Amid the celebratory backdrop of hugs and grins last month at the Glass Bowl came a simple question.
“Is Ashlee here?”
Ashlee Barrett is the heartbeat of the University of Toledo football team, whose perseverance in difficult situations in this special season parallels the mindset she took to her bout with a formidable opponent called leukemia.
A former athlete at Toledo and the fiancee of defensive lineman Ben Pike, Barrett spent 40 days in a St. Louis-area hospital last spring and another several weeks in and out of chemotherapy before she was cleared to do anything, much less travel to watch her boyfriend and his teammates pull off a thrilling win over Central Michigan.
“Is Ashlee here,” coach Matt Campbell said, turning to Pike, after Jermaine Robinson’s interception return for a touchdown secured the homecoming win on Oct. 6.
Sitting in section five on that breezy Saturday afternoon to see her fiance make his first career start, Ashlee was summoned onto the field and then to the victor’s locker room. Someone presented her Ben’s helmet, which, like all others worn by the team, was emblazoned on the back with an “A” to honor the name of their inspirational leader.
Months earlier she likened her existence to being confined to a jail cell, unable to work at her job as an elementary teacher or plan for this summer’s wedding.
“I walk in and the whole team is cheering and rooting for me,” Ashlee said. “Campbell gave a speech about me being an inspiration.
"I actually don’t remember everything he said because I was so awestruck.”
As she was last December when Ben proposed.
“It didn’t take long”
He was a freshman who was dating someone else.
She was a junior who transferred to Toledo the year before to play basketball.
At first, Ben and Ashlee were simply friends after meeting in fall of 2009 at UT’s Athletes in Action chapter, a Bible study group that gathered once a week.
She was drawn to him because of his confidence to engage in discussion at the meetings. He was attracted to her for her combination of looks — “she’s one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met,” Ben said — and her inward beauty — “she is the kindest and most caring person I’ve ever known.”
Initially reluctant because of the age gap, Ashlee agreed to a date early in the second semester. At dinner they ordered the same menu item — barbecue bacon hamburgers — and finished the evening with a movie.
“He ate more than me, which is a challenge, so I knew I liked him,” said Ashlee, now 23.
Two years later Ben popped the question. He decided to work the proposal around the football team’s visit to Washington D.C. last December for the Military Bowl, and made plans to do it beneath the Christmas tree outside of the Capitol Building.
A convoy of family members made the trip, with Ben’s father securing the ring in a package taped to his chest.
Ben called an audible, asking a White House security agent he befriended days earlier for permission to propose on the front lawn.
“Not unless you want dogs attacking you,” Ben recalls the agent responding.
The driveway of the White House was a suitable compromise, and Ashlee was so stunned by the moment she didn’t immediately answer. They plan to wed this summer.
“I knew pretty quickly she was the one,” Ben said. “It didn’t take long to realize that.”
Rockets basketball coach Tricia Cullop remembers the feeling of shock that overcame her when she received the gut wrenching phone call.
Leukemia? Not yet.
Ashlee, who followed Cullop to Toledo from the University of Evansville in 2008, suffered a knee injury in practice that would end her career before she appeared in a game. Gone was a 5-foot-10 guard who would have contributed significantly on the 2009-10 team that won 25 games and captured a division title.
“I was driving down the road and I about drove off the road,” Cullop said.
The gravity of that phone call was put into perspective last April when Cullop was at home getting ready for work.
The day before, on April 10, Ashlee left school with chronic back pain and was admitted to intensive care. An infection in her tail bone entered her bloodstream, and doctors diagnosed her with leukemia, a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes abnormal white blood cells.
Campbell rushed Pike to the Detroit airport and phoned Cullop the next morning with the staggering news.
“I felt like the wind got knocked out of me,” Cullop said. “I just couldn’t believe it. It was enough to have a career ending injury, but to have a life threatening illness at that young of an age.”
The good news was doctors were confident they could cure the disease. The bad news was Ashlee’s life had been upended.
She remained in the hospital for 40 days. Once released she began four months of chemotherapy, sapping her of energy and preventing any return to a sense of normalcy. Ben flew back and forth to St. Louis from Toledo almost every weekend, using whatever money he had saved on boarding passes.
He sat at the foot of Ashlee’s hospital bed playing board games, trying to lift her spirits. Unfazed by the sight of the woman he loved with a bald head, Ben insisted to Ashlee she was beautiful anyway.
“I’ll never forget the first thing she said,” Ben recalled. “She took my hand and said, ‘I’m glad it’s me and not you.’”
There was a motto the couple leaned on for inspiration: Faith not fear. And a goal: To exchange vows this summer, and for Ashlee to return to work.
Return to normalcy
Adorning the front entrance to Discovery Elementary in St. Charles, Mo., last Thursday was a large sign welcoming the return of Ms. Barrett. Another hung in her second grade classroom, and fellow teachers greeted her wearing orange T-shirts commemorating a moment of triumph.
“It was a great day,” Ashlee said. “It was wonderful to be back.”
She rang a bell Sept. 14 at her treatment center, signifying what she hopes to be the end of her battle with leukemia. Doctors won’t declare her cured until she tests negative for five more years.
At school next fall Ashlee will be known as Mrs. Pike. The couple will wed June 15 in the St. Louis area, and Ben, who expects to graduate with an education degree this spring, will likely forgo his fifth year of athletic eligibility to be with his wife.
The bridal party includes offensive linemen Greg Mancz and Zac Kerin, and defensive lineman Hank Keighley, the best man.
Ashlee will invite her former Toledo teammates Allie Clifton and Lisa (Johnson) Sommer. Cullop plans to attend as well.
Ashlee, who proclaims proudly that her hair is now longer than Ben’s, hopes it is long enough by then that she can attach extensions.
If not, Ben will still marvel at his wife’s beauty.
“I’m not sure how much she knows it, but she’s an inspiration to me every day,” he said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.