By Matt Schuckman Herald-Whig
QUINCY — The cookies were a sweet reward Jacob Ary and his teammates hungrily gobbled up.
That likely would have been the case regardless of whether the Quincy High School boys basketball team had beaten Rock Island in overtime on the road, but the fact the Blue Devils coupled a significant Western Big Six Conference victory with Jacob’s pending 18th birthday made the night complete.
“And they were really good cookies,” point guard Aaron Shoot said.
Diane Ary laughed when she learned her home-made cookies had become newsworthy.
“I enjoy making those for the boys,” she said.
It has become somewhat of a tradition. Since Jacob started playing basketball with the Lil’ Devils program in fourth grade, his birthday (December 3) has fallen in the vicinity of a game.
“She always has cookies ready,” Jacob said. “You could count on it.”
She wasn’t just baking cookies for the ride home this time. She was celebrating a life that has become an inspiration.
“It was kind of a sentimental weekend,” Diane said. “Who would have dreamed 18 years later this was happening? You just feel so blessed and thankful. You’re just thankful. With everything going on in the world, and every time I hear the national anthem played at a game, I can’t help but think how thankful and blessed all of us are and how much we have to be thankful for.
“Seeing Jacob on the floor, playing a game he loves, doing what he wants to do, it’s emotional. And I’m thankful he has that chance.”
Sitting in St. Louis Children’s Hospital 18 years ago as their newborn son underwent brain surgery, Diane and Joe Ary had no way of knowing if that chance would ever exist.
‘It was bad, but each day got better’
Certain birthdays are a right of passage. You get a driver’s license at 16. You earn the right to vote at 18, and you legally can consume alcohol at 21.
The significance of that wasn’t lost on Jacob as he turned 18.
“You take a moment to understand what everything means,” he said. “It probably means way more to (my parents) than it means to me. When it was a serious problem, I was too young to know what was going on. They had the scare. I didn’t have the scare.”
Complications during Jacob’s birth resulted in head trauma that caused a condition called hydrocephalus, an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid within the brain that causes increased pressure inside the skull. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about two out of every 1,000 newborns suffer hydrocephalus, also called “water on the brain.”
At just six days old, Jacob underwent surgery to have a VP shunt placed in his brain to relieve the pressure.
“It was so scary,” Diane said. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. At that time, I thought he wasn’t going to make it. They told us he had to have surgery to live. I kept thinking, ‘He’s not going to make it.’ I was sick myself. I made myself sick worrying.
“The medical papers we saw said Jacob had the most severe case of hydrocephalus they had ever seen. They kept telling us, ‘Be prepared. There’s probably been some brain damage. You’ll have to watch his progression both physically and mentally.'”
It had been a long time since the Arys had been parent of a newborn, so they were unsure of his development and if he was on schedule.
“It was simple things like smiling or rolling over,” Diane said. “I was trying to think, ‘Is that normal?’ You worry about things you don’t really remember how they should go.”
Hearing those stories amazes Jacob.
“It sounded like absolutely craziness,” he said. “My sisters (Danielle and Katie) had to go and live with some of our family, while my mom and dad had to be in the hospital in St. Louis while I went through the surgery. It had to take a huge toll on them.”
Actually, it taught them a valuable lesson.
“The one thing I learned was you don’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” Diane said. “It was bad, but each day got better.”
‘It was everyday life’
Jacob showed no signs of developmental disabilities, either physical or intellectual, but hurdles remained to be cleared, especially because he fell in love with playing sports.
“He’s a fanatic,” Diane said.
That created more worries. Jacob had to be cognizant of head trauma because the shunt was placed inside the skull and brain. If the shunt was damaged, surgery would be required to have a new shunt installed. In those circumstances, the broken shunt is not removed, but is left as part of the brain.
“We were told he should not be playing any contact sports,” Diane said. “I was like, ‘What are we going to do?’ I was trying to enforce that to new luck. My husband was like, ‘How are you going to control this?’ He just said, ‘Let him be who he is. Let him do what he can do.’
“Jacob was going to do what he wanted to do. His mind was set, and he wasn’t going to let anyone stop him. He was just determined that he was going to be like everybody else.”
That’s how he always viewed himself.
“I was normal just like everybody else action-wise, but I always knew I had this in me,” Jacob said. “You knew you had it. You knew what the risks were. It was everyday life.”
That meant playing sports and being adventurous the way boys are.
“Honestly, I didn’t think anything about being normal or not normal,” Jacob said. “I had a normal childhood. Nothing was really different other than playing contact sports. When I was growing up, my dad told me one doctor said I’d be able to play any sport I wanted. Then we got a new doctor, and he was a little more cautious. He said you could play soccer and baseball, but basketball and football should be out.
“We took that as, ‘Hey, this kid really likes basketball, so we’re going to let him play basketball.'”
