WARSAW — Wrestling is a grueling sport. But for Warsaw sophomore Jacob Bass, it’s no sweat.
That’s because — long before he ever found the sport — Jacob, who will wrestle at semi-state this Saturday, had already experienced things that make wrestling seem easy.
“I would say not only wrestling but in life itself, he is a survivor. He’s been through more crap than you and I have, and he knows how to survive,” said father, Andy. “I think that, yes, that helps him in wrestling. I don’t see nerves from the kid. I’m more nervous than he is when it comes to his wrestling matches. I have to sit all the way up in the top bleachers so I don’t get down there and start yelling or something. No, he’s very calm, does his warmups. He just loves wrestling.”
A little more than 10 years ago, Jacob was saved from child slavery on a fishing boat on Lake Volta in the African nation of Ghana. The now-17-year-old was forced into slavery by his own biological father, the slave master of a group of boys on a fishing vessel, and the physical abuse he endured there robbed him of his hearing.
“When I was a child, under 10 years old, there was a slavery trade in Africa. My dad forced me as he slaved doing fishing. He hit me in my head a lot, and my brain was damaged. It’s how I lost my ears,” explained Jacob.
“There was someone from America who came to Ghana to support us. They found me. I can’t hear. I can’t talk. I was lonely. There was a man, he rescued me and my cousin from slavery trade.”
The organization that saved Jacob is the Touch of Life Foundation, whose mission is to rescue and protect underprivileged women and children from exploitation and trafficking. The foundation has a special mission on Lake Volta, where thousands of child slaves work in a dangerous fishing industry in crocodile- and electric eel-infested waters. From Lake Volta, Touch of Life took Jacob and his cousin to an orphanage in Accra, the capital of Ghana.
“They’ll take a group of adults, and they’ll go out on the lake. They find slavery going on, and they’ll offer them not money, but they’ll offer them like ‘Hey, I’ll give you some nets for a boy’ or ‘I’ll give you some line.’ They exchange goods for the boys,” explained Andy.
Even when he was rescued, young Jacob was unaware of what was going on. He remembers his cousin being very afraid but says he “felt nothing” when he was taken from his biological father and the only life he ever knew.
“I didn’t know what was happening, but my cousin he was very, very scared. I wasn’t as scared. I just didn’t know anything. Where are we going?” recalled Jacob.
The orphanage where Jacob was relocated typically has a non-adoption policy. They’re raising up young children to be leaders in their native country in the hopes that they can someday change conditions in the impoverished Gold Coast nation. But due to his hearing disability, teachers couldn’t reach young Jacob, and he was sometimes picked on by his fellow orphans.
Andy had long ago felt a calling to international adoption, when he was a child himself. After adopting one child — Anjali, now a senior at Lakeland Christian Academy, from India — and having two biological children, Anthony and Rebecca, with wife Dawn Marie, Andy felt it was time to adopt once more. By a twist of fate, one of the fellow parishioners at the Bass’ church had recently returned from a mission trip to Ghana, where she had visited the Touch of Life orphanage where Jacob now lived. It just so happened that Dawn Marie was an audiologist, and the Bass family was in a unique position to help young Jacob. The Basses began pursuing adoption, and it wan’t long before they were able to welcome him into their family.
“Anthony was around 10 years old, and we thought he needed a playmate. During our bible study at Life Group, this lady was showing us pictures of her mission trip to Ghana, and as she’s showing pictures, she’s like ‘This is DJ. There’s lots of Jacobs at this orphanage, and he’s called DJ because he’s deaf — deaf Jacob.’ My wife is an audiologist up in Syracuse so we were looking for a 10-year-old boy who was hearing impaired because we wanted to help him here. Deaf Jacob was 10 years old, and he was hearing impaired so we pursued the adoption of Jacob,” Andy recalled.
“He just attached to the family from day one. That’s so important when it comes to adoption is attachment. From day one, we’ve loved him, he reciprocated the love. It’s not without the issues of a teenager. We have those issues with him, too. But I really think just love, family, has just really helped him to grow.”
“It was love,” said Jacob of when the Basses first brought him home. “I love America more than Africa. When I came, I was like ‘Wow, this is the goodest place I’ve ever seen, and I would love to be a part of this family.’ They hugged me a lot, more than in Africa.”
