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Stunned PSU Vikings remember AJ Schlatter, a beloved leader of the 'family'

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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland State student-athletes make a sign in remembrance of Vikings linebacker AJ Schlatter.After a late November practice on a chilly Portland morning, AJ Schlatter walked around Portland State’s outdoor football field with a wide smile on his face.

Despite the offer to do an interview with a reporter in the indoor warmth of the nearby Stott Center, Schlatter happily elected to remain on the field.

“No place else I’d rather be than out here,” Schlatter said, grinning. “I love it out here. I’m living the dream.”

Schlatter, a Canby High graduate who had a superlative freshman season as a starting linebacker for the resurgent Vikings in the fall, lived his dream to the fullest up until his tragic end.

Schlatter died Sunday night after complications from tonsil surgery. He was 20.SCHLATTER

“He was more of a man at the age of 20 than I could have ever hoped and dreamed about becoming,” said Jim Schlatter, AJ’s father. “He has an infectious spirit and touched many people in his short time.”

Portland State football Bruce Barnum said Schlatter personified what the Portland State football team was all about. After entering the program as a walk-on, Schlatter earned a scholarship with his tenacious play on the field and his consistent work ethic.

But on Monday morning, Barnum had a tough time focusing on Schlatter the player. As he gathered his Vikings football team for an emotional team meeting inside Stott Center, the memories were mostly about the type of genuine person and friend Schlatter was to his teammates.

“I don’t remember the plays. I remember him in the locker room and just the smiles,” Barnum said. “He celebrated by bringing people to him. He brought a group together as a freshman and he just did it again.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland State football coach Bruce Barnum, having just addressed his team, said Monday that linebacker AJ Schlatter personified what the Vikings are all about.At the end of Portland State’s football team meeting Monday, which featured grief counselors and other support staff for the players, a group of Portland State female athletes entered to present a sign for the team. It featured 30 signatures from athletes from the Vikings softball, basketball and volleyball teams.

“This is a Vikings community, and we’re all family,” said PSU softball player Lexi Goranson, who took a health class with Schlatter. “Whenever I missed a class he would help me out. He was always so supportive because he knew I’d be traveling six weeks in a row as a softball player.”

Portland State quarterback Alex Kuresa wasn’t surprised to see the widespread campus reaction to Schlatter’s passing. Speaking with tears in his eyes, Kuresa said it was still “surreal” to think that the person who dressed next to his locker all season wouldn’t be there when the team reconvenes for spring practice.

“These things aren’t supposed to happen,” Kuresa said. “If you could fit our season and our team into one person, that’s AJ. He came from a walk-on with no scholarship and earned everything he got. He had the highest goals and the biggest ambition. To say AJ will be missed is an understatement, and that’s not in the football sense at all.

“He was one of the most humble, hardest-working people I’ve ever met. It was an honor to know him and play with him.”

Kuresa received a call from Barnum late Sunday with the news and joined several other PSU teammates in posting midnight tributes to their fallen teammate on social media.

“It’s hard to sleep after that,” Kuresa said. “I made sure to go give my baby a kiss and go hug my wife a little tighter. We just feel so bad for AJ’s family, because they’re a part of the PSU community. We’re working to do everything we can to be there for them. We’ll do something and in no way will it make up for their loss, but we definitely want to pay our respects in the highest form possible.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland State quarterback Alex Kuresa called it 'an honor' to know and play with linebacker AJ Schlatter, who died Sunday night of complications from throat surgery.Schlatter’s mother, Terri Jo, starred on Portland State’s 1984 national championship volleyball team and later coached on three more Vikings teams that won national titles.

His older sister, Garyn, ranks in the top five in several all-time statistical categories for the Vikings volleyball team after earning first-team all-conference honors for four consecutive seasons (2010-13).

Schlatter’s father, Jim, was a Vikings football assistant coach in the 1980s, and brother-in-law Kyle McMillin played for the PSU football team from 2010-11.

After getting call from Jim Schlatter on Sunday that AJ was headed to a hospital in Oregon City, Barnum instinctively left his Vancouver, Wash., home and headed south. He was soon joined by several coaches and Portland State players, including Vikings linebacker Sam Bodine, who played with Schlatter at Canby High.

Portland State linebackers coach Ben Thienes was also among those at the hospital to say good-bye to someone he said Monday was “the favorite kid I have ever coached.”

“Ultimate story of a young man being given an opportunity, giving his heart and taking advantage of the opportunity,” Thienes said. “Every day he showed up with an infectiously positive attitude.”

Thienes listed three days during the season that he’ll always remember about Schlatter, who started 10 games for the Vikings in 2015, making 62 tackles.

“The smile on his face after we beat Washington State, the smile on his face when he was given a full scholarship and the smile on his face after playing the game of his life, beating Eastern Washington and earning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week,” Thienes said. “You could see him growing as a player and a leader every day. Loved to play. Loved his teammates. Loved to work.

“Football is only a small piece of what this young man was becoming.”

COURTESY: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - AJ Schlatter (right) went from walk-on to one of the Portland State Vikings' leading tacklers and defensive players.Schlatter’s leadership was also felt as a multi-sport standout at Canby High, where former teammates mourned through similar stories of Schlatter’s accomplishments.

“He showed me and the team what being a leader really was,” said Joshua Payne, a George Fox University student who played with Schlatter on Canby’s football and boys basketball teams. “On and off the field, he was a leader, consistently encouraging others to do better. … One of the hardest workers I ever knew. Not going to forget that smile and laugh he brought to the team.”

Former Canby High football player Dominic Shorter, who first became a teammate of Schlatter’s as a 6-year-old youth athlete, called Schlatter “a great role model.”

“From schoolwork to playing sports, he pushed me as well as everyone to work to their full potential,” said Shorter, who is a student at the University of Oregon.

Portland State freshman football player Jonathan Boland said the 2016 Vikings football season will be dedicated to Schlatter.

“He was determined to be perfect in everything he did,” Boland said. “Quiet and humble kid, but how he played made up for all the talk that he didn’t do. He will be missed. A lot.”

Back in November, after that chilly morning practice, Schlatter spoke about the future of the Portland State football program and how excited he was to have three more seasons to help the Vikings continue to reach new heights.

“Right now, I couldn’t be happier,” Schlatter said with his trademark smile. “I’ve always wanted to play at Portland State and feel so fortunate to be given this opportunity. I love being a Viking.”