HUMBOLDT, Ia. — Commotion stirs around the Humboldt softball field as Ashlyn Clark settles into the home dugout. The press box operator blares the school’s fight song. Beyond right field, her coach blows up a giant bounce house. People walk toward the front gate. They’re eager.
Clark, a senior right-fielder for the Wildcats, watches in awe. Her smile draws attention away from her bald head. They’re all coming for her — to raise money, to offer support, to say hello and share a hug. Many are wearing shirts bearing Clark’s No. 26.
“It’s pretty crazy,” the 17-year-old says. “I never thought in a million years that I’d inspire other people.”
On a Thursday in late June, Clark is one day removed from a game against Webster City, where she will record a hit in a 5-3 win. The next day, the Wildcats will drive north to Algona, where she will get another hit in a 7-0 victory.
Three days after that, July 1, Clark heads farther north to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to begin another round of chemotherapy. She was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May and has spent her summer alternating between treatment and playing softball.
If Clark had her way, this story wouldn’t be about her. She mentions her team a lot during a 20-minute conversation. Humboldt is 23-2 and ranked No. 3 in Class 3A. The Wildcats finished fifth at state two years ago and third last season. All eyes are set on the team’s chase for a title later this month.
That’s what’s kept Clark’s spirits high over the last two months. During long hospital stays, she dreams of returning to this dugout, where she either plays or watches, depending on her energy levels. In 15 games this season, she’s hitting .368 with a double and 4 RBIs.
Back in the dugout, Clark smiles. She watches more people pull into the parking lot behind the field. A fun night awaits. She turns and looks at the small sign up in the corner.
“Humboldt Softball,” it reads, “Where Champions Come To Play.”
Later, as the sun drops behind the trees, her mother, Kristi, shares a story:
“Every game, when they announce her name, I tear up,” Kristi says. “When she’s in the hospital, she’s like, ‘Mom, I want to get back to my happy place. I need to get back.’
“To see that smile and to watch her run out and be a kid and play a game she truly loves … It’s emotional.”
‘They always had a reason’
Sports were always going to be part of Ashlyn Clark’s life. Her father, Derrik, played football at Iowa State. Kristi works as a physical education teacher. Dallas Clark, the All-American tight end for Iowa and All-Pro for the Indianapolis Colts, is her uncle.
So at a young age, Ashlyn and her younger sister, Kendal, played everything. They both grew into four-sport athletes — volleyball, basketball, track and softball. Last summer, Ashlyn hit .341 with 11 RBIs, 9 stolen bases and didn’t commit an error all season. In May, Ashlyn signed to play volleyball at Iowa Central. She helped lead the Wildcats to 89 volleyball wins in three years.
In October, Ashlyn says she started “feeling pretty crappy.” She grew tired easily, which she found odd. Trips to the doctors always resulted in an explanation.
You have a cyst on your ovaries.
You have an ulcer.
You have low hemoglobin levels.
You’re just not feeling well. Get some rest.
“Every time we went to the doctors, they always had a reason,” Ashlyn recalls. “So they put me on an iron pill, or birth control, or whatever else. It worked for a little bit, but then it’d stop.
“In April, I would throw up every time I ate. Something was definitely wrong.”
Kristi thought maybe Lupus or Crohn’s syndrome. “Never in a million years would I have thought cancer,” she says. “I should’ve known better than to hop on Google.”
The official diagnosis came May 8. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. Her chemotherapy includes five rounds of 21-day cycles. Her doctors encouraged her to live as normal as possible.
That meant playing softball.
“That’s what’s normal for her — to spend her days on the softball diamond,” Kristi says. “To take that away, that would’ve been really tough. So giving her that moment of happiness in a trying time? I was 100% on board with that.”
Ashlyn’s first chemotherapy cycle bled into the beginning of the season. But on May 31, she returned home and called Humboldt coach Doug Van Pelt.
I want to play, she told him.
Van Pelt met her at the field and they practiced catching fly balls. He was impressed. She played at right that night. Humboldt won, 5-0.
“My hope, when she was diagnosed, was that she could walk out once with the starting lineup — uniform and everything — and then we’d take her out,” Van Pelt says. “I couldn’t even dream that she would play.
“You hear the word cancer, and softball just doesn’t matter anymore — it’s about her getting healthy. But then she comes back and not only suits up but plays and contributes? It’s an unbelievable story.”
‘This is what Iowa is all about’
Back at the field Thursday, the commotion makes its way inside. Van Pelt threw a fundraiser for Ashlyn and her family, complete with games, concessions and a celebrity softball game between former Iowa and Iowa State athletes. He dubbed it, “Ashlyn’s Night at the Ballpark.”
As the sun sets behind the trees, Ashlyn takes it all in. She talks with teammates and takes pictures. She stops to get a snow cone and a bottle of water. She wanders over to the home run derby area, where a boy named Michael in a Yankees shirt slaps one to dead center.
While she walks, a mother and a young girl, both wearing white shirts with a violet ribbon on it, stop to say hello. The mom talks with Ashlyn while the girl shouts to a friend nearby.
“That’s Ashlyn!” she says as she points.
The mom smiles and leans into Ashlyn.
“She talks about you all the time.”
The softball game is a who’s who of former Iowa and Iowa State stars. Ben Bruns, Joel Lanning and Brent Curvey all play on the Cyclones’ team while Dallas Clark, Ed Hinkel, and Greg Brunner represent the Hawkeyes.
Before the game, Dallas Clark had Ashlyn sign his shoes, then wrapped her in a hug.
“You’re an inspiration,” he says.
Longtime Iowa broadcaster Gary Dolphin grabs the mic for pregame introductions. The stands behind home plate are full. More fans, including some softball players from Fort Dodge and Estherville Lincoln Central, line the first- and third-base lines as well as the outfield fence.
Dolphin jokes that the scene “is so Iowa.”
“I live 15 minutes from the Field of Dreams,” he continues. “That line — ‘Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.’ — Humboldt, this is Iowa. This is what Iowa is all about, helping our own.
“Ashlyn will beat this. She will kick it right in the you-know-what.”
An auction is held between innings. A Kirk Ferentz-signed Iowa helmet goes for $1,100. A Matt Campbell-signed Iowa State helmet goes for $50 more. Ashlyn, a Cyclones fan, quietly pumps her fist.
Nearby, Kendal smiles. She wasn’t sure if she’d get to play with her sister one final time this season. She tears up at the thought.
“I don’t know what I would do without her,” Kendal says. “I’ve learned that every second is a blessing, and to be with Ashlyn all the time. When she leaves, it’s heartbreaking, but when she’s there, it’s like a switch. It just gets the team going.”
Ashlyn’s shirt is bright yellow with her No. 26 on the back. It was printed with her teammates’ signatures on it. There’s a hashtag at the bottom that reads, “Fearfully and wonderfully made.” It’s a line from a Bible verse, she explains.
“I am beyond grateful to put a jersey on and step foot in this dugout, or any other dugout,” she says. “I’m a very competitive person, but a bad at-bat, in the broad aspect of life, really doesn’t matter.
“You’ll think about it for a couple of hours, but I’m just so beyond grateful to even be out here.”