Vern Shultz spent his 50th birthday with his favorite people in the world: the athletes, coaches and everyone associated with the Portland State athletics department.
First he had a pizza and cake party prior to a basketball game against Montana. He was stunned when he entered the arena and saw the entire crowd wearing T-shirts in his honor. The front said “Viks” with the school logo, but it was the back that was special, reading “Vern is 50.”
We will call him Vern here, because that’s how everyone knows him. Going on 30 years now, Vern has attended every home athletic event for PSU that he could. Every sport, every game, meet or match, he is there. He always has a smile on his face and is usually the most enthusiastic Vikings supporter.
He has even gone to away games with a Vikings team. In 2008 he traveled to Corvallis to watch a wrestling showdown with Oregon State. It’s very rare that extreme circumstances force Vern to miss a game, such as the snowstorm last winter. Vern’s endearment toward PSU sports is reciprocated in full. Everyone knows his name, and they make sure to say hi or give him a fist bump when passing in the Peter W. Stott Center.
Vern found a community that accepted and embraced him, but what he’s given back to PSU athletics may be the most special part of his story.
“Portland State can count on him to do everything he can do to help,” said equipment manager Mike Haluska. “Student athletes see that. He’s an inspiration to a lot of them. The example he gives everybody, they gain insight into what real problems are. They realize they have it easy.”
Vern’s life was forever altered when he was hit by a car as a young boy. He was in a coma and doctors suspected he would never speak or walk again. Vern’s first taste of overcoming the odds followed, with him waking and rehabilitating his mind and body.
The result of the car accident left Vern with cerebral palsy, a degenerative disorder which primarily affects body movement. For years Vern had a walker to assist him, but as he grows older, he more often rides a motorized wheelchair. He tries to stay as active as possible, working out at 24 Hour Fitness, and in years past, with PSU teams.
His introduction to PSU came when Vern was brought in as part of an assistance program. The program was designed to teach job skills and provide work experience for disabled and rehabilitating persons. It was a volunteer position where Vern would spend his days in the equipment room or cage, folding and handing out towels. He immediately fell in love with the people and the excitement of Vikings athletics, and ever since has been the most consistent part of the program.
The athletics department staff has worked over the years to find grants or other sources of revenue to pay Vern for his services. Former softball coach and current PSU sports broadcaster Teri Mariani recalls Vern showing up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to help her set up softball practice. She was neighbors with Vern when he was growing up in Ladd’s Edition in Southeast Portland. Some of her earliest memories of Vern are of him riding up to her house on a tricycle and singing her songs. To this day, Vern works 20–30 hours a week at the Stott Center, regardless of compensation. Some coaches have even paid Vern out of their own pockets.
“Jerry Glanville [former PSU football coach] paid me big bucks,” Vern said.
Mariana wanted to pay Vern for all the time he spent helping, and did so from personal funds. She remembers him showing up outside her office at 8 a.m. on the first of every month, eager for his payday.
Current coaches recognize how generous Vern is with his love and support of their teams.
“A loyal fan, die hard PSU guy. It’s always neat to see him at your game. A special person,” said Tyler Geving, men’s basketball head coach.
If you’ve ever been to a PSU basketball game, you’ve heard Vern. Regardless of the crowds engagement, Vern is yelling and cheering from start to finish. His signature has been trash talking the opponents when they shoot free throws.
“Air ball!” Vern shouts, drawing the two words out as long as it takes the player to shoot.
There are some perks to being a fan of Vern’s caliber. He is not charged admission to any games and often receives the newest Vikings gear. It pays to be a school’s number-one fan.
While a supporter of every sport, Vern has a special passion for Vikings football. He has a sharp mind for remembering sports information and can tell you what was happening in PSU athletics at any point in his history.
Recalling one of his favorite coaches, “Our old head coach Tim Walsh went to Army and later on became head coach at Cal Poly.”
Vern is also keenly aware of the state of PSU athletics. He has seen sports disappear over the years. He remembers fondly the days of wrestling and baseball, two programs he would like to watch again.
“There’s no money to bring back baseball,” Vern said. “We are hurting right now.”
Vern has racked up some achievements over the years. He was inducted into the PSU softball hall of fame for his tireless work in support of the team, and in 2013 was named most inspirational male in PSU athletics, an award usually reserved for players. He has also been the team manager in several sports. In the past, Vern regularly competed in the Special Olympics; his specialty is the softball throw.
A Portland native, Vern is quite independent. He lives alone, conveniently close to Providence Park where PSU football plays their home games. He takes the MAX and bus everywhere, and knows the transit schedule almost as well as PSU sports stats.
If you ask around the athletics department, everyone has positive words about what Vern means to PSU.
“He’s our number-one fan,” said administrative and scheduling assistant Jenna Wilson.
“He’s kind of a mascot: a supporter, a fan, a friend,” said Mike Lund, communications director.
“He was always such an inspiration to my team,” Mariana said. She affectionately recalls Vern at the end of her softball practices giving the team a report. He would announce all the softball games that week and what the weather forecast looked like for Vikings games.
Inspiring people may not have been Vern’s intent when he adopted PSU as his own 30 years ago, but it could be how he is remembered. His sphere of influence also should not be limited to the athletics department. PSU fans could take a page from Vern’s playbook and show up with consistency and enthusiasm. We could all learn something about hard work and dedication from the example Vern sets. Past faces from PSU sports still talk about Vern cheering them on.
“Former players from 13, 14 years ago remember his support, grace, personality,” said Sherri Murrel, women’s basketball head coach. “He is Portland State athletics.”