Bruce Barnum remembers his mother always telling him that tragedies come in threes.
No one, especially not Portland State’s gregarious head coach, wishes for tragedies in any form. But a heap of misfortunes ravaged the Vikings this off-season. Barnum hopes his mother is right.
“My mom told me many moons ago — she’s a Farmer’s almanac lady — that these come in threes,” Barnum said. “I’m hoping on God’s green earth that was the last one. I know some guys who have never had any. We are dealing with three now. It’s been one of the most trying things in my life.”
In January, sophomore linebacker AJ Schlatter passed away after complications from having his tonsils removed. Schlatter was what assistant linebackers coach Ben Thienes called “my best player” and a player Portland State “was building everything around.” Off the field, Schlatter was a hard-working, likeable player with a bright future. The sudden death left the program “in shock,” Barnum said.
Three months later, senior offensive tackle Kyle Smith was found dead in his downtown Portland apartment. It was determined that the All-Big Sky Conference player died from an overdose. The 6-foot-5, 310-pounder was a three-year starter and a second-team All-Big Sky selection who many considered one of the top NFL prospects in the league. Off the field, Smith was one of the Vikings’ alpha dogs, a bastion of toughness and attitude PSU tried to embody in Barnum’s first season.
“It’s been completely miserable,” said Portland State senior quarterback Alex Kuresa, last season’s Big Sky Newcomer of the Year. “The first time it happened, you can’t believe it. The second time, not again. It’s opened our eyes as a team and broadened our perspective. We’ve had it happen twice now where you say I’ll see you tomorrow to your friends and tomorrow never comes. “You really never know when it will all end.”
“It was terrible,” added PSU preseason All-America senior cornerback Xavier Coleman. “You never know how to deal with those things. There is no words when something like that happen.”
The tragedies did not stop with Smith’s death. In June, senior defensive lineman Michael Doman’s two-year-old son, Carter, passed away in what Barnum called an accident.
“How have they reacted? My football team, the leadership I have seen…I have Compton and Pendleton, Oregon going to lunch together and hanging out,” Barnum said. “I have a group of guys that we just had that last tragedy and as soon as they found out, it wasn’t advertised or tweeted but the majority of my team shows up at Michael Doman’s house.”
“I wish we could have attained this closeness under different circumstances but right now, we have a camaraderie that can’t be compared to any team in the whole country,” Kuresa said.
“We have had to go through a lot of things that I dare say no other team has gone through. Our family has experienced deep tragedy but we are trying to build off of it. We are trying to forge our season to meet the expectations that those guys had for our team because they had the highest expectations.”
Barnum took over for Portland State during a time of profound uncertainty. Nigel Burton had just been fired after five underachieving seasons. Barnum was given an interim tag as the head coach. The PSU administration said it wanted the football program to become financially independent and cutting football was a real option.
Barnum wasted no time revamping the Vikings’ culture. He instilled discipline. He rallied his team around a common goal. He made a team filled with talent for years finally play with continuity and for each other.
The payoff came early and often. Portland State went to Washington State and beat the Cougars 24-17. The team continued to gain momentum, beating five ranked FCS squads and lambasted North Texas 66-7, the largest margin of victory for an FCS team over an FBS team ever.
PSU loses a slew of talent from that team, including FCS Defensive Player of the Year finalist Patrick Onwuasor, who is now in training camp with the Baltimore Ravens. Defensive tackle Sadat Sulleyman (Denver Broncos), cornerback Aaron Sibley(Atlanta Falcons ) and running back David Jones (Washington Redskins) all have chances to make NFL rosters.
Replacing the key losses from last season’s 9-3 squad has taken a back to mending broken hearts. But in some sort of a way, it has made the Vikings even stronger.
“Every workout, on the weekends, we are always spending time with each other because we now realize that life can come to an end at any point in time,” Coleman said. “We cherish every one of our relationships not just on the football field but off the football field.
“Fundraisers and funerals are easily forgotten but sports are remembered, seasons and games are remembered, written in the history books,” Kuresa said. “That’s our goal this year: for them to be remembered by us winning for them.”
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