Memory of AJ Schlatter motivates his 'Band of Brothers'
FRIENDS, TEAMMATES RECALL THE GOOD TIMES AND WHAT MADE THE PORTLAND STATE LINEBACKER FROM CANBY SPECIAL
CANBY While standout football player Sam Bodine lay on the Canby High field surrounded by medical personnel, Cougar players kneeled from a distance – tears streaming – minds stunned.
Before the injury timeout ended, Canby receiver Trey Bellmore saw tight end AJ Schlatter pacing down the sideline, appearing disoriented.
Bellmore walked up to Schlatter and said: We got this, bud.
Schlatter and many of the close group of friends some refer to as the Band of Brothers represented Canby that September 2013 game against Oregon City. And, after competing for practically their whole lives, they werent going to quit in their leaders absence.
Schlatter replied to Bellmore: I know. Lets go to work.
Thats when I knew we were going to be OK, Bellmore said.
Though Bodine missed the rest of the season with a broken ankle and left fibula, the Cougars reached the state semifinals for the seventh time in school history.
Roughly 28 months later, Schlatters hometown friends received news infinitely more difficult to process and proceed from.
After a breakout campaign as a key linebacker for the Portland State football team, Schlatter died Jan. 17 of complications from tonsil surgery.
Its heartbreaking, said Bodine, who also was Schlatters PSU teammate. Its a tragedy and something that is not supposed to happen.
Schlatters childhood friends are devastated but cherish the times they shared. Most vividly, they remember his competitive ferocity.
Dominic Shorter met Schlatter at age 6 while both played for a youth basketball team. They continued playing sports together throughout elementary school.
He was one of the smallest guys on the team, but his hustle was unreal, Shorter said. He was really competitive. He had a lot of heart for sports.
Bellmore knew Schlatter since he was 2, when AJs mom, TJ Schlatter, babysat him. Bellmore and Schlatter bumped heads and traded baskets from a young age.
AJ, hes like his dad. Hes a hammerhead and kind of crazy, Bellmore said. He always wanted to be the best in elementary school, and I always wanted to be the best.
Bodine wasnt allowed to play football at an early age, but he heard rumblings about Schlatters off-the-charts performances in the youth football ranks.
I knew AJ because he was ridiculous in football, a town prodigy. I was like, Wow, this kid is really good at stuff, Bodine said.
Schlatter and Shorter were mere acquaintances until Shorter transferred from the 91-School to Ackerman Middle School. Schlatter immediately ushered him in.
He welcomed me into Ackerman with open arms, Shorter said. He initiated me into the friend group that is now my friend group.
The friend group, which includes Schlatter, Bellmore, Austin Taylor, Bodine, Trevin Stephens, Andrew Riley, Cole Thompson, Noah Kyllo, Zach Krauss, Kyle Morton, Timmy Johnson and others, formed in seventh grade.
While together, they perpetually contended.
Often orchestrated by Schlatter, they played pick-up basketball and football at Maple Street Park, Ackerman Middle School, Canby High or pretty much any nearby hoop or field.
If there was a place to play, we were probably there, Bodine said.
While they didnt always play full-tilt for fear of risking injury, their ids most frequently enlivened in front of the television with controllers in hand.
When rain blustered, the group huddled inside and played Madden, NCAA Football and other video games.
Schlatter usually chose Alabama or Oregon two powerhouse programs in NCAA Football.
Thats who he was. He wanted to be the best, so he picked the best teams, Bellmore said.
Things would get really rowdy. If someone beat a powerhouse player, we would go crazy, Shorter said. It was a good time. We always pushed each other, no matter what it was.
Once, Bodine and Schlatter collided in the National Championship game of NCAA Football and produced a result network executives would pine for.
With time running out, Bodine could have settled for an extra point to tie the game, but he tried a two-point conversion. Running a play called drags, Bodines first options werent open, but at the last second, his quarterback rifled a pass to a receiver in the corner of the end zone. The player dived with two feet in bounds and pigskin in hand.
It was magical, Bodine said. I won the natty.
Schlatter wasnt thrilled.
He broke his controller because he threw it across the room and didnt talk to me until the next morning, Bodine said.
Bodine and Schlatter both aspired to play Division I football and helped each other achieve that goal. Both joined the Portland State program in 2014.
