Inspired by Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, Cyclones fan to return to Jack Trice Stadium after having legs amputated
BOONE, Ia. — Nick Bassett’s most prized possession is a black Iowa State football helmet signed by Cyclones coach Matt Campbell. The helmet usually sits on a shelf in his living room, on display for everyone that stops by the Iowa farmhouse he shares with his parents. Recently, however, his mother, Ann, moved the signed helmet into his room when she was doing some painting.
“So he can look at it every day,” Nick's father, Vick, says with a laugh.
Nick is as big of an Iowa State fan as there is. A season ticket-holder since 2012, the 29-year-old from rural Boone has gone to Iowa State football games for years. Making it to them this season means more than ever, though.
This spring, before Bassett had both of his legs amputated due to infections that had set in, he made a vow to make each and every home game at Jack Trice Stadium.
"Football provides an escape, and it provides a three-hour window where I can just sit down, be locked into something and sit there — whether win or lose — I can enjoy it," Bassett said. "It's a good escape for life for a while."
So, this Saturday, you will likely find Bassett at Jack Trice Stadium when No. 8 Iowa State hosts Northern Iowa in the season opener. He plans to be there cheering on his Cyclones.
And Campbell was there to help motivate Iowa State's biggest fan during his toughest times.
"He's just got this incredible spirit of will and toughness," Campbell said. "It's what you, as a person, want to be able to live your life with. And coaching a football team … it's the spirit you want to embody. It makes it really special that he loves Iowa State football and that was such a goal of his."
Fellow underdog is the ultimate Iowa State fan
It doesn't take a visitor to Bassett's family farm long to realize how big of Iowa State fans they are. An Iowa State barn quilt hangs above the garage that stands on the gravel driveway. A sign welcoming Iowa State fans greets visitors. Inside the house, Bassett's room is full of other Iowa State memorabilia, which includes a football signed by an entire Paul Rhoads-coached Cyclones team.
This is how its always been for Nick, an Iowa State fan by birth. The family farm is about 20 minutes from Jack Trice Stadium.
"When it comes to sports, dad and I root for the underdogs," Nick said. "... When it comes to Iowa State, they've always been the underdog."
So has Bassett.
He's had health issues for much of his life and has defied the odds along the way. When Bassett was 21-months-old, doctors discovered he had a spinal cord tumor and diagnosed him with scoliosis. He went through a 13-and-a-half hour surgery at the age of 12 to fuse his spine.
By his sophomore year of high school, Bassett was in a wheelchair. But that is just part of his underdog story.
Bassett performed in improvisation and stage theater at Boone High School. He competed in wheelchair track in high school, wheelchair basketball and sled hockey. He's done RAGBRAI seven times on a hand cycle.
"I've done a lot of sports," Bassett said.
His greatest sports love, however, remains his Cyclones. Bassett was at Iowa State's upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State in 2011 and wanted to make sure he never missed a historic win. So the following season, he got season tickets.
He's watched some of Iowa State's most difficult times — a 2-10 season in 2014 and back-to-back three-win seasons in 2015 and 2016. Bassett never gave up on the Cyclones, though. He kept coming to Jack Trice Stadium and kept coming to Iowa State's spirit walk, wheeling himself to the same spot for players and coaches to high-five him as they got off the bus ahead of their home games.
"A lot of it is about loyalty," he said. "... The one year when Iowa State won two games that year, everyone's like, 'Well, now's a good time to be a Hawkeye fan. Why don't you just switch to being a Hawkeye fan?' And I'm like, 'No, no.' Because that's being a bandwagoner."
And he's no such thing.
When Campbell arrived from Toledo with bold plans on winning big in Ames, Bassett's patience was rewarded. Campbell has taken the Cyclones to bowl games in four of his first five seasons, including a win in last year's Fiesta Bowl.
From his seats in Section 3, Bassett watched the Cyclones take down No. 4 TCU in 2017 to become bowl eligible. He celebrated Iowa State's upset of No. 6 West Virginia in 2018.
But nothing topped this summer when he received unexpected help from Campbell.
One tweet, two important words: 'I Will'
Bassett was given about an hour to mull over the biggest decision of his life: Whether to amputate his legs or keep them and risk further infections. Both of Bassett's legs had sores caused by poor circulation. If Bassett opted against amputation, he'd have to go through skin grafts and operations. After discussing the options, his doctor left the room and told him he'd be back in an hour.
