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Published: Monday, 11/5/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Rockets inspired by cancer survivor

Football team rallies for player’s fiancee

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Former Toledo basketball player Ashlee Barrett has become the inspirational leader for the Toledo football team after her battle with leukemia. Former Toledo basketball player Ashlee Barrett has become the inspirational leader for the Toledo football team after her battle with leukemia.
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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.

Toledo football player Ben Pike and his fiancee Ashlee Barrett met at an Athletes in Action Bible study in 2009. They plan to marry in the St. Louis area in June. Toledo football player Ben Pike and his fiancee Ashlee Barrett met at an Athletes in Action Bible study in 2009. They plan to marry in the St. Louis area in June.
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“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 Pike proposed to Ashlee Barrett on the White House driveway during the UT football team's trip to Washington last December for the Military Bowl. Ben Pike proposed to Ashlee Barrett on the White House driveway during the UT football team's trip to Washington last December for the Military Bowl.
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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.”

Chilling news

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: rau­tullo@the­blade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twit­ter @Au­tul­loBlade. 



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