July 15, 2020 • From the BenchWinning Hoops

UMD’s Ashworth Has Biggest Assist off the Court

This story appeared on the UMass Dartmouth athletics page and was written by Winning Hoops managing editor, Wesley Sykes. 

On the hardwood, UMass Dartmouth rising senior Jacob Ashworth has always been referred to as a leader. From the moment he put on the Corsairs’ jersey as a freshman, he was a player who led by example and voiced his thoughts among teammates.

He worked hard to appear in 53 straight games for the NCAA Division III program (starting in 52 of those) and to be named a team captain entering his junior season by his peers. As a son of a coach, Ashworth has always been a student of the game — relentlessly driven to not only better his own performance but to also lift the skills of those around him.

“As a basketball player, Jacob is one of the rare kids that always has an incredible amount of energy and he brings that every day in practice, games, and the weight room,” UMass Dartmouth head basketball coach Brian Baptiste said. “He’s the guy you want to be captain of your team because of the way he leads vocally and by example.”

But between his sophomore and junior seasons, Ashworth was preparing to assist for another type of teammate — his younger sister, Lindsey.  Separated by a little more than a year, Jacob (21) and Lindsey (20) grew up close in Fairhaven despite Jacob following his father Scott to Bourne High School and Lindsey staying close to home at Fairhaven High School. Like most teenage siblings, the two argued, but they forged a tight-knit bond that was bolstered by their love of watching TV shows together.

Photo: UMass Dartmouth athletics

“We get so mad at each other if one goes ahead and watches without the other,” Lindsey joked. “And since quarantine, we’ve been going on a lot of walks and trying to stay active.”

Since she was eight years old, Lindsey has suffered from Lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks tissues and organs. Inflammation caused by lupus can affect many different body systems — including joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs.

For a 12-year period regular hospital visits, including nine months of grueling dialysis treatment, became the norm for Lindsey. A lover of the arts and a musical theater major at Rhode Island College, even subtle movements like going up and down a staircase exhausted her. Though she periodically saw her Lupus go into remission, it would always return. Knowing that she would eventually need a kidney transplant at some point due to the irreversible damage caused the flare-ups, Lindsey put her name on a kidney transplant waiting list in 2018.

The start of that process included testing the family to see if anyone would be a blood-type match. They found one match of Lindsey’s A-positive blood type — Jacob. And the scoring guard for the Corsairs didn’t hesitate when making his decision.

“It was a no-brainer for me once I matched. I was absolutely doing it,” Jacob said. “In my family, anyone would do that for any of us. I didn’t think it was a big decision to do it. I knew it was the other way around, my family would do the same for me.”

Though the doctors at Children’s Hospital in Boston advised against Jacob donating his kidney — they recommend anyone 25 years or older make the decision on elective life-changing surgery — Jacob insisted. And while the blood type was a match, the pairing was ‘perfect’ according to the doctors. Blood type is a huge factor in matching with a donor, but so too are the antibodies one possesses. With all of the Lupus flare-ups, Lindsey had multiple blood transfusions that added antibodies that the typically healthy adult doesn’t necessarily have. As it turned out, Jacob not only had the matching blood type but had a matching kidney made up of the same genes from his parents.

“The doctors said it was extremely rare,” Lindsey said. “They’ve been doing hundreds of transplants a year for the last 15 years and they’ve only seen 12 perfect matches. It was really a miracle.”

With the perfect match in place, Jacob informed the Corsairs of his decision and received nothing but support from his extended basketball family.

“I was just so proud of the kid. That sort of character didn’t surprise me because that’s who he is,” Baptiste said. “He never made it a big deal.”

A feeling of pride overcame Scott Ashworth when he heard the news, but that was followed by a series of other emotions.

“I thought it was a great thing that without reservation he was onboard 100 percent like a brother would,” Scott said. “Then I started thinking about having both my kids on the operating table at the same time. That’s a scary thought. It’s not like a knee operation or a broken arm. These were both pretty extensive procedures.”

That stress didn’t dissipate on July 25, 2019, when both operations took place. With Jacob at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Lindsey across the footbridge at Children’s Hospital, Scott spent the day spanning both buildings, working his footprints into the walkway with his feverish pacing back and forth. But both surgeries went off without a hitch and a day following his surgery, Jacob was up and walking — regarded as one of the faster times a patient has begun walking following surgery, according to the doctors.

