This offseason was supposed to be the most exciting in recent memory for Portland State football.
It ended up being the most trying.
John Norcross remembers the early wakeup call via text message.
Team meeting at 8 a.m. Urgent.
The junior linebacker from Camas rushed to the on-campus athletic complex, where he learned the news. A teammate had died the previous night.
It has been nine months since Portland State finished its most successful football season as a Division I program. The Vikings went 9-3, knocked off Washington State and reached the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for just the second time.
Since then, Norcross and his teammates went through not one nightmare scenario, but two.
In January, redshirt freshman linebacker AJ Schlatter died of complications following a tonsillectomy.
In April, just after the team began spring practice, junior lineman Kyle Smith died of an apparent drug overdose.
Portland State opens its season Saturday at home against Central Washington. It remains to be seen whether that team will become more successful than last year’s.
But one thing is certain. This year’s Vikings have a maturity beyond what you normally see in a group of their age.
It’s the kind of maturity that comes when life’s challenges and losses intrude before their time.
“Tragedies like that, they hurt,” Norcross said. “That hurt doesn’t just go away. But it’s one of those things where we became closer.
“We realize, ‘treasure each day with each other.'”
Playbook of life
It’s often said that a football coach is like a father — a father with 80 sons.
Bruce Barnum had to shepherd his football family through more tragedy in an offseason than most coaches see in a whole career.
In addition to the deaths of two players, Portland State suffered another gut-punch in June. Carder Doman, the toddler son of senior defensive end Michael Doman, was fatally struck by a car.
Barnum received a phone call from a distraught Michael Doman shortly after the accident.
It was just as wrenching as the two phone calls, each coming at about 2 a.m., that alerted Barnum to the deaths of Schlatter and Smith.
A Vancouver native, Barnum is the reigning FCS national coach of the year. This offseason, his biggest coaching challenges had nothing to do with pass protection or run-blocking schemes.
But Barnum had a go-to play — a promise.
It’s a promise he makes to parents when he’s recruiting prospective athletes.
“We’re going to prepare your kid for 40 years, not four,” Barnum said.
Norcross thinks one of Barnum’s best moves was to take a step back.
On the day the team learned of Smith’s death, Barnum let players choose the next move. They decided as a group to return to practice the next day.
For players, that small sense of control helped ward off the helplessness that unexpected tragedies can bring.
“It was one of those situations where Kyle loved to play football,” Norcross said. “To not go out and practice would have been disrespectful to him and his memory.”
Public, private tributes
Both teammate deaths hit Norcross hard.
As linebackers, Schlatter and Norcross had spent dozens of hours together in position meetings and in practice drills.
Smith, a class ahead of Norcross, had always been someone he looked up to.
Norcross found solace and motivation in Barnum’s message to the team.
“He let us know it was OK to show our pain,” Norcross said. “It’s OK to let people know you are affected by it. But life doesn’t stop. The world can’t stop spinning for us.”
This season, Portland State will honor Schlatter, Smith and Carder Doman with a helmet decal right above the facemask. It features Schlatter’s No. 31, Smith’s No. 67 and a letter “C” for Carder.
Norcross pays his own private tribute every night. He says a prayer, thanking God for all the day has brought — each experience, each interaction. Tragedy has taught him the tough lesson that nothing about tomorrow is guaranteed.
It’s a lesson he’ll carry well beyond his football career.
“Just treasure each day,” Norcross said. “Treasure the people you have in your life, because you don’t know when you’ll be gone and you don’t know when they’ll be gone.”
Ranked No. 12 in the FCS coaches poll, Portland State has hopes of a Big Sky Conference championship this season.
But win or lose, Barnum sees a closeness he hopes will help his team on the field and off.
“If we have history together, I’m going to do more for you,” he said. “We have history together via three brutal situations. Whether it’s on fourth-and-one or whether they’re out on a Saturday night and one guy needs help not making a bad decision, it hope it helps. I think it will.”