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Proud Portland State remembers, celebrates life of AJ Schlatter

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TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Portland State football players hear tributes to teammate AJ Schlatter during a Sunday memorial service at PSU for the Vikings linebacker who died Jan. 17.Some people tend to be remembered primarily for one thing. It might be for their athletic prowess, or their leadership. It might be for their humility, or their love of family, or their kindness to others. Or for beating the odds and doing what others said they couldn’t do.

On Sunday, a packed house at Stott Center remembered AJ Schlatter for all of the above, and much more.

Schlatter died Jan. 17 of complications from tonsil surgery. He was 20 years old.

“It’s impossible to encapsulate in five minutes who he was,” said Ben Thienes, Schlatter’s linebacker coach at Portland State. “Football is just a window into who a kid is as a person. And AJ was my favorite kid of everyone I’ve ever coached. He’ll always have a place in my heart.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - The entrance to the Stott Center gym on Sunday has numerous photos in remembrance of Portland State linebacker AJ Schlatter from Canby High.But Schlatter was way more than just an outstanding linebacker who had played his way into a full scholarship after walking on at PSU from Canby High. And those who came Sunday to pay tribute to him attested to how many people he touched, and in how many places, in so short a time.

The celebration of his life brought people all of ages and from all walks of life. In attendance were members of the Canby Police … former teammates and schoolmates from Canby, some wearing their cowboy hats and rodeo jackets … people from around the metro area with ties to volleyball (the primary sport of his mother and older sisters Garyn and Kasey) … the entire PSU football team, wearing specially made jerseys bearing his No. 31 … plus a wide variety of administrators, teachers, coaches, athletes, friends and Viking supporters.

The Schlatter family has been a part of Portland State for many of the past 30-plus years. AJ’s mom, Terri Jo, was a volleyball star on the school’s 1984 national championship team, then helped coach the Vikings for nine years. She is a member of the PSU Athletics Hall of Fame. AJ’s father, Jim, is a former PSU assistant football coach. Sister Garyn was a four-time all-Big Sky setter in volleyball.

“The Schlatters are so ingrained in the PSU community,” said Jeff Mozzocchi, who coached PSU volleyball for many years, including in 1984.

Mozzochi smiled as he recalled talking on more than one occasion in the late ‘80s to Jim Schlatter, then on the football staff, about how he might approach Terri Jo, single and on the volleyball staff, and get her interested in him as a potential date.

“When Garyn came here, I thought it was awesome,” Mozzocchi said, “and then to get AJ here for football was icing on the cake.”

Portland State “was his dream school,” Thienes noted.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Portland State University President Wim Wiewel speaks of the impact football player AJ Schlatter had on the school and those around him.Sunday’s speakers were PSU President Wim Wiewel; head football coach Bruce Barnum; Thienes, former Canby assistant football coach Grant Boustead (now head coach at Molalla); AJ’s best friends, Sam Bodine (a Viking football player also from Canby) and Timmy Johnson; AJ’s girlfriend, Maddie Prehoda; and Garyn and Jim Schlatter.

AJ emerged as a force last season, as the Vikings made an unexpected run to the second round of the FCS playoffs, ranking as high as No. 5 in the nation. The Viks finished 9-3, after going 3-9 the year before and struggling for several years in a row. Barnum was voted national coach of the year, after entering the season with an interim tag and no guarantees that he’d even be around after 2015.

“I’ve now experienced every high and every low you can have as a coach — all in one year,” Barnum said.

The Viking coaches are in the midst of all-important recruiting, with letter-of-intent signing day coming up on Wednesday. They’ve taken the time, though, to help their current players deal with the loss of No. 31.

“It’s been tough,” Thienes said. “AJ was a beloved teammate. Everybody was his friend.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - The Schlatter family applauds during remarks Sunday at Stott Center.Barnum struggled to get through his speech on Sunday, having to pause more than once. And he wasn’t the only one.

Bousted, his voice also cracking at times, said AJ had the “unique ability to make everybody else feel special, feel important. He always found a way to deflect any praise or attention and make others be part of his success. It didn’t matter who you were, your gender, your status in life, your age … anything.”

Prehoda, the girlfriend who met him at Portland State, where she played soccer before transferring to Concordia, said AJ “never saw anyone as anything other than as a friend. He inspired everyone. If you knew him, you were blessed.”

On Tuesday, Prehoda got a tattoo — her one and only. It’s on the inside of her left forearm. It reads: “Hero of my heart … AJ” with a heart symbol.