Once the medication wore off and roughly 24 hours after going under the knife, Jacob’s attention shifted to getting back on the court. In the worst-case scenario, the family was preparing to take a year off to recuperate and focus on his academics, but Jacob insisted that it would be a non-issue.

“I think that speaks to how strong-willed he is,” Lindsey said.  “When he sets his mind to something, he’s going to do it.”

A little more than two months after having a major organ removed from his body, Jacob resumed athletic activities. At first, he was regaining his strength with a five-pound limitation in September while watching and supporting his teammates from the sidelines during the Corsairs’ summer league. Baptiste checked in on Jacob regularly, gauging his overall strength and health on a weekly basis.

While no one knew how Jacob would respond post-surgery — the only playing time he’s missed throughout his basketball career came when he was 10 years old and broke his arm — no one expected him to be back for the start of the season. Scott recalled a practice prior to the start of the season where he couldn’t even tell his son had just gone through major surgery that past July.

“He came back sooner than anyone anticipated — the doctors, our athletic trainers, and myself going off the advice of others,” Baptiste said. “It was an amazing thing, the recovery part.”

And as Jacob was getting back to 100 percent, so too was Lindsey.

“I feel absolutely amazing,” Lindsey, nearly a year removed from surgery, said. “I was sick for so long, I forgot what it feels like to be ‘normal’. I was in so much pain pretty much all the time. After recovering from surgery, I think this is how I should have felt my whole life. I’m super active now, doing a lot of dancing and acting and actively performing. I’m very healthy right now.

“Jacob really did save my life. I have a new level of gratitude for him. I carry a part of him within myself now–not many people can say that.”

Now playing with a piece of him missing, Jacob missed the first game of the 2019-20 season for the Corsairs due to a surgical piece getting infected and had to be repaired. It killed the first-year captain missing his first game in 11 years of playing the sport, but a day later he was cleared to resume full basketball game activities and started a new streak of 26 straight games in the starting lineup for UMass Dartmouth.

And he wasted little time in returning to his old form. In his first game back, a November 12 road game against Salem State, Jacob recorded 17 points in 28 minutes played. And though Baptiste admitted that it took Jacob time to get back into game-form having missed out on his typical preseason schedule and routine, the scoring guard posted four games of 20 or more points. He scored 30 points in a January 11th home win against Western Connecticut and topped that with a career-best 35 points to lift the Corsairs to the Little East Conference championship game in a league semifinal win over Plymouth State.  In late January, Jacob reached a milestone in becoming the 49th member of UMass Dartmouth’s 1,000 Point Club after scoring netting 24 points in a LEC home win over Rhode Island College.

“I knew if I worked hard the recovery wouldn’t be that bad as long as I did the things I had to do and took care of myself,” Jacob said.

» Related: Vermont’s Josh Speidel Scores First Points after Recovering from Coma

With the Corsairs’ season now in the rearview mirror, Jacob felt more comfortable sharing his story. And with Lindsey back in good health and hospital visits dwindling as more time passed, he felt it was more appropriate. Always the unselfish player, he didn’t want any individual attention to take away from the focus of the team’s goals. But what urged him to share his story was the notion of inspiring someone else to step up for another person in need.

“I hope that most people when they are faced with a situation like this, would do the exact same thing,” Jacob said.  It’s good to spread the love to everybody. If people were hesitant and this helps them make a decision, I’m happy to share the story.”

Never one to shy away from building up a teammate, Jacob continues to show his leadership characteristics on and off the court.

“I can’t imagine anyone in that situation responding better than he did,” Baptiste pointed out. “He didn’t take himself too seriously or want to bring attention to this good deed. He just thought that any family member would do this. I thought it was a wonderful thing he did and he handled it extremely well.”

Editor’s Note:  The story of Jacob Ashworth’s selfless act in support of his sister Lindsey has inspired all members of Corsair Nation.  To that end, the UMass Dartmouth Department of Athletics is proud to name Jacob as a co-recipient of the 2020 Corsair Courage Award for his perseverance, achievement, and excellence.