But even with slavery and much of the loneliness of his former life now behind him, there were still plenty of challenges ahead for Jacob.
He didn’t seem to be learning despite the hearing aids that Dawn Marie had found for him, and his progress stalled in school. Andy, a 20-year middle school wrestling coach who first introduced Jacob to the sport, requested that his son attend his class at Edgewood, but even he couldn’t seem to reach him. Through a battery of tests, it was determined that the trauma Jacob had undergone had left him with a processing disorder in addition to his hearing disability. While attending class with two other deaf boys, Jacob noticed those classmates doing sign language with an interpreter, Rebecca Black, and was immediately intrigued. The Bass family reached out for help, and Jacob experienced his first breakthrough.
“Back in middle school my brain hadn’t really developed yet,” said Jacob with some help from Black, who continues to work with him today. “For five years I never learned. I didn’t have an interpreter. School wasn’t clear for me, but in middle school there were two deaf kids, and I saw (Black) and another interpreter. I watched both ladies signing, and I was like ‘Wow, what are they doing?’ I wanted to join the ASL group and then the interpreter taught me a lot of ASL, and I really learned a lot and now I’m going to keep learning forever.”
Soon after, Jacob received his first cochlear implant, then last summer a second. He can now process the sounds he hears and is learning to communicate without the need to sign. After sitting out his first high school wrestling season in order to focus on academics, Jacob has transformed himself into an A and B student.
“Since signing and the cochlear implants, academics have shot through the roof. You’ll get his standardized tests back, and kids are supposed to improve by 12 points, and he’s going 400 points,” explained Andy. “He’s an A-B student now, so with the help of his cochlear implants and an interpreter he’s learning.”
With his academics now in order, Jacob was once again free to pursue wrestling. In his first-ever year of high school wrestling, Jacob has earned himself a record of 24-9, netting a runner-up finish at the Plymouth Sectional two weeks ago, then a third-place finish at last weekend’s Penn Regional, thus earning himself a berth at this Saturday’s East Chicago Semi-State. Another top four finish this weekend would assure Jacob a spot at the IHSAA state finals Feb. 15-16 in Indianapolis.
“He’s not succeeding on natural talent alone. He works hard at what he does, but he’s very raw still,” said Warsaw High School wrestling coach Kris Hueber. “He got some wrestling in middle school, but he missed his freshman year, not because he was academically ineligible but because he didn’t meet his dad’s standards. That’s one of the things I love about the family is they’ve got a very clear expectation of what it takes to do things the right way, and if you’re not meeting that then you’re going to deal with the consequences for it. I would’ve loved to have another year with him just because we see the natural ability he has, and if we can clean that up I have such high hopes for him. But I’m glad to see him out here having the success he is.”
This weekend represents the biggest challenge of Jacob’s wrestling career so far. With only four spots available at the state championships, wrestlers must win their first two matches in order to advance to the state finale at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Bass will square off against 31-2 Frontier senior Caleb White in his opener, and, should he advance, will then face the winner of a match between tournament No. 1 seed Jake Burford of Crown Point and Mathew Honeycutt of Whiting. Burford owns a No. 8 state ranking from Indianamat.com, and the stage at East Chicago will be the biggest Jacob has yet seen.
But even that daunting task seems like nothing compared to what Jacob has already endured. Don’t dare count him out, says Hueber.
“That’s one of the things that we like about this weekend. You see it every year, the stage is really big, and people go out on that mat and it’s the first time they’ve been in a venue that big or a setting that big and their eyes are so wide they can’t focus on anything. I don’t think that we’re going to get that from Jacob,” he said. “He doesn’t know any better. We were talking when we got home on Saturday, and he was like ‘So two more weeks, right?’ There’s not even a thought about this might be the end, and I love that mentality. He’s going to do what we say on the board, and we’re going to go attack the tournament.”
“I’m happy to death with being able to see Jacob’s growth. His maturity, his personality, we’ve seen it come out more and more through the season. He’s a fun kid to be around. I love that he’s having this success right now, and we definitely have some big plans for him in the future as well.”