Bassett didn't need that long.
Bassett called his parents and told them to come to the hospital. He was going to have his legs amputated. His doctor scheduled an operation to remove them just above the knee for later in the week.
After making the decision, Bassett logged on his Twitter account and announced it, along with a plan for the future to followers.
He wrote that there was "no clear line on recovery but my goal is to be healthy enough to watch" Campbell and the Iowa State football team at Jack Trice Stadium this fall.
He ended it with this: "Two words keep racing through my mind..."I Will."
The final part was inspired by the cherished letter former Iowa State football player Jack Trice penned the night before his second football game. Trice, the first black athlete to compete at Iowa State, wrote about the significance of his participation in the game, the challenges he'd face and what was at stake. Trice died from injuries he sustained during the game.
Bassett's tweet took off and his phone buzzed all night with interactions.
"It went viral before we got home," Ann, Bassett's mother, said.
Campbell was among those who caught wind of it. The Iowa State coach, who remembered Bassett from the spirit walks, wanted to help. So, the night before Bassett's operation, Campbell called him. The two spent around 20 minutes chatting. Bassett explained to Campbell everything he had been through — and was still going through — and why he was going to lose his legs. Campbell asked Bassett how the operation would go and gave him a pep talk.
Tough times don't last, Campbell told him. Tough people do.
"Those tiny things he said relaxed me and got me through (the night)," Bassett said. "Because I'm not going to lie, around about an hour before he called, I was freaking out. I was really just having a hard time coming to grasps with my legs are going to be amputated tomorrow. It was a hard time thinking about it."
The next day on May 28, both of Bassett's legs were amputated. The operation took four hours.
That was just the beginning of his journey, though. He had revision surgery on June 18 to remove areas that had become infected. Bassett then went through two weeks of in-patient rehab. The grueling schedule included rehab three times a day, five times a week.
"To keep me from going to the game, someone would have to strap me down in my bed in a straight jacket," Bassett says.
Through it all, Bassett was motivated to get back to watch football season. Campbell pushed him as well during a visit to one of Bassett's sessions at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames.
Campbell brought Bassett a black Iowa State jersey with his last name on it. As a boy, Bassett once had dreams of playing quarterback for Iowa State and scoring the game-winning touchdown in the national championship game.
"Seeing my name on the back of the jersey, it's almost like those dreams come true," Bassett said.
Campbell gave him a signed football with a special inscription as well.
"I want you to know how much we are with you. You continue to be in our thoughts and prayers through your recovery. You define the spirit of the Cyclones! Remember, tough times never last. Tough people do! Stay strong!"
Before Campbell left, he invited Bassett and his family to an Iowa State football practice. The call, the visit and the invitation floored his parents.
"Campbell really likes Nick like a friend … and it's hard for me to wrap around because Campbell is the most famous person in the entire state and he's one of the most famous coaches in the nation and he's saying, 'Hey Nick, how are you doing,'" Vick said.
Bassett took Campbell up on his offer of attending an an Iowa State football practice in August. Bassett brought his mom and dad. They brought special shirts as gifts for Campbell and Greg Brabenec, the assistant athletics director for football and chief of staff who helped Campbell get in touch with Bassett.
The shirts say, "Lost my legs but not my courage."
Campbell bought the bulk of them.
When that practice ended, every Iowa State coach and player walked over to Bassett on the sideline and gave him a high five or a fist bump. Ann cried when Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy walked over, hugged her and chatted with the family.
"That's when I was geeking out," Vick said.
In the weeks since, Nick and Campbell have kept in touch. Campbell has even told Bassett he wants him to come to a practice later this year to talk to the team about his story. Campbell talks often about "the process" as it relates to his program. He said Bassett is an example of what he means: He didn't cut corners but instead worked as hard as he could through the rehab process to accomplish a goal.
"That's really what's so inspiring about Nicholas is really who he is as much as what he's gone through and overcome," Campbell said. "I think it's how he lives daily that's really powerful and it's been great for our kids even."
Bassett said doctors have given him a good prognoses moving forward. Things look so good that he's planning to be back at Jack Trice Stadium for every football game this fall — just like he hoped. He'll be at the spirit walk before the game this weekend and at his family's seats when the game begins.
Bassett plans to make a sign for the back of his wheelchair.
It will read, "I will and I did."
Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.