Vikings senior offensive lineman and Portland State student Kyle Smith passed away in his off-campus apartment last Wednesday night, leaving the football team reeling from the second loss of a friend and teammate in three months. The team canceled Thursday’s practice, but took to the field for scrimmaging on Friday with a vow to honor their fallen comrades the best way they knew how.
The Vikings would play on, and according to team captain and quarterback Alex Kuresa, they would win.
“The only way that we can really honor those guys is what we do out here,” Kuresa said. “So everything we do is going to be for those men, and it’s going to be a special year for us.”
The circumstances surrounding Smith’s death leaves questions about the player’s well-being. According to a Portland Police Bureau press release, the Drugs and Vice Division is investigating his death as a possible drug overdose. Details of the investigation are pending.
The police noted in the Thursday release that no arrests have been made in connection with the death. Kuresa said that police had not contacted him and that he had heard nothing of contact with other players.
“They haven’t been a distraction in that sense, banging on our door or hovering around us at the end of practice or anything,” Kuresa said. “The police have been very respectful of our team.”
Head Coach Bruce Barnum said that he tried to be strict with players as a means of fostering good decisions in the team, and credited PSU administration for their support. But he also acknowledged that he would make course corrections if it meant more effective help for students.
“If this leads to something that can help me put these guys in the right situation to make the right decision, I’ll do it, yeah,” Barnum said. “We learn every day. I know the world I’m trying to create, and they know I love every one of them and my coaches.”
Smith’s death bears no resemblance to the January 17 passing of freshman linebacker AJ Schlatter, who died from complications during a tonsil surgery. But the proximity of their deaths casts a shadow over the record turn-around the team managed with Barnum during the 2015 game season.
The team evoked both Smith and Schlatter when describing how they would move forward during Friday’s scrimmage.
“We wanted to fight, we wanted to battle, to strap up under the circumstances,” Kuresa said. “We put together a good day, so I was proud of my guys. I was proud of our team and how we came out in battle today.”
Barnum met with the team on Thursday in lieu of practice to address the situation and determine their needs. He said that he put the decision on whether or not to keep practicing over spring in the students’ hands, advising only that they needed to keep a schedule.
“The team made a decision yesterday,” Barnum said. “The cloud of the tragedy just hit us. They decided to scrimmage today, and I thought it went well. I liked the energy.”
Kuresa said that the seniors met first to discuss the situation, and that there was not an option for the team.
“[Barnum] left it up to us, but it was kind of a no-brainer to us,” Kuresa said. “It was a unanimous decision that we were going to be out on the field.”
Friday’s scrimmage came a week ahead of the Vikings’ spring game, which will coincide with the Viking Pavilion groundbreaking on Saturday, April 23. The players ran 75 plays and maintained an energetic atmosphere as they celebrated the game in honor of Smith and Schlatter.
“The only way we can really honor our friends, our brothers, our teammates, as a collective group together, isn’t by saying words or some type of fundraiser or something that people are going to forget about,” Kuresa said after the scrimmage. “To step back on the field as soon as possible, we felt, was going to be crucial for this process of grieving in our own way, and trying to continue the mission that we started with those two other men that we’ve lost.”
Kuresa also invited the rest of the PSU community to join the team in moving forward, pointing out that the athletic community was one part of the PSU family.
“We’d love for them to rally around us and to feed off of them, and be a part of us honoring those guys,” Barnum said. “That started today. That dedication to those men and honoring them started today.”
Barnum maintained that his first concern was his team’s well-being, and how they learn to make decisions as adults after their time at PSU. He also praised their decision to keep playing, and noted that the scrimmage was an effective outlet.
“There’s a million ways to deal with the passing of somebody important to you, and this was one,” he said. “It gave them 90 minutes away from life. That’s the magic of sport. For 90 minutes, sport in America served a purpose.”
Kuresa vowed another year of victories for the Vikings. He pointed to last year’s success as just the beginning of things to come.
“Last year was a special year and it’s not going to compare to this year,” Kuresa said. “We made that decision collectively. We have all the highest expectations in the world and we’re not going to stop.
“It’s going to be something to witness, this year,” Kuresa said.