“He was my biggest cheerleader,” she said. “He changed my life forever.”

He’ll be missed tremendously on the football field, too.

“He was my best player,” Thienes said. “We were building everything around him. Every recruit I talked to I was telling them how much fun it would be to play with AJ.”

The game plan for Sunday was to celebrate AJ’s life more than to mourn his loss, but there was some of both, understandably.

President Wiewel spoke of “our collective grief as well as our collective gratitude” and said it was incredible “to see how much of a difference one person (AJ) could make in one year. … AJ was part of an amazing turnaround, a season that began with us kind of despairing about the future of football here and ended with AJ and the team giving everyone immense joy and immense hope.”

A video compilation of Schlatter highlight plays, with “When The Saints Go Marching In” as the musical backdrop, clearly showed AJ’s ability and enthusiasm for the game — and for playing it to the hilt. When the video was over, the crowd applauded robustly.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Portland State football coach Bruce Barnum talks about all the unforgettable traits of linebacker AJ Schlatter and his contributions to the Vikings program.Teammates chose numerous words to describe Schlatter. Among them: Relentless, intelligent, hardworking, passionate, determined, friend, always smiling, gentleman, confident, competitor, winner, tough, giving, integrity.

Garyn Schlatter recalled how her first day at PSU was also AJ’s first day at Canby High. He called that day at her dorm. “He said he needed to have my exact class schedule, so he would know when to check up on me and make sure I wasn’t in any trouble,” she said.

Four years later, it would be AJ’s turn to be on campus at the Park Blocks.

“He felt so at home here,” Jim Schlatter said, “like he had found another group of brothers.”

Still, AJ Schlatter entered 2015 fall camp as a walk-on, a relatively skinny, redshirt freshman with seemingly no chance to be a factor in any games.

“He was 14th on the depth chart out of 14 linebackers, with seven seniors ahead of him,” Thienes said. “Frankly, most kids probably would have quit.”

Schlatter barely got onto the field early in camp. The first day, he was on defense for two plays, making one tackle (and no mistakes, Thienes noticed). The second day, AJ got in for four snaps and made two tackles with, again, no mistakes.

A couple of weeks later, he was starting in the season opener at Washington State. Portland State shocked the college football world by winning in Pullman — the first time the Vikings had ever beaten a Pac-12 school.

“The first play, Washington State goes right at him with a screen pass to test him,” Thienes said, “and he dominates their on-scholarship Pac-12 receiver and makes a tackle for a loss.”

And that was just the start.

“Every play, all season, AJ got better,” Thienes said.

Schlatter wound up being named Big Sky defensive player of the week after starring in a key, late-season victory at Eastern Washington.

“Last season was so much fun,” Jim Schlatter said. “AJ often talked about his goals for taking Portland State to the next level. He said, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. Dad, you just watch — they can’t keep us off ESPN.’”

AJ was reading two football-related books at the time of his death — motivational works by veteran coaches Tom Coughlin and Tony Dungy, all about how to be a better person, about principles, practices and priorities, and how to prepare for success.

AJ, who had grown enough to be listed at 6-2, 205 pounds, dreamed of making it to the NFL.

“It was not ‘if,’” Jim Schlatter said. “It was, ‘Dad, when I make it to the league, I’m going to repay the community and pay my scholarship back.”

On Sunday, it was time to celebrate all AJ did give to others, and to give thanks for the love he shared, the laughs and the ever-present smile.

“There’s been a ton of sadness,” PSU athletic director Mark Rountree said, “but also a ton of healing for all of our student-athletes. Now it’s a celebration of his life and how do we honor him through our play and in what we do.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Portland State football players sign the guestbook at Sunday's celebration of the life of teammate AJ Schlatter.Barnum said the Vikings will keep Schlatter’s locker intact, and Nike will provide special “No. 31 Schlatter” shirts for the players.

Everyone associated with Portland State says they are as proud of AJ Schlatter as he was proud to be a part of the school.

“There just aren’t enough words to tell you how amazing a man my brother was,” Garyn Schlatter said, “and how proud I am of him.”

Jim Schlatter said the family has been blessed to hear all the stories from others about what AJ meant to them, and how he treated them, and the impact he had on their lives.

The stories all line up. They warm the family’s heart and, of course, they at times bring forth some tears.

“All of these tears are just memories,” Garyn said during Sunday’s memorial. “It’s us being reminded of how much we love him.”