He did so much more, mainly because his friends cut him no slack.
“You could have come over to our house when we were in third grade, and we would have been wrestling with him just as hard as we were wrestling with everybody else,” Shoot said. “He’s just one of us.”
“No one looks at him as different than anyone else,” QHS senior forward Ben Amos said. “Why would we?”
They don’t let him use hydrocephalus as an excuse in any circumstance.
“Some of them have been a little more protective in certain scenarios,” Jacob said. “The vast majority of the time, they are like, ‘Ahh, you’re fine.'”
That’s how he wanted to be treated.
‘Being part of a family’
Jacob understood his condition meant certain limitations.
Playing football never was an option, but he wasn’t going to stand for being told he couldn’t play basketball — not after falling in love with the sport.
“Coming here to Baldwin (Middle School) my fourth grade year and being on that Lil’ Devils team, starting to make friends who all loved basketball, you start enjoying it just as much as everyone else,” Ary said. “At that time, I was still a seasonal sports player, but as you get older, you begin to realize you’re better at a certain sport.
“That’s when you put more effort into it, and that’s when it becomes your favorite sport.”
No one, not even a doctor, could talk him out of giving it up.
“Basketball is something I never thought about quitting,” Jacob said.
It actually inspired him to work harder.
As a junior on the QHS basketball team, Jacob played limited minutes. He played in nine games and scored 15 points, but he believed he could help the Blue Devils this season. Jacob worked with Matt Pugh, a coach and trainer with Pure Sweat Basketball Skills, during the offseason. The drills they did created better footwork, a more consistent outside shot and the tenacity to play every possession aggressively.
“You compete in those 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 drills, and that makes you more competitive in practice and in games,” Jacob said. “I had to make sure I could knock down shots. I always knew I was one of the more successful offensive players, but I knew it all came down to defense. If I wanted to play and be a factor, I had to bring it on defense.
“And knock down shots obviously.”
He has done both consistently well.
Jacob come off the bench to score 13 points and hit two clutch 3-pointers in the 56-53 overtime victory at Rock Island. He is now the first player off the bench and is averaging 5.2 points per game while shooting 44.2 percent from 3-point range. He’s been named the team’s defensive player of the week twice.
“He bought in to what we needed him to do to play defense and give us energy on that end of the floor,” Quincy coach Andy Douglas said. “He’s always been able to shoot and knock down shots, but you have to be able to defend. You have to be able to help your teammates and trust them so they trust you. Jacob has been doing all those things. I’m proud of the way he’s made himself into a player that belongs on the floor.”
That’s all Jacob has wanted.
“It all started really in sixth grade,” he said. “Basketball in fourth and fifth grade was fun, but it didn’t really become a matter of wanting my high school career to be phenomenal until sixth grade. That was when it became a dream to get out there and be a part of a great team.”
He’s part of a team that won the Western Big Six Conference championship for the third straight season.
“Being on this basketball team, and it’s been this way since I was a freshman, is being part of a family,” Ary said.
A normal life
The worries for the Arys have subsided for the most part. There have been occasional moments of consternation, but for the most part, they have learned to go with the flow.
Two years ago during an annual checkup, a neurosurgeon discovered Jacob’s shunt apparatus had broken. However, Jacob didn’t need further surgery.
“It separated,” Jacob said. “Either it got caught, or I grew too big. I could never feel anything was different.”
There were no negative symptoms or consequences because of the break. Doctors decided there was no immediate need to replace the shunt.
“There’s probably too many nerves intertwined with it,” Jacob said. “Part of it is in the skull. It would be too much and too expensive for surgery. It’s better to leave it in.”
Doctors are optimistic Jacob no longer has hydrocephalus.
“I was always told from a very young age there was a good chance I would need it all my life,” Jacob said. “At one point, it was like, ‘Does he really need it?’ The doctor kind of got mad and frustrated and was like, ‘Of course, he needs it.’ That was a year or two before it broke.
“It’s kind of cool to know it’s basically done with.”
He can move forward with a normal life, though Jacob laughs at that notion. He believes all he ever has been is normal.
“It’s inspiring really,” Shoot said. “He’s such a hard worker. He never lets that condition get him down. He never saw himself as different, so neither did we. It’s just inspiring.”
It’s been uplifting for his parents.
“Everybody has a burden or something they are dealing with in their life,” Diane said. “Everybody is overcoming obstacles to get where they’re going in their life. He doesn’t think it’s a big deal.”
What the future holds is a big deal. Jacob ranked 37th academically in a graduating class of 427 at the end of his junior. He plans to study business and finance in college. He isn’t sure what to do with such a degree, but his determination to succeed won’t stop when his basketball career does.
“To know you have parents who push you every day to make sure you succeed in life, it’s great,” Jacob said. “I’m blessed to have the life I do.”