A.J. Schlatter should have turned 22 yesterday. He should have been playing defense alongside his close childhood friend Sam Bodine and the rest of his Portland State brothers against U.C. Davis. There is little doubt that he would have played great. He would have stretched his performance far beyond what his physical gifts should have allowed. He would have fought with his best weapons; brains, heart, preparation, and determination. His family and friends would have been there to cheer for him and smile at his success. They would have felt joy and happiness for him. Those who knew him best might exchange an unspoken Cheshire smile, for they would have knowledge of how far he had come, the price he paid to get there, and the way he handled himself along the way. It would have been so beautiful.
Sadly, unexplainably, this was not to be. Instead A.J. was robbed from the world at age 20 when he passed away as a result of complications from tonsil surgery. It is angering. It is confusing. Those that knew A.J. best still feel the punch in the gut from his loss. They know the potential and the promise that they and the world had taken from them.
Yesterday, friends and family gathered at Providence Park for what should have been A.J.’s 22nd birthday. They wore his #31 jersey and were called on to the field between quarters to honor A.J., and to celebrate the scholarship fund created in his name. Sam Bodine, the incredible and inspirational comeback story himself was on the field, missing a brother. There were hugs, tears, and some smiles. As A.J.’s former teacher and family friend, I was thankful to be allowed to be a witness to this day. It was still beautiful, but in a way it shouldn’t have had to be.
A.J. Schlatter, the football player, is an incredible story in an of itself. In his small, one high school town of Canby, Oregon, everyone around the high school knew A.J. from a very young age. His dad has now coached football at the high school for three decades, his mom is the head volleyball coach, and both of his older sisters Garyn and Kasey were outstanding athletes who would go on to award winning college careers in their sport of volleyball. When A.J. was a freshman, I remember asking a couple of the football coaches about how they thought A.J.’s career would go. Their answer was essentially a shrug of the shoulders. A.J. wasn’t very big, he didn’t have the look of much of a high school football player, let alone a college star.
It took everyone else a while to realize was the burning intensity inside A.J. to become a successful player. He was always in the weight room, on the track, and on the field putting in extra work. On lunches he and Sam would join Defensive Coordinator Grant Boustead and his father Coach Jim Schlatter to watch film and study the game. I used to love to sneak in and listen for a bit to these two wise football minds imparting their knowledge to the two young sponges. Coach Boustead told me once that when Sam and AJ were out there on friday nights, it was like having two having two coaches on the field because they had worked to learn the game so well.
A.J. would become an outstanding high school football player. All conference, Shrine game player, captain of a team that overachieved and went to the state semifinals. Then he decided to go to Portland State, where his mother, father, and older sister once starred. When he walked on as a freshman, he was once again back in the position of being a little undersized and perhaps a touch slow to shine at the college level. To people that didn’t know any better, it wasn’t even a sure thing that he would get a jersey. Once again, the fire raged inside of him. He worked, and worked, and worked. He made the team, listed as the 13th and last linebacker on the depth chart.
AJ redshirted his freshman year, and overcame a virus that led him to lose twenty pounds during the spring. Another setback that would have been insurmountable to lesser men. Not A.J. He busted his rear end climbing his way up the depth charts, and would start his first college game at Washington State. He was all over the field that day making tackles, breaking up passes, and helping Portland State to its first victory ever over a Pac 12 opponent. No one who saw it will ever forget the video of A.J. running over to hug his mother and celebrate with his family after the game.
AJ would go on to have an incredible season. He was named Big Sky defensive player of the week, and would be named to the FCS freshman All American team. His college football career was off to an incredible start, and he earned every bit of it.
It would be a complete injustice to think of A.J. just as a football player. As great as the story of A.J. the football player you just read is, the story of A.J. the person is better. He had a smile that would light up the room, and a laugh that was contagious. He was a thinker, a leader in the classroom, and someone who daily went out of his way to look out for those who were often ignored by others. He was respected and loved by his peers and his teachers. He was the rare combination of tough and rugged, but gentle and caring. He made people feel loved and important.
