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Carrying on in Canby



COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - The Schlatters (from left): Terri Jo, Garyn, AJ, Kasey and Jim.CANBY – There’s a knock at the door and Jim Schlatter’s eyes immediately close.

What he doesn’t see is the arrival of another compassionate friend who has solemnly come to the Schlatter house to offer their condolences for a tragedy that has reverberated throughout this tight-knit community.

What the grieving father imagines when he hears that knock is that on the other side is his son, AJ Schlatter, who died on Jan. 17 after complications from tonsil surgery.

The 20-year-old Portland State University football player will exuberantly swing open the door, creating a loud thud as it bangs against the wall.

He will proclaim, in his typical, cheesy way, “Family, I’m home!”

AJ will then toss his bags on the ground, head straight down a hallway toward the refrigerator and quickly take care of any hunger issues he had with whatever food he can find.

Then, after kissing his mom and dad and telling them he loves them, AJ will plop down on his favorite seat in the living room and text his buddies to let them know he is in town.

He will find a game to watch on television, open up his laptop and probably head back to the kitchen looking for even more food to satisfy his seemingly never-ending hunger.

It’s a scene Jim Schlatter has witnessed so many times that his brain has trouble comprehending the shattering reality.

“It’s surreal,” Jim says. “I keep thinking he’s walking through that door. I keep thinking we’re going to wake up from this nightmare and this is all going to be a really, really bad dream.”

Instead, when Jim does wake up from what little sleep he’s able to get these days, he typically finds himself alone in the darkness at 2 a.m. and searching to feel his only son’s presence.

“I’ve got to find things where I hear his voice, where I enjoy his laugh, where I see his personality,” Jim says. “I understand the physical shell is gone. I’m slowly coming to grips with that. But the rest of it, the soul, the essence, the spirit, that’s never going to leave. That part will carry on.

“So if that part of AJ gets infused in other people, then he affects more people than he ever would have if he was still here.”

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - AJ Schlatter, a star football player for the Canby High Cougars who went on to be a key linebacker for the Portland State Vikings, poses with his dad, Jim, after a prep game.As he says the word, “here,” his eyes zero in on a certain area of the carpet in the living room. It was there, on the night of Sunday, Jan. 17, where a father tried desperately to save his son’s life.

Two days after AJ underwent a tonsillectomy, he fell asleep on the couch watching an NFL playoff football game with his father and girlfriend. Maddie Prehoda, who underwent similar tonsil surgery earlier in the month and had AJ by her side for her successful recovery, kissed her sleeping boyfriend good-bye and went to her Concordia University soccer practice in Northeast Portland.COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - AJ Schlatter gives girlfriend Maddie Prehoda a hug.

After awhile, Jim noticed that AJ was struggling to breathe, and then not breathing at all. Jim, a health and physical education teacher at Canby High, laid his son on the ground and frantically performed CPR while waiting for paramedics to arrive.

“There was a small period of time where I thought things were getting better,” Jim says. “He coughed up blood, I cleaned his mouth out and there was a glimmer of hope. I thought, ‘OK, son, you’re going to be pissed at me because I’ve probably broken two of your ribs, but those ribs are going to heal and, dang it, you need to wake up right now because we’ve got to get this fixed.’”

But the heartbreaking conclusion to the story — AJ Schlatter was transported to a hospital in Oregon City and pronounced dead at 9:15 p.m. — quickly made national news.

Because AJ was a successful college football player — he started 10 games at linebacker and made 62 tackles for a resurgent 10th-ranked Portland State team that made the FCS playoffs — his death was covered by numerous media outlets.

Sports Illustrated, Yahoo, NBC News, Inside Edition, People Magazine, the New York Daily News and even the United Kingdom-based The Daily Mail were among those writing stories about Schlatter.

“And ESPN,” Jim Schlatter says, allowing a slight smile. “Gosh, he would have loved that. He once told me, ‘Dad, I’m going to be on ESPN someday. Just watch.’”

Along with reporting the passing of a college athlete because of complications from a routine tonsillectomy, the story generated widespread interest because of a public Facebook post that Jim published at 3:59 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 18.

“We lost our son tonight,” Jim wrote, articulating how proud and inspired he was to be AJ’s father. He concluded the 223-word tribute with a profound reminder. “Parents hug and love your kids today. Kids tell your parents just how much you love them. Better yet show each other each and every day! … Don’t waste an opportunity.”

