Ashley Singleton found her way to the field during the celebrations. She bolted to her brother, hugging him tightly, and didn’t let go.
Muffled by their embrace, Alex Singleton tells Ashley how much he loves her over and over again.
Through the successes and heartbreaks, the losses and that Grey Cup championship victory, Ashley was there for her brother Alex over and over again.
When Singleton, a former Montana State linebacker, played high school football for Thousand Oaks (California) High School, Ashley refused to sit in the stands with her mother and other fans. Instead, she found her seat on the ground along the fence surrounding the field with her dad and the rest of the players’ dads, watching intently and cheering loudly.
Nothing changed when she watched him play for MSU and eventually professionally.
Singleton, a former all-American linebacker for the Bobcats, was promoted to the Philadelphia Eagles' active roster last week. He recorded a tackle in his NFL debut against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday night.
In November 2018, Singleton helped lead the Calgary Stampeders to the Grey Cup championship, and Ashley was there.
“She is my No. 1 fan by far. She watched every game. She watches even opponents’ games,” Singleton said. “Even if I don’t care about watching football, she is watching it. She is my biggest fan and a fan of sports in general. Having her cheer for me, it makes everything so much better afterward.”
As supportive as Ashley is of her brother, Singleton is equally supportive of her and her illustrious sports career. Ashley is a Special Olympics athlete who won 10 gold medals last summer.
Although Singleton has put together an impressive football career that's culminated in championships, accolades and even signing with the Eagles, he feels he will always be two steps behind his sibling.
“No matter how much or how great any of us could be in sports, she is always going to be better and she’s the big athlete in our family,” Singleton said. “We’re always striving to match her. Even as other people want to say that I am the big athlete and all that stuff, we’re like ‘No, we are just trying to catch up to Ashley.’”
Ashley, who has Down Syndrome, has been involved with Special Olympics almost her entire life, which means the entire family has been too.
Singleton began volunteering with Special Olympics when he was 15 years old and called it his “full-time, part-time” job.
But the time commitment was nothing for him. He began by helping out in the sports Ashley participated in, but bowling, her personal favorite, remains special between them. While in high school, he ran a bowling program for athletes twice a week. Whenever Singleton returns home to Thousand Oaks to visit his family, the very first thing he does is find a lane for his sister and him.
Although his involvements started with Ashley, Singleton quickly realized the impact he made volunteering and the joy it brought not only to himself but — more importantly — to the athletes as well.
“If you ever get around these athletes who do Special Olympics, they are 10 out of 10 in attitude,” Singleton said. “They’re positive and like ‘I’m going to do great, win or lose,’ and that energy, excitement and love for what they get to do is amazing.”
“It can be kids at any skill level," he added. "I worked with guys who had cerebral palsy and couldn’t pick up a bowling ball. You help them put it on the little ramp and help them push it down, it hits the bumpers 10 or 15 times and knocks over one pin and they couldn’t be happier that you just helped them and went bowling with them.”
It didn’t matter that football sent him states or even countries away from his family and his local Special Olympics in Ventura County. If he was near a Special Olympics location, he immediately seized the opportunity.
While at MSU, Singleton and the rest of the Bobcats football team took time to volunteer with Special Olympics Montana. After signing with the Stampeders, Singleton dove head first into helping out, serving as the team ambassador for Special Olympics Calgary and using his visibility to engage with the other prominent Canadian sports team, the NHL Flames.
The first event he attended was the Breakfast with Champions fundraiser and quickly branched out his involvement from there. Singleton arranged to meet with the athletes after every Stampeders home game, providing autographs and photos, and encouraged the rest of his team to participate.
Among other engagements, he also attended programs, played against athletes, was the honorary coach for the 2019 Provincial Winter Games in Calgary, helped raise money and was a guest speaker at the Special Olympics’ Health Conference last year.
“It truly was incredible to have someone that so many of our athletes, Calgarians, and football fans rooted for on the field, give his time, attention and energy to our organization off the field,” said Nadine Scotland, the communications and events manager for Special Olympics Calgary. “Alex was very personable and charismatic with every member that he met, never turning down a photo or autograph from anyone who asked. It was because of this that the biggest impact he left was the lasting impressions on all our members he encountered. It meant so much to our athletes and volunteers to have him give his time and share moments with them that they will never forget.”
In February, Singleton traveled up to the Yukon and braved minus 40-degree temperatures to serve as guest host for an indoor soccer tournament, a clear sign of his dedication to Special Olympics. And each year, Special Olympics Alberta hosts the Law Enforcement Torch Run Polar Plunge to help raise money and awareness for the organization. As team ambassador, how could he say no to a quick dive into a frozen lake in minus 31-degree temperatures in January?
Easy. He couldn’t and did it twice.
“There was a cut out part of the lake, so when the organizers would talk and do the introductions for 10 or 15 minutes, the ice would freeze over and we would have to rebreak it,” Singleton said. “It wasn’t the most fun, but it was worth it for the cause. I never saw a city so supportive. The money and support the Stampeders and the Flames gave to Special Olympics alone is awesome. The city, in general, is really welcoming.”
Singleton has been in Philadelphia since early April adjusting to East Coast and NFL life. This isn’t his first attempt at landing an NFL roster spot. Singleton’s been cut from teams six times.
But coming off his recent Grey Cup Championship and with years of solid professional experience, Singleton believes this time things will be different. He visited with five different teams — the Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns and Eagles — and thinks Philadelphia was the best fit for him.
“To be able to go up to the CFL and have the three-year career that I did, I never thought I would get this opportunity again,” he said. "Most guys don’t even get it once, but to get my second opportunity is pretty special, and I am going to leave it all out there. The first time around, I was 21 and naive to what being a professional athlete is. At 25, I understand what it takes to be a pro and treat every day like it is my last.”
Although he is in a new location, the one constant is his involvement with Special Olympics. One of the first things he did when he moved to Philadelphia was reach out to the organization and ask how he could be of service.
In late April, Singleton helped with the Philadelphia Spring Games, watched the athletes play basketball, compete in track and participate in the shot put event.
Singleton takes his career seriously and understands the demands and time commitment will be great. But no matter the circumstances, he will always find time to give back to his passion.
“It’s something that is important to me and will always be important to me,” Singleton said. “It builds you up and really makes you feel pretty special, and the athletes are the most incredible people in the world. They just take full advantage of it and that’s why I do it. I started because of my sister and it’s become so much more than that. I love being involved with these athletes and the way it makes you feel, and how you come out of it is always better than when you first began.”
This story was featured in the 2019 edition of The Collegian, a publication by the MSU Alumni Foundation.