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Tribute: ‘Quit’ not in Slye playbook
A.J. Slye didn’t often show vulnerability, even as he fought for his life against leukemia, but early during his illness he questioned why he had to endure such a fate.
“Why me?” he asked his parents. “What did I do to deserve this?”
It was a momentary lapse for the tough-minded Slye, and he quickly refocused himself on beating the disease, a resolve he maintained all the way to his final breath last Thursday night. He was only 20 years old.
Slye’s 14-month bout with cancer included aggressive chemotherapy sessions, a stem cell transplant and an assortment of painful side effects.
“Every day it was just what we did. It was a fight,” said Laura Slye, A.J.’s mother. “I would say to him, ‘A.J., we’ve got to get up. We’ve got to get moving.’ And he would fight through it and fight through it.
“But when I would lay down at night, I would think, ‘I don’t know how he does it. I think I would have given up by now.’”
Slye didn’t give up. He expected to beat the disease, but eventually it was too much to overcome. He will be laid to rest in Stafford County on Saturday.
“It’s been really hard,” said Laura Slye, who spent every day by A.J.’s side at the UVa Medical Center, Johns Hopkins Hospital and finally, for the last several months, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
“A.J. and I spent every day together for the last 14 months sitting in a hospital room of some kind. Right now I’m really missing my buddy. It’s unbelievable that he’s not here.”
Slye, a former Honor Roll student and football standout at North Stafford High School, was driven by a personality that didn’t accept anything but maximum effort, and he was buoyed by an outpouring of support from family, friends, medical staff members and even strangers throughout Stafford County.
When he realized what so many people were doing to support him—many of whom he would never meet—he had to ask the same question he asked his parents before.
“Why me? What did I do to deserve this?”
Students at North Stafford continue to wear T–shirts, wristbands and other items in support of Slye. The phrase “Slye Strong” has become part of the fabric of the school.
A.J.’s initials and number were painted onto the North Stafford football field last season, along with a large orange ribbon.
That’s not to mention the large number of tributes, videos and fundraisers by students and faculty at North Stafford and Salisbury (Md.) University, where Slye was a student before receiving his cancer diagnosis last December.
The support from other high schools in the area was also substantial.
“He was very humbled and almost embarrassed,” said David Slye, A.J.’s father. “He would always ask, ‘What did I do to inspire these people? What did I do to make these people want to reach out and do this for me?’ He felt the love.”
The support impacted Slye’s fight, and his fight impacted the community.
“He touched so many lives here at North Stafford High School and far beyond our doors and our steps here,” North Stafford principal Thomas M. Nichols said. “He was just a powerful young man. He was always positive.”
SO INTENSE. SO PASSIONATE.
Slye and former North Stafford teammate Austin Grebe were critical to the turnaround of the Wolverines football program five years ago. They possessed many of the same qualities, including an intense toughness and high expectations of others around them.
They were charged with holding their teammates accountable, and sometimes Slye, a middle linebacker, felt the need to get his close friend Grebe, the team’s quarterback, in line.
“There would be games where something might be going wrong with the offense, and he would come grab me and give me some tough love and tell me we were playing bad and to get it together so we could win,” said Grebe, now the starting kickoff specialist for the Naval Academy.
“That would always fire me up. I definitely would feed off his intensity. He was so intense. He was so passionate.”
Slye was an all-region and All-Area performer as a senior, and he and Grebe helped lead the Wolverines to the first of their three straight state semifinal appearances in 2011.
“He was a great football player, an all-region linebacker, but he was 5-foot-9, 185 pounds. He was the typical overachiever,” North Stafford football coach Joe Mangano said. “He was one of the most respected players I probably ever had.”
For as intense as Slye was on the football field, he was exceedingly friendly and po lite off of it.
Former North Stafford soc cer coach Iric Bressler said last spring, “The long and short of it is, he’s the kind of kid I want knocking on my door to pick my daughter up for the prom. He’s just that good of a kid.”
Slye was a role model to many, most importantly to his younger brother, Joey, a senior at North Stafford.
“He was my best friend. He was my hero, and not just through this fight. He’s been my hero since I was a little kid,” Joey Slye said.
