A.J. always had to work for everything he earned, his sister said. “He was a living example that continues to live on today.'
A.J. always had to work for everything he earned, his sister said. “He was a living example that continues to live on today."

[Editor’s note: The idea behind “Alphabet Stories” is to write one noteworthy athletics-related story about each OSAA-member school. We started with Adrian HS on Sept.18. Today’s story, almost three months later, is about Canby HS. The goal will be to write two per week. While we will be relying upon athletic directors to furnish story ideas, anyone may offer suggestions by emailing johnt@osaa.org]

A.J. Schlatter died almost five years ago, but his influence on Canby HS remains as strong as when he roamed the halls as a football and basketball standout for the Cougars.

A.J. passed away in January, 2016, at age 20, following complications from tonsil surgery. His shocking death impacted both the Canby community and Portland State University, where he starred at linebacker.

A.J. was Canby -- both the city and the school -- from his early days as a youth football legend. He loved to compete, at everything, and had a big personality that inspired everyone around him.

“You can do hard things,” was one of his favorite sayings. “It’s on ME, ” was another.

Both were on display in the fall of 2013. A.J. was a senior and playing both ways for a strong Canby football team when, in Week 5, star player Sam Bodine went down with a broken ankle and fibula that would end his season. A.J. stepped into the void as the team’s vocal leader – “Let’s go to work” -- and the team rallied around him. Canby entered the playoffs with a 4-5 record but the team won three straight to reach the semifinals, including a big upset of Sheldon on the road.

“It's always possible to overcome tough situations,” said Garyn McMillin, A.J.’s older sister. “He did the hard things and the right things and it would attract others to do them, too.”

After high school, A.J. walked on to the Portland State football team. He’d been Second Team All-State as a Canby senior, but not much was expected of him as an undersized, lightly-recruited linebacker at the collegiate level. He surprised everyone but himself and those who knew what made him tick, by earning a scholarship and starting as a redshirt freshman in 2015. A.J., who averaged six tackles per game, was named Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week after the Vikings knocked off Eastern Washington, 34-31, late in November. A.J. contributed 12 tackles, two sacks, forced a fumble and had an interception in the win.  

Portland State finished 9-3 in the one year A.J. played for the team. The Vikings were ranked as high as fifth nationally and enjoyed their best season ever in the Big Sky Conference. PSU was 3-9 the year before, 3-8 the year after.  

“No matter how much the world tried to hold him back, he always continued on with the belief that what he wanted to achieve was possible,” Garyn said. “Believing he could become successful was the most important step in actually achieving it. He faced many setbacks throughout his career and life, but he never let them stop him. He had an amazing way of using them to fuel him and it would rub off on those around him. He was making people around him better without even realizing it, just by being him.”

The A.J. Schlatter Memorial Fountain, dedicated by the Class of 2017, sits outside the training room at Canby High School, next to the gym, weight room and football field where A.J. was a constant presence.

The plaque above the fountain reads, in part: “A.J.’s second home was on the field, in the weight room or in the gym. Being from Canby was a source of pride for A.J. He was honored to represent his hometown and school wherever he went. Nothing meant more than giving back to the community that had given so much to him.”

A.J.'s attitude and work ethic are symbolic of what we want for all our student athletes,” said Canby athletic director Ben Winegar. “He held himself accountable and led by example. He made others around him better every day: on the field, in the gym, and in the weight room. Every time someone fills their water bottle, they look up and read about A.J.'s dedication to the community and himself.”

There are no silver linings to death at age 20. A.J.’s family and close friends were devastated by his passing, as were the communities to which he belonged. They still are to this day. But you don’t need to live long to impact others.

“He was such an inspiration to me and I was and am so proud to be his father,” James Schlatter wrote on Facebook in the hours after losing his son. “In his 20+ years, he became a greater man than I could ever dream of becoming.”   

“The way you treat your family and friends, teammates, teachers, mentors and coaches is just as important as how hard you work,” noted Garyn. “A.J. understood this better than anyone we know. He loved and cared so fiercely about everyone. Everyone could feel the love A.J. had for them.

“They still can.”