Still, Bodine says Schlatter viewed him as his No. 1 competitor, especially in video games.
I was his number one, Bodine said. Our competitions were fierce.
Since high school, the group has added Texas Hold Em and fantasy sports to their competitive repertoire and congregates every few weeks to toss the football.
The battles have bread arguments, brief animosity and even a few minor physical confrontations.
But Shorter, Bellmore, Bodine and Taylor agree it contributed to their pre- and post-high school success including their state semifinals run.
Our competitive spirit is what got us there. Everyone pushing each other in the weight room, in the gym every day, Shorter said. All of our hard work paid off.
After Bodines injury, Schlatter became the packs alpha dog.
AJ took over as a vocal leader and did really well with it. Everyone rallied around him, Bellmore said. When Sam went down, it was very hard, but we were confident we could still do good things as a team. AJ was a big part of that.
As the No. 12 seed in the state playoffs, the Cougars defeated lower-seeded Newberg and Beaverton in the first two rounds before going up against No. 4 Sheldon in the quarterfinals.
The Cougars found inspiration watching Friday Night Lights and rocked the charter bus to Sheldon High in Eugene.
No one expected us to win except our town and our team, Bellmore said. We knew we were going to beat them. Nothing was going to stop us.
The Cougars rushed for 392 yards and conquered the Irish 24-17.
It was a great feeling, Taylor said. All of our friends would say thats our best athletic memory.
Afterward, the team filled up Buffalo Wild Wings for a celebratory postgame feast.
Our whole team filled up that place, said Shorter, who lives in Eugene. I go to the same Buffalo every other week. Every time Im reminded of it.
After the game, The Register-Guard snapped an iconic photo of Schlatter leaping in the air while pointing a finger to the sky.
Of the group of friends, Bellmore plays lacrosse for Oregon State; Bodine plays football for Portland State; Taylor plays football at George Fox; Stephens plays baseball at Linn-Benton Community College; Johnson runs track and Grand Canyon University; Shorter, Riley, Morton and Thompson attend University of Oregon; and Kyllo attends Oregon State.
Schlatter, initially a walk-on at PSU, earned a scholarship, was named Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week and finished fourth on the team in tackles last fall.
The competition helped us get to where we are now, Shorter said. It pushed us to want to do our best.
Its so awesome to see all of my best friends success and having a great time in college, Bellmore said. It drives you to want to succeed to the best of your abilities.
Since making the college leap in fall 2014, group members root for their high school buddies from afar.
During the Oregon State lacrosse teams run to the national championships last year, Schlatter habitually texted Bellmore.
Hes always one of first to say Dude, hows lacrosse going? No way, youre in national tourney. Thats awesome man, Bellmore said. He didnt know much about lacrosse, but he knew I cared about it.
Likewise, Schlatters friends were elated to see him transform from a walk-on to an impact player.
It was really cool and kind of weird to see him play on TV, Taylor said of the Vikings upset of Washington State. I let him know how proud and awesome it was to see him have that kind of success. Hard work pays off.
After Schlatters death, a few of the guys, including Shorter, Taylor and Bellmore, ate breakfast together and visited the Schlatter household to mourn and memorialize. The group shared hugs and emotions.
It was really hard. We all struggled, having to go back to school that Monday or Tuesday, Taylor said. It is hard to get our minds around it, but being with each other is helpful.
Fond memories of Schlatter produced smiles.
We talked about the Sheldon game and the whole senior season, Shorter said. We just had so many memories from that year.
Its been nice to reflect on how awesome of a dude he was, Bellmore said. Even in sorrow and grief we can still be happy.
Schlatters death has forever changed Shorter and Taylor.
I honestly would have never expected one of my close friends to be gone so soon, Shorter said. It opened my eyes, taught me to live every day to the fullest, dont take any day for granted and to love all of your friends and family as much as possible.
It just puts life into perspective. It shows you that little things dont matter and makes you realize whats truly important in this world and not take anything for granted, Taylor said.
In 2012, Schlatter gave a telling but now tragic quote after Bodines injury.
It just shows that you can lose everything, just like that, in one play. It motivated us, Schlatter told the Canby Herald after the Oregon City game.
For Schlatters friends, the competition of life never stops. And his passing only motivates them to work harder.
Im going to play for AJ, work my hardest and get right, Bodine said. Thats what he would do.