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - Mom Terri Jo (left) and dad Jim share the excitement as AJ represents Canby as a member of the North all-star team in the annual Les Schwab Bowl.Within days, the post had been shared nearly 1,000 times on the popular social media site, with several of those people being strangers in different states and different countries.

“Humbling, overwhelming, remarkable, staggering,” says Jim, so thankful that he and his son left no feelings unsaid and weren’t shy about expressing affection. “It’s all because of AJ and the type of person he was.”

Jim has done his best to offer a “Thank you,” to everyone who contacts him, including fellow parents who share their traumatic loss of a child. Every message of support helps and lets him continue on with what he calls his “act.”

“I really haven’t worked through this all yet,” Jim says. “I’m just focused on breathing right now. But I know all the stages of grief that I’ve got to go through and that I’m refusing to do right now. This is all an act. As a father, I feel an obligation to do the speaking for family. I owe it to AJ right now because he worked so hard so how could I not work hard right now for him? And I owe it to my girls. They’re all remarkable people.”

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - Sisters Garyn (left) and Kasey followed AJ Schlatter as he went from Portland State football walk-on to Big Sky player of the week in the Vikings' 9-3, playoff 2015 season.The Schlatter girls — wife Terri Jo and daughters Garyn, 24, and Kasey, 22 — comprise a family that was always close and has grown even closer now that their AJ is gone.

They have spent the past week together in the warm Canby home they moved into in 2000. It’s a house that rarely had an idle moment in the 15 years that followed as all three children grew up and excelled as Canby High student-athletes.

Garyn left Canby to become a record-setting Portland State volleyball setter, the first player ever to earn all-Big Sky honors all four years. Kasey went on to excel as a volleyball player at Montana State. And AJ, inspired by his older sisters, achieved his dream of earning a scholarship at Portland State this past fall after joining the Vikings football program as a walk-on with so much to prove.

“I was in the bedroom upstairs and he walked in with this giant grin and just stood there, grinning,” Terri Jo says of the September day her son told her of his accomplishment. “I was like, ‘What? Why are you here? Why are you grinning?’ He was just bursting with happiness. Finally I was like, ‘Did you get a scholarship?’ And he almost started crying.”

No matter how much success the children achieved in college, Canby never left their hearts, and their high school remains an integral part of the Schlatter family.

Jim, a former Portland State and Oregon State football coach, is an assistant on Canby’s football team. Terri Jo, a member of Portland State’s athletic Hall of Fame after starring on the Vikings’ 1984 national championship team and coaching on three other PSU title teams, is the head volleyball coach at Canby. And Kasey has returned home after her college career to coach the Cougars’ JV volleyball team.

That’s why, as each slow day passes, the loss of AJ becomes less of a national news item and more of what it’s truly been all along: the legacy of a selfless young man from an Oregon city of about 16,000 who left a positive impression on all he came across in his too-short life.

“We always said, ‘Give more than you ever expect to receive,’ and it’s clear he did that,” Jim says.

The official cause of death isn’t yet known and is not what the Schlatters are focusing on. They know nothing will bring their boy back and thank all those familiar first-responders who attempted to save AJ’s life on his final night.

“The officer who came to the house first, I coached one of his children when he was a wrestler,” Jim says. “Two of the paramedics that came after I had as former students. I knew five or six more of them through teaching and coaching. It was an amazing response, and they went above and beyond for my son. They did all they could.”

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - Since his death on Jan. 17, the Schlatter family has been going through photos and more of son/brother AJ's life.Instead of thinking about the end, the Schlatters spend their time reminiscing about the journey through family photos and videos. And they savor each of the various stories about AJ that are told to them by those he impacted.

“It’s so amazing to see what other people feel about him,” says Garyn, whose husband, Kyle McMillin, played football for Portland State from 2010-11 and quickly formed a tight brother-in-law bond with AJ. “We already knew how great of a guy AJ was, but it’s really cool to hear other people talk about him in the same way. It helps give us strength for that minute, that hour, that day. We know this will get harder once everything starts calming down after the celebration.”

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - Young AJ Schlatter, with sisters Garyn (left) and Kasey, liked to play imaginary football games by himself in the backyard.The celebration of AJ Schlatter’s life will take place at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, in Stott Center on the Portland State campus. Along with the Vikings football players — several of whom traveled to Canby High to attend the stirring boys basketball game honoring AJ on Friday, Jan. 22 — the memorial will be filled with people from Canby who all have their personal AJ stories.

Joan Monen, the owner of The Wild Hare Saloon and Cafe in Canby, is offering a free bus shuttle to the PSU campus for the service. Monen’s husband, Darren, is a teacher and coach at Canby High and her son, Tanner, played football with AJ on the 2013 Canby football team that reached the state semifinals.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Canby High staff members give hugs to AJ Schlatter's sisters, Garyn (left) and Kasey, at Friday night's boys basketball game, as the school pays tribute to AJ's life.Each week during the season, Monen’s restaurant hosted the Cougars football team — “AJ was always the first to arrive and the last to leave,” she said — and Monen also employed AJ last summer for a two-day music festival she co-produces.

“At the end of the festival, I sat AJ down and told him how impressed I was with his work ethic,” says Monen, who gave AJ a $100 bonus for his admirable effort. “I told him, ‘I want you on my team next year! I value people like you, and I want you to understand that not all kids work as hard as you did.’ I will never forget the smile he had on his face after our talk.”

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - A cousin gets a ride during push-ups by AJ Schlatter.Canby resident Art Marine, who has five children, will never forget the random acts of kindness AJ showed whenever the two would cross paths.

“He would go out of his way to say hello and make an effort to be kind,” Marine says. “As a father with four daughters, I often heard the stories about which were the really good guys in Canby. AJ was always in that group.”

Before last season, Marine hadn’t attended a Portland State football game since his cousin played for legendary coach Mouse Davis in the 1970s. But Marine and his family gathered at Providence Park on Nov. 14 and watched as the linebacker wearing No. 31 for Portland State made seven tackles in the Vikings’ dramatic 24-23 win over Southern Utah.

“I couldn’t keep my eyes off AJ,” Marine says. “I once again felt that deep sense of community pride knowing that this impressive young man was still connected to our community in Canby.”

It’s a connection that impacts those who didn’t even personally know AJ. Jeff Saltmarsh, who owns Frontier Screenprinting in nearby Aurora, received a call the day after AJ’s death from Canby boys basketball coach Craig Evans.

“I knew immediately what he was calling about and told him we would do whatever he needed,” Saltmarsh says.

Saltmarsh’s company voluntarily made blue warm-up shirts with “AJ” on the back that the team wore at its road game at West Linn on Jan. 19 and home game on Jan. 22. Both games featured moving moments of silence and homemade posters on the gym walls honoring AJ, who was a defensive standout for the Cougars’ basketball team.

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - AJ Schlatter hangs out with friends in Canby.Such outpouring of affection doesn’t surprise Grant Boustead, the head football coach at Molalla, who first met the Schlatters when he joined the Canby football staff out of college in 2005 at age 22.

Boustead quickly became part of the family, viewing Jim as a secondary father figure and AJ as a younger brother. He remembers a 10-year-old AJ always wearing “shorts and a T-shirt, regardless of the weather” and reveling in all aspects of the Canby football program.

But as AJ progressed as an all-around athlete, Boustead became more impressed with the quality of his character.

“He always made people feel like they were a part of his success,” Boustead says. “It would be selling AJ far too short to view him as just a football player, because he was far more than that. He was a boy with a dream who worked tirelessly to achieve his dreams regardless of what others thought.

“And, in the end, he was a man who realized his dream and full potential, and instead of saying, ‘Told you so,’ he said, ‘Thank you.’”

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - AJ Schlatter (third from left) and friends at Canby High graduation.Countless other stories about AJ have been relayed to the Schlatter family in the days since his passing. Some remember those days in middle school when AJ would see a student sitting alone in the cafeteria and ask if they’d like to eat with his friends. Others remember how AJ rearranged his schedule for weeks in high school to be there for his longtime friend Timmy Johnson, who had heart surgery to repair a congenial defect.

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - AJ Schlatter (left) visits friend Timmy Johnson in the hospital as Johnson undergoes heart surgery.And several people recall the Canby football game in 2013, when AJ knelt on the ground in tears next to his best buddy Sam Bodine after Bodine suffered a horrific leg injury. AJ wouldn’t leave Bodine’s side, and the two remained inseparable in the years that followed as both joined the Portland State football team and became roommates.

