At the 2011 Military Bowl, Toledo defensive end Ben Pike delivered a one-of-a-kind proposal to his girlfriend, Ashlee Barrett taking her inside the White House gates, to the driveway, thanks to a friendly Secret Service staffer.
Four months later, he nearly lost her to leukemia and a blood infection.
So Saturday at Bronco Stadium, Pike will make another unique declaration of his love for his fiancée. The junior will play his final college football game in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Utah State, then walk away from the sport healthy, at the top of his game, with a year of eligibility remaining.
Ashlees cancer is in remission, but shes still recovering and Pike doesnt want to miss any more time with her. Hell graduate from Toledo in the spring and join her in the St. Louis area.
Ashlee teaches second grade there; Pike will be certified to teach junior high or high school, with an emphasis on history.
Their wedding is scheduled for June.
Just looking at everything thats gone on this last year, it kind of puts things in a different perspective, Pike said. I need to be out there with her. Shes not out of the woods yet, and if heaven forbid it were to come back I want to be out there with her and just be there to support her.
The couple has inspired the Rockets this season. The team nominated Pike for the Humanitarian Award that the Potato Bowl gives to a player from each team.
The Rockets wore pink As on their helmets during the spring game, while Ashlee was hospitalized, and again in October, when teams were allowed to wear pink items on their uniforms to support breast cancer awareness.
Ashlee attended the Oct. 6 game against Central Michigan and was invited into the locker room after the game by coach Matt Campbell, who gave her a game helmet. Pike made his first career start that day because the regular starter was injured.
That was maybe the greatest moment of this football season to date, Campbell said, to see not only Bens and her faces but to see our faces, the faces of our team. Shes certainly always with us.
Defensive end Hank Keighley, who will be the best man in the wedding, said Pike has served as an example to his teammates of how to be a true man.
Hes been strong here, but hes also been the shoulder to lean on for Ashlee, Keighley said. Despite it being a terrible situation, hes done a really good job of being supportive for her as well as being a teammate to us and being committed to this team.
Ashlees illness also struck a nerve with the players because she is a former Toledo womens basketball player. Shes 23.
Just a few years ago, she was in our situation, Keighley said. You never know when something like that is going to come and knock you off your feet.
Thats what happened to Pike and Ashlee in April. She complained of pain near her tailbone when Pike visited for Easter and passed out shortly after he returned to Toledo. Pike didnt get many details but was told he needed to get back to Missouri.
He called Campbell, who ditched his schedule and drove him to the Detroit airport.
Im not sure I want to know how fast he was going, Pike said.
Ashlee was diagnosed with an infection in her blood stream. Doctors werent really sure if she was going to make it through the next two nights, Pike said.
And that was before they found the cancer, which was discovered the next morning.
It was a pretty scary thing to see, Pike said. Im standing there holding her hand and she kind of looked at me and said, Im so glad its me and not you. Thats something that hit me hard. As a man in a relationship, you want to be able to help and fix it. When you cant do that, its a real helpless feeling. To see that type of selflessness out of her was truly remarkable and was amazing to me at the time and still is.
Ashlee spent 40 days in a St. Louis-area hospital. Pike shuttled between there and Toledo, participating in as much football as possible during the week and visiting her on weekends.
I know I couldnt have gotten through it without Ben, Ashlee said in a story for the school website. Hes been a rock for me throughout this whole experience. Hes seen me at my absolute worst. Obviously, shaving my head was a difficult experience. But he always made me feel special. Im in my hospital bed getting chemo and hes doing something to make the day fun for me, somehow.
Ashlee has made a remarkable recovery. The cancer has been in remission for about two months and she has returned to her teaching job. Shes still on medication, though, and wont be able to attend Saturdays game.
She will be on the Rockets minds. Many of the players wear wrist bands with her initials and motto: Faith, not fear.
Pike has started six of the past seven games and has a career-high 32 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Ben is someone our kids look to and they see his wisdom probably way behind his years, Campbell said. Their story has really impacted and affected our football team a tremendous impact that will be in our program for a long, long time. Both of them have been truly inspiring, to see their love and admiration for each other.
Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat