Vikings remember AJ Schlatter as seniors prepare to close their football chapter
Friday night's Portland State game against Eastern Washington (7 p.m., Hillsboro Stadium) marked the career end for 12 Viking seniors. And for one Viking who wasn't present but who also won't ever be forgotten.
On Jan. 17, 2016, linebacker AJ Schlatter died of complications from tonsil surgery. He was 20 years old.
The shocking loss of one of the Vikings' top players is still felt, on and off the field, by everyone in the program, including another PSU linebacker, Sam Bodine.
Bodine played with Schlatter at Canby High before both came to the Park Blocks.
"If you ever knew AJ … he was one of a kind. He was big-time," Bodine says. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about him. I think about him all the time. Every time I step on the field, I think about him."
On his left wrist, and under his football jersey at practice, Bodine wears a wristband with a verse from the Bible. It's from James 4:8. "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you."
"It's a passage AJ really cared about," Bodine says. "It really rang home with him, and it's something I can relate to as well."
Schlatter splashed onto the scene at Portland State in stunning fashion.
Not highly recruited, he was a non-scholarship walk-on.
But in 2015, he wound up starting 10 of 11 games as a redshirt freshman, earning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week honors with an epic performance in a win at highly touted rival Eastern Washington. Schlatter helped lead the unsung Vikings to as high as fifth in the national rankings and into the FCS playoffs. It was PSU's best season ever as a Big Sky football team.
Schlatter was a 6-2, 205-pound, all-consuming colt on defense, chasing down ball carriers and making plays.
It's easy to think about what he might have been able to accomplish the rest of his career at PSU, and beyond.
"He would have been spectacular," Bodine says. "I think he would have gone to the NFL. After that freshman season, that's all he was talking to me about.
"He was the smartest football player I've ever played with. So there was no doubt in my mind that the NFL was going to be a reality for him, especially after the way he played in 2015.
"The sky was the limit."
That seemed to be the case as well for the Vikings, after their 9-2 regular season in 2015. Schlatter figured to be their centerpiece on defense for three more years.
Instead, and after the death of standout offensive lineman Kyle Smith in April 2016 added to the program's tragic turn of events, the Vikings dropped to 3-8 in 2016, and then went 0-11 in 2017.
"I think our program would be in a different place today if AJ were still here, just because he was a big-time player," Bodine says. "He was a big reason why we had success."
Coach Bruce Barnum can't argue with that assessment.
"Who knows?" Barnum says. "But if I had to predict, AJ would have been a captain, he would have been a leader, he would have been that model student-athlete, because that's what he was already."
Schlatter stood out also because he had the enthusiasm to match his abilities.
"AJ was a big personality," Bodine says.
"Everybody loved that kid," Barnum says. "He made a mark here, and he wasn't here very long."
Around Portland State, Schlatter's No. 31 jersey and T-shirts honoring him still are seen and worn around campus.
"AJ wasn't a normal kid — he was special," Barnum says.
When the Viking senior football players were introduced one final time on Friday night, in a very real way Schlatter was there with them.
"Oh, boy," says Barnum, taking a deep breath. "I feel like AJ's graduating with this group. He's a part of this program. He's been with us and with this group of players in different ways all along, whether it's a shirt or memory or a story or a motivation.
"And honestly, it might sound a little goofy, but I feel like AJ is not leaving the program and will never leave the program."
This season, Bodine shares the team lead in tackles. He's at the linebacker spot Schlatter might have occupied, although Schlatter also might have wound up playing more on the outside.
"AJ could have played a lot of positions," Bodine says. "He was a really dynamic and versatile player."
Bodine has paid tribute well to his best friend, just in how he has produced defensively in the first year of a scheme introduced by new coordinator Payam Saadat.
"Sam's had a hell of a year," Barnum says. "It's been fun to watch him. He's just gotten better and better in the new system and really made an impact."
In Saadat's scheme, Bodine isn't a traditional middle or inside linebacker.
"I'm a mix, a hybrid," he says. "I'm a D-lineman, a linebacker, an outside backer, a middle backer … for me, what I do is based more on understanding where everybody else on the defense is going to be.
"I feel like I've gained a pretty good understanding of the defense as the year has gone on and been able to play fast on the field."
The Vikings have shored up their defense tremendously from last season, giving up way fewer points and yardage while forcing more turnovers than in 2017.
Bodine says the change in system has been "amazing and, for me in particular, super different. In the 10 years I've played football, this has been the most dynamic position I've played, and it's been a ton of fun."
It's been quite a ride for Bodine and the other seniors who have been in the program for four or five years, with extreme highs and lows.
"If I had to describe it, I'd say it's been 'an experience,'" Bodine says.
He came to Portland State in part, he says, because it was close to family and he loves the city and the area.
"One of the best things about Portland State, I think, is that there's a lot of diversity in the student body, people from different cultures and classmates of all ages. That in itself is unique," Bodine says.
"And then on top of that, our class has had the best (football) year (2016) at Portland State and we've had the worse (2017), and now we've had a great rebound year (4-6 going into Friday's game).
"It's been a long journey, an amazing journey."
Bodine says he is two terms and four classes from graduating with a degree in communications, with a minor in business.
"I'm keeping my options open" for after college, "but I like logistics and how everything works and is put together. And it's always been a dream of mine to have a business.
"I'm excited for the next chapter," he added.
That it would be his final game as a football player "is surreal," Bodine says.
"There's a lot of emotion," he adds. "The game has given so much to me and to us seniors, it's only right that we respect it and go out the right way."
Bodine says he was only able to get through all the tough times, including the loss of Schlatter, because of his teammates.
"Football is a game of war, essentially, and when you lose, it's really deflating and defeating. But what you've got are the guys you practice with and run with every days. Those guys are what got me through it," he says.
The sudden passing of Schlatter "was really hard for the family and for all the people who loved him," Bodine says. "I've been trying to carry on the legacy he left behind, trying to play the game the right way, because that's what he did."