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Stafford County students ready to carry on A.J. Slye’s legacy
By NATHAN WARTERS
“Slye Strong” has been a rallying cry at North Stafford High School for the past 14 months during former student A.J. Slye’s battle with leukemia.
The 20-year old Slye, beloved by many, put up a valiant fight against the disease before dying Thursday evening at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
“To say this is a tremendous loss is an understatement, of course,” North Stafford principal Thomas M. Nichols said. “A.J. has been a symbol to all of us throughout the year or so during his fight. He just represents a lot of what we aspire to be. He kept us strong and united as a family. Our goal is to be sure we are able to continue his legacy.”
Slye stayed optimistic throughout his illness, choosing to look on the bright side when the odds were against him.
“Oftentimes he would talk to the doctors and he would ask, ‘What are my chances?’ And the doctor would say, ‘Well, I can’t tell you if it’s one in 1,000 or one in 1 million or one in 1 billion,’ and A.J. would always say, ‘Well if it’s a one in a something, I could be that one,’” said David Slye, A.J.’s father.
Todd Gaston, a family friend and pastor at Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Stafford County, spoke to Slye over the telephone Wednesday, and though the end appeared near, Slye never gave up hope that he’d overcome the cancer.
“He was just a joy to be around because he was so filled with hope and so filled with life,” Gaston said. “Even in that last phone conversation I had with him two days ago, he wanted to beat cancer, wanted to get past this.”
David Slye said his son’s funeral will be sometime late next week. Gaston, who grew close to A.J. through his time as a character coach with the North Stafford football team, has been asked to officiate.
Stafford County Schools spokesperson Valerie Cottongim said many county schools observed a moment of silence in honor of Slye on Friday, and students at high schools throughout the county wore shirts emblazoned with North Stafford’s orange color.
Cottongim said word of Slye’s death spread Thursday night via social media, and students throughout the school district urged each other to wear North Stafford’s colors.
“I’m actually at Brooke Point, and there are a number of orange shirts in the cafeteria, which is very interesting to see how the young people used social media to spread the word,” Cottongim said.
Grief and sadness also spread throughout social media channels. Twitter lit up with messages from former classmates, teammates and family members.
Joey Slye, A.J.’s brother and a North Stafford senior wrote: “At 6:40 heaven gained the strongest angel! My biggest fan, my hero, my best friend, MY BROTHER is gone…all the pain and suffering is over! I love you with all my heart! I live for you now!”
A.J. Slye was a former star linebacker for the Wolverines football team. He earned first-team Free Lance-Star All-Area honors in 2011 after helping lead North Stafford to the Group AAA, Division 5 state semifinals.
Wolverines coach Joe Mangano said Slye, a great student and athlete, was loved by everyone.
“I know it sounds like storybook stuff when I talk about A.J., but believe me when I say the kid was amazing, just amazing,” Mangano said.
Slye joined the football team at Salisbury University in Maryland before being diagnosed with cancer in December of 2012.
Slye, who was listed at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds on Salisbury’s website, had a personality that was “larger than life,” Gaston said.
“On the football field, he was a guy you don’t measure by height and weight and speed, but you can’t underestimate him because you measure his heart, and this kid is just gritty,” Gaston said. “He’s a tough kid. He fights hard. He is so much larger than life in just the way he carries himself.”
Slye drew from his strength during his battle with cancer, and he grew in his faith as well.
“His battle with cancer brought him to a faith foundation that I don’t know if he had before, and so by him pressing into life and death issues and pressing into his faith journey with Christ, it opened him up to a whole new resevoir of strength,” Gaston said.
Nichols said he expects “Slye Strong” to be a part of the fabric of North Stafford’s identity for a long time to come.
The school is working on different ways to memorialize Slye, but Nichols said he wants to speak to Slye’s family before making any of those plans official.
“I think you’re going to continue to see ‘Slye Strong’ because it represents a young man who was outstanding in all aspects of his life,” Nichols said. “I think he’ll be on that pedestal for a long time where he is well deserved to be on that pedestal.”
Slye’s legacy was so much more than what he accomplished as a student and athlete. He inspired people.
“A lot of people have said A.J. made them want to strive to be better, and that really makes me proud,” David Slye said.