One dream denied, one fulfilled
He never played a minute, but Ashaolu has become an inspiration to an entire university
Sam Ashaolu couldn't be in the gym when the ball bounced.
The simple sound of ball meeting hardwood would make his head hurt. The lights from the ceiling were causing him agony. He would miss classes. He would retreat back to his room.
"One day, he just broke down," said his brother John, a former graduate student and affiliated member of the Duquesne staff and now the director of basketball operations at East Carolina. "He just looked at me and said, 'You don't understand. I want to go to class. My head is killing me every single day, but I don't want to complain about it."'
The pills for the migraines weren't enough, but there was a procedure Ashaolu could undergo in an attempt to relieve the anguish. So in October 2007, he opted for surgery on the nerves at the back of his head that were causing the headaches.
All of this was a result of having bullet fragments still in his head from being one of five Duquesne basketball players shot after an on-campus party on Sept. 17, 2006. One bullet was removed in the aftermath, but the other splintered into the cerebellum, which controls balance and movement, and into the parietal lobe, which controls spatial orientation and speech.
The surgery has helped with the headaches, but it didn't alleviate the seizures. Those still happen and there is a constant fear that they will come again. Ashaolu has had four or five serious ones, all landing him in the emergency room. One led to his former teammate, fellow shooting victim and one-time roommate, Aaron Jackson, carrying him to his car and driving him to Pittsburgh's Mercy Hospital.
So Ashaolu's miraculous road to graduating from Duquesne on Thursday morning at the Dukes' home court inside the Palumbo Center has hardly been a magical ride.
There is no way to romanticize this story. This was a grueling rehab for a person of strength, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound Toronto native who was expected to have an immediate impact for Ron Everhart's team. He never played a minute for Duquesne.
Ashaolu was reduced to a shell of himself, learning to speak, walk and find his way in a fast-moving world that he was no longer able to keep up with at the same pace. There were setbacks, plenty of them, before Ashaolu found his path to accomplishing an obtainable goal -- getting a degree.
Ashaolu thought he could return to the court. But he could not.
"I worked out but I wasn't the same," Ashaolu said. "I didn't have the same speed or the same balance and coordination. A lot of that hasn't come back."
There is so much more that has yet to return in its full capacity.
Ashaolu said before the shooting that reading was easy and so, too, was remembering. Throughout the agonizingly slow cognitive re-training, Ashaolu had to learn how to read again -- and speak again.
"I couldn't talk properly, I couldn't remember things," said Ashaolu, now 26. "I couldn't speak proper sentences and couldn't remember things."
Ashaolu needed help from all facets of his recovery team, from his learning specialists, speech pathologists, physical trainers and of course the faculty and staff at Duquesne.
"When I first met Sam, we didn't have the best beginning," said Dr. Kevin Deitrick, assistant director of student services at Duquesne. "It's been a long process quite frankly. I knew we couldn't think two or three years ahead. It was literally word by word, sounding them out. Literally, we went through one sentence at a time."
Three years later, Deitrick calls Ashaolu's graduation the best thing he has seen in his career as an educator.
But what will happen next? Ashaolu wants to remain in basketball in some facet. But in a recession, the job market is hardly open to all.
"I know how hard it is to get a job," said John Ashaolu, who planned on driving to Pittsburgh through the night Wednesday after East Carolina hosted Clemson. "I graduated last December and it took me until August. Now after what Sam went through? He's not fully functional. How is he going to get by? He worries about that every day. He wants a job and to stay around basketball.
"He never got a chance to play Division I basketball. I hope he's able to find a job. I don't know how he'll handle it. We don't know what the complications will be some 10 or 20 years from now. The doctors don't know either. On that first day that we walked into the hospital, the doctors told us that there was a 90 percent chance Sam wouldn't make it."
Sam Ashaolu remembers that fateful night. He can recall leaving the party and going outside.
"I remember mostly an argument outside the party," Ashaolu said. "I was just walking away and back to my dorm. That's all I remember."
Gunshots rang out. It would later be determined that 19-year-old William Holmes, of Pittsburgh, shot Ashaolu and teammates Shawn James (in the foot), Kojo Mensah (shoulder), Aaron Jackson (hand) and Stuard Baldonado (back). The argument was apparently over two women. One woman had flirted with some basketball players, leading to an argument which ultimately led to Holmes and another person, 19-year-old Derek Scott Lee, also of Pittsburgh, shooting.
Holmes pled guilty and was sentenced to 18 to 40 years. After pleading guilty, Lee was given a lesser sentence of seven to 14 years because none of his shots hit anybody. Ashaolu was in the courtroom when they were sentenced.
"It was deserving," Ashaolu said of the sentencing.
"The father of that kid spoke to Sam, but Sam had nothing against the guy," John Ashaolu said. "No amount of time he got [in prison] can take back what happened to [Sam]. I'd rather have Sam as what he was, continuing his career at Duquesne, being a professional basketball player, than worried about this."
John Ashaolu said the family's lawsuit against Duquesne alleging poor security is still pending.