Slye stayed positive throughout his illness. He came home for a few days this past Christmas, and though visibly weakened by the cancer, he carried the same upbeat attitude he did before he ever knew he was sick.
“He was pretty frail and thin, but his spirit was strong,” said Todd Gaston, a family friend and pastor at Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Garrisonville. “I mean, he was encouraging everybody who was trying to encourage him. He was just a joy to be around because he was so filled with hope and so filled with life.”
A SOBERING REMINDER
They were carefree kids two years ago.
Slye, Grebe and North Stafford classmate Keith Morris took a road trip to Pensacola, Fla., for spring break, one of their final excursions together before facing adult life.
In the fall, Slye made his way to Salisbury University to play football and study to become an athletic trainer. Grebe ventured north as well, to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., to play football and study systems engineering. Morris joined the Army.
There’s a picture of the three on the Florida beach, wearing sunglasses and grinning from ear to ear.
It’s a sobering reminder of the unpredictability of life. Morris is currently serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Slye’s life ended way too soon.
That spring break trip brings back so many good memories for Grebe. It was a long drive to Florida, but the boys kept each other entertained with typical high school hijinks.
“Put us in a room together, and we would be just immature, goofy and childish,” Grebe said. “You wouldn’t believe how childish we are.”
It was much of the same last summer when Grebe and Morris drove down to Memphis to visit Slye at St. Jude’s.
“We were cutting up and having a good time,” Grebe said.
Grebe and Slye kept in constant contact via text messages, and they saw each other this past winter when Slye made a visit home.
Though still goofy and fun-loving, Slye evolved greatly during his illness, and Grebe noticed the growth his friend had made emotionally and spiritually.
“I could see a big change once he started having a new spiritual journey,” Grebe said.
’HE WAS READY’
Slye’s cancer fight brought him closer to God. He met a Christian man in the hospital in Memphis, started asking questions and began to grow spiritually.
Where he first approached his cancer fight with anger, Slye’s walk with God made him more peaceful.
“It wasn’t an acceptance, but it took away that anger,” Laura Slye said.
A.J. and Laura watched Mount Ararat’s Sunday services online, and A.J. made a point to visit the church when he was home for Christmas.
“He didn’t want all the attention. He wanted to sit in the back of the church and not be a big production, but by the end of the night, there were a lot of folks that were surrounding us in a giant prayer chain,” David Slye said.
“When we got done praying, I looked up and A.J. was being touched. There were probably about 30 people in a giant prayer group over topof him just loving on him. I tell you, that just made my heart feel so good.”
Only three weeks ago, Slye was expecting to make a longer visit home while continuing his chemotherapy treatment.
“They believed they had the leukemia in check,” David Slye said. “They believed they had a regimen that stabilized A.J. enough that they were going to send him home for treatment at Mary Washington.
“He was scheduled to come home the Thursday before Valentine’s Day, but the Sunday before that was when his line for his medicine got infected, and they had to pull that line and had to put a respirator on.”
Slye’s condition progressively got worse, and it got harder for him to breathe.
David and Joey flew down to Memphis last week and were able to be with Laura and A.J. during his final hours.
“He was barely alert,” David Slye said. “He knew we were there. He was able to squeeze our hand. He could speak very horsley. He said that he loved me. He said that he loved Joey and loved his mom.”
A.J. died with his family close by, a warrior finally able to rest peacefully after a valiant fight.
He made peace with God and died knowing he had the love and support of so many people there in Memphis and back home in Virginia.
“He had to meet the people he met out at St. Jude’s that helped him with that spiritual journey to become the person he became. He had to get closer to pastor Todd. All of that had to happen before he was ready,” Laura Slye said. “And it all finally did. I know he was ready, and I know he was at peace. It’s still sad, but it gives me peace.”
Nathan Warters: 540/374-5442
Covenant Funeral Home, Courthouse Road, Stafford; Thursday: 2-4 p.m., 6–8 p.m.; Friday, 6–8 p.m.
Funeral and internment
Mount Ararat Church, Garrisonville Road, Stafford, Saturday, 10 a.m.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 262 Danny Thomas Place, Memphis, Tenn,, 38105; or the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society, 5511 Staples Mill Road, Suite 202B, Richmond, 23228