stickers. Fermin also agreed. “The stickers are an amazing tribute, and I do respect the school for allowing us to have the stickers and allowing us to honour him in that way.”

The team also held a brief ceremony to honour Dickson prior to kick-off at their home opener. The ceremony included Dickson’s loved ones, coaching staff and teammates. The opposing team Mount Allison’s members and coaching staff were extremely supportive. It was the moment of silence that deeply affected the boys on the field. “Normally I may be nervous before a game but I was very calm, collected and I could feel that he was with me or within me,” Fermin explained about the moment of silence. Cook felt proud of how his team and the entire community held such a gracious composure. “No one said a word in that moment. That shows how much he had an impact on this school; the fact people that didn’t even know him had enough respect for him to not say a word in that moment of silence.”

Coach Waterman’s thoughts on this season’s dedication were circled around the importance of how the team approaches it; with dedication. “What we remember of Ashton is his toughness, his effort and his grit,” he began. “Our dedication is our commitment to be greedy like he was. Our dedication was to put an honest effort into everything like he did. Our dedication is to perform and practice the way he did. This is how we want to honour him.” He emphasized the importance of attitude and dedication rather than achievements. “We must not focus on the wins, but focus on the effort we put forward in his honour.”

For Travis Akers, this season means a lot more. After having broken his tibia, fibula and tearing a part of his knee, he told himself he was done playing football for the X-Men. Following news of Dickson’s passing, Akers decided he needed to give it one last year. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have come back to play. I made the decision not to, but when Ashton passed all I could think was how he’d tell me to ‘get my weight up’. I made the decision to come back and play for him and I’m so glad I did.”

Ashton Dickson was humble with a quiet confidence. He was never cocky, never smug and always did his best. Tivon Cook characterized him as the guy who could put the team on his back if he had to but also developed the confidence to take a step back and let other people take over. Although he was known for being the guy who could turn 5 yards into 15, or as the AUS All-Star that helped revive the X-Men football program, he was also the guy who had compassion for his brothers and changed the lives of many. To put Ashton Dickson into words, Akers put it best. “Don’t get me wrong, he was an amazing football player, but the man behind that helmet was who I loved, and the football Ashton was just like a bonus. I was privileged enough to be his friend, and the man behind the helmet was someone that taught me a lot and basically helped me grow.”