I want to share two personal stories that exemplify who A.J. the person was:
1. A.J. was my teacher’s aide his senior year. I was teaching a freshman class, and there was a young man in the class who was rather challenging. He wasn’t a bad kid, just asked a lot of questions and talked a lot, always needing attention. A.J. could tell when the young man was wearing down my patience, and would always sense when to go over and talk to him and help him. A.J. was also a basketball star, and the young man in this story went out for basketball and did not make the team. Instead he became a team manager, with the goal of making the team the next year. The young man later told me how A.J. would shoot baskets with him every day before practice and help coach him. After A.J.’s passing, I read a huge card signed by the students at Canby High School. The young man simply signed it, “Thank you A.J. for being my best friend.”
A lot of people would tell you they were his best friend.
By the way, that young man grew up a lot. By his senior year he also was a classroom leader and not annoying at all. We will never know how much A.J.’s heart and caring towards this young man helped him, but I’m sure it was a lot.
2. After he went to college, I got this message from A.J. one night. He wrote it to thank me after he and Sam were arguing with some teammates about politics. It says so much about who he was. One, that he accepted coaching and teaching. He didn’t really need to thank me, I’m supposed to teach people. I get paid for it. I try to teach lots of people, but not everyone accepts it. A.J. embraced it. Secondly, he took the time to reach out to me to thank me. It really made my day. A.J. liked making people’s day with shows of appreciation and gratitude. Most importantly it shows who he was in dealing with his teammates. He was trying to coach them not into jumping in and agreeing with his side, but to become better by listening to the other side. Even in the midst of a heated debate with his peers, he was trying to help them improve.
Those are just two stories. I have a lot more, so does everyone else that knew him.
I don’t have the ability to articulate how strong and inspiring A.J.’s family has been since his passing. They have continued to coach, to teach, to lead, and to be model’s of strength and toughness we all can learn from. Their pain is undeniable and understandable, but they have not let it stop them. The Schlatter family shows that when the story of A.J.’s legacy is written, they will be the ones holding the pen. Anyone who knows them or has been around them is better because of it.
I’ve never seen a loss tear at the soul of a community like the loss of A.J. It was a robbery. People young and old walked around in a daze. I saw kids who idolized A.J. wiping away tears, unable to speak. I saw grown, tough men do the same. A piece of the community, and a piece of individuals had been ripped away. Infinite sadness, anger, and disbelief ruled many days to come.
The students at Canby High School chose to write their next chapter, too. They wanted to honor the older boy that used to be their star, their leader, and also their friend. The Class of 2017, who were freshman when A.J. was a senior decided it would be fitting and proper to have a fountain dedicated to A.J. between the weight room and the football field. Perfect. They designed and sold water bottles and sought donations in the community. They also organized a 5K, using the same course that A.J. and several friends used to run each day before school.
The community rallied around the cause. Not only did they buy the water bottles, donate money, and participate in the 5K, businesses donated material for the fountain. The fountain now honors A.J., and also reminds the rest of us to aim to be more like him.
The adjoining plaque features the quote that A.J. used to tell many people, “You can do hard things.”
Also, Portland State football now has an endowment fund in A.J.’s honor. Perhaps my favorite show of respect to A.J. is the Canby High School football team now honors one player by allowing them the privilege of wearing A.J’s old number, number 4. The criteria is tough. You can’t be just anyone and have this privilege. Players strive to earn this honor.
There is also a Facebook page called “AJ31 around the world”. AJ’s family and friends have bought over 250 shirts that have AJ’s name and Portland State #31 on them. They take the shirts with them with them with the travel and do cool things, then submit their picture to the page, where they are posted. It is a great way to keep A.J. in the front of our hearts and minds, like he should be.
There is nothing that can be written, done, or said that will ever make up for the loss of A.J. The world was stolen from in ways it will never even fully realize.
I thought about A.J.’s childhood friends in attendance yesterday. There were about 15 at the game wearing the jersey of their lost comrade. There was Sam Bodine on the field, and many more there in spirit. They are smart, they are compassionate, they are joyful. They honor their lost friend in the way they carry on being their incredible selves, with guidance from A.J. I thought about A.J.’s family, and how many have benefitted from the lessons they teach us when they are not even trying to. They are a living “how to” guide on toughness, and fighting through the most difficult of times.
Then I thought some more about A.J., and how proud he would be of all these people.
I realized he may not physically be here any more, but he is still leading.