“Sam is the reason AJ went to Portland State,” Terri Jo says. “AJ tagged along on Sam’s official visit and Sam told the coaches, ‘You need to look at AJ.’”

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - AJ Schlatter (left) and Sam Bodine both went from Canby to the football team at Portland State.Terri Jo beamed with motherly pride as she watched her son grow from a 5-5, 135-pound high school freshman into a 6-foot-3, 215-pound college athlete. But as she reflects on his life, her mind drifts to the beginning.

On Sept. 16, 1995, Allan James Schlatter was born weighing 11 pounds, 11 ounces. He didn’t fit into the newborn clothes the family brought to the hospital, causing Jim to race to the store to buy larger outfits.

AJ began walking at eight months. By the age of 3, he had earned the nickname, “Bam Bam,” for his sturdy build and the fact he rarely stayed in the same spot for long.

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - AJ Schlatter came into the world bigger than expected, and kept active at home, even as a toddler.“He was a handful,” Terri Jo says, gazing at a photo of her son. “Busy, busy, busy. Every morning, always early, you’d hear his little feet hit the ground and off he’d go. We’d say, ‘Oh, there’s AJ!’”

Terri Jo will always have fond memories of her son when she walks around her home, which includes height marks AJ loved to keep track of in the closet doorway near the kitchen. And when she looks at the backyard, she pictures a young AJ playing an imaginary game of football by himself in the rain.

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - At the family home in Canby, young AJ Schlatter marked the progression as he grew taller over the years.“There he is, batting the football around on the ground and getting all muddy,” she says, sipping her coffee. “I could never quite figure out the rules of his mental game, but he did it all the time.”

AJ rarely missed a moment to express his love for his mother, whether that was putting his arm around her while watching television together or surprising her with a kiss during a high school senior portrait that is now framed in the house.

COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - AJ Schlatter plants a kiss on the cheek of his mother, Terry Jo.“He would kiss me in front of anybody,” Terri Jo says. “I loved it. I knew what we had was special. A year ago, he said, ‘Mom, guys want to marry a girl who is like their mom.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ He was a very happy and confident boy.”

AJ’s joy was confirmed by a text message he sent to a close high school friend a few days before his death. The note was forwarded to his oldest sister, Garyn, who read it aloud to her family in the living room last week.

“Family is good. Friends are good. Me and Maddie are the best we have ever been,” AJ wrote. “Overall I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and life is the best it’s been.”

After reading it, Garyn says, “And of course he puts a smiley face at the end of it.”

Just then, there’s another knock at the front door. For a moment, Jim Schlatter shuts his eyes and appears to begin his visualization of a grinning AJ entering the home with that unmistakable booming voice.

This time, though, Jim temporarily halts his wistful thought process. He finds the strength to get up off his chair and warmly greets his visitor with a lengthy hug.

“Thank you,” he says to a fellow high school coach. “Thank you for being here.”

AJ Schlatter, who hosted countless gatherings with his large group of close friends in his childhood home over the years, won’t be coming through that door again.

But a grieving father is comforted by a deep spiritual belief that his son is patiently waiting to someday greet him on the other side.

“I know we’re going to spend eternity together, and that’s a frickin’ long time,” Jim says, his voice cracking and his watery eyes staring once more at the area of the carpet where the two spent their final moments together. “I can’t wait to see him again and tell him about the impact he’s made. I can’t wait to tell him how immensely proud I am of the man he became.

“I was so lucky to be his dad. We all were so lucky to have him in our lives.”TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A sign outside the Canby High gym on Friday features photos of AJ Schlatter playing football, with a tribute that reads, 'Gone, but never forgotten.'TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Canby High students and others observe a moment of silence in honor of graduate AJ Schlatter before Friday night's boys basketball game at home against Lake Oswego.COURTESY: SCHLATTER FAMILY - AJ Schlatter (left) joins mom Terri Jo, sister Kacey, dad Jim and sister Garyn at Kacey's graduation from Canby High in June 2011.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JEFF GOODMAN - Canby Cougars standout AJ Schlatter (4) celebrates the team big win over perennial power Sheldon in the 2013 state quarterfinals.