"There should have been more security for that party," John Ashaolu said. "It wasn't just for Duquesne students. Anybody could have gone in there. We don't know what's going to happen, if it's going to go to court or get settled out of court."
Duquesne helped save Ashaolu and gave him a chance to be a productive citizen and contributing member of society. Still, the lawsuit is necessary, according to John Ashaolu.
"Duquesne helped him but at the end of the day, what would they do if that was their son? He still has the rest of his life to live out," John Ashaolu said.
Baldonado never played for the Dukes after being dismissed later for other legal issues. James and Mensah, who were sitting out as transfers, played one season in 2007-08. Jackson continued with his career and finished last season. Ashaolu did not play again, but stayed in school.
Of the five shot, Jackson and Ashaolu are the only two who earned degrees. Baldonado, James and Mensah all left school. James is in his second season playing in Israel, Mensah in his first in Uruguay, Jackson in his first season in Turkey and the last anyone had heard from Baldonado was that he played for professionally for the Miami Tropics.
Ashaolu stayed on scholarship at Duquesne.
"I only describe what has happened as the biggest win in my coaching career," Everhart said. "He is very, very special. I look at this kid every day I see him in the weight room or walking around. He's a walking miracle."
Everhart remembers Ashaolu in that hospital bed, clinging to life, when his mother, Christianah arrived.
"She never shed a tear," Everhart said. "She just put her hand on his head and said, 'God is good. God is going to heal my son. He'll be OK.' I looked in her eyes and said that this is a real special woman for her to believe. It was really amazing. As time went on, I became a bigger believer in the power of prayer."
Sam Ashaolu shuffled out to a news conference after he was released from the hospital and on Oct. 30, 2006, he made a cameo at practice.
"His speech was slowed and his motor coordination was slow," said Duquesne athletic director Greg Amodio. "But it was never an excuse for Sam. There was never a conversation with him that he wouldn't stay at Duquesne and get his degree."
That charge of shepherding Sam through school was left up to Deitrick, who was working as a principal in the North Allegheny School District when the shootings occurred. He remembers watching television coverage of the incident. A year later, he would be the most instrumental person in Sam's comeback.
Once it was clear that Ashaolu couldn't play basketball again and the migraines were still in his life, he wanted to quit Duquesne. He said he wanted to just go home to Canada and told his brother John, "What's the use of school?" The procedure he underwent to relieve the migraines had forced him to lose some hair, making him self-conscious as he grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress.
"He wanted to just go home and told us what's the point of going to school," John Ashaolu said. "So me and my brother [Olu, who is playing at Louisiana Tech], told him that he's got to get his degree since he has come all this way."
John Ashaolu said he would be in the library in grad school and find Sam, quietly reading word after word, line after line.
"Dr. Deitrick is the savior," John Ashaolu said. "He helped Sam get on track. Sam and he were butting heads at first. We all went to Pittsburgh and Dr. Deitrick told us that we have to take this one week at a time. He has come a long way."
Deitrick said Ashaolu couldn't do the work by himself the first few semesters. He needed help from everyone. He said the faculty was outstanding in reaching out to Ashaolu to ensure that he was given everyone's attention.
"It's such a great story because of his determination," Deitrick said. "He needed to do everything several times. It's hard to qualify or quantify how much his reading has improved. He still struggles with his speech and his reading and writing. But he gets it now. I couldn't think two or three years ahead. I had to go one semester, one lecture at a time."
Ashaolu said he'll graduate with a degree in communications. He said the theology classes were the ones that gave him the most trouble. But he had to be patient.
"I'm optimistic about his future," Deitrick said. "What he has to decide is what he wants to do in life and attack it the same way he attacks the degree."
Deitrick said he had Dec. 17 circled for a year. There was no way he was going to miss Sam's graduation.
"I'll be tearing up," Deitrick said. "I kept taking it one day at a time. I didn't think this day would get here. This was such a team effort, from everybody in the Duquesne family, to get this done. We're all so proud of Sam."
Ashaolu's mother, John and a niece were all expected to attend the graduation. Everhart said he wouldn't cry. He has shed enough tears. He is filled with immense pride.
"Outside of my marriage and the birth of my children, I couldn't be happier for someone," Everhart said. "To get a college degree, to beat all the odds is beyond adversity. You just don't see this very often."
Ashaolu's now 6-7, 243 pounds and continues to work out. He never played for Duquesne and he never will. Yet, he may go down as one of the more historic athletes at the school, according to Amodio.
"I think it's safe to say that of all the student-athletes that have gone through here," Amodio said, "he's the most inspirational that we've ever had as a part of the athletic program."
Ashaolu attends games and practices and has been a constant presence around the program the past three years. And when anyone steps out of line in practice or whines about running or the strenuous nature of a workout, Everhart always has a quick reminder.
"I tell them to look over there at the first row, under the basket," Everhart said. "I tell them, 'My man, you have no idea what being tough is or how to handle adversity. You might want to go over there and talk to Sam.'
"Once the kids do, their outlook on college and life changes a bit. I saw a young man fight for his life, survive and was capable of graduating. For all of us here, we know we have witnessed something that was really significant and special."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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