In 2011, the year the Portland Timbers joined Major League Soccer, you would have been hard pressed to find a fan more obsessed with the team than Noah Schultz.
Schultz kept a scrapbook – the “Portland Timbers Bible,” he called it – filled with cutouts of all the newspaper articles he could find about the Timbers. While he couldn't watch any of the team's matches on cable, he always tuned in when the games were on local TV, and he never missed a match on the radio.
Nothing would have made Schultz happier that season than getting the chance to sit inside Providence Park to watch a Timbers match in person.
But unlike many of his fellow Timbers fans, Schultz faced an obstacle that no amount of perseverance or determination could overcome: he was serving out a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence.
When Schultz was still just a toddler, the voters of Oregon passed a law that would have a profound impact on the course of the young man's life.
Measure 11, which was passed in 1994, stipulated that juveniles aged 15 and older could be tried as adults for certain crimes, crimes for which Measure 11 outlined specific mandatory minimum sentences with no possibility of reduction for good behavior.
So when 17 year-old Schultz assaulted a man whom he said had stolen from him, there was little the judge could do but pass down the minimum sentence required by law: seven-and-a-half years.
Schultz, though, who had begun dealing drugs at 12 years-old and who been initiated into a SE Portland gang at 13, resolved to make something of his prison sentence. The last thing he wanted was to find himself back out on the streets stuck in the same cycle.
“Everything on the streets was so crazy that I welcomed something new,” Schultz recalls.
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He resolved to piece his life back together in prison and one of the first things he rediscovered there was his passion for soccer.
While he was in a detention facility awaiting his sentence, Schultz says that he first learned that the Timbers would be renovating Providence Park and joining Major League Soccer. Intrigued, he began following the team as closely as he could.
“I got really excited about it for some reason,” he says. “Soccer was a big part of my life growing up. I played all throughout my childhood but ended up pushing that aside when I started getting into trouble and getting into the gang life...There was something still inside of me like, 'That was my sport.'”
When Schultz transferred to the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Ore. he almost immediately began playing soccer again. It took some time for him to regain the muscle memory in his legs and feet, but soon he and his fellow inmates were out playing on the rough dirt fields of MacLaren almost every day, dodging the mole holes as they ran towards the plastic chairs which served as makeshift goalposts.
“It became just a way to express myself on the field and start to build some more identity,” he says of those pick-up matches.
When he left the gang life behind, Schultz also left behind a big part of his identity. For the teenaged Schultz, the gang was his community and his support network and now that was gone. As he searched for his true self, he took solace in soccer both as a player and as a fan.
“As odd as it may sound, being a fan of the Portland Timbers was kind of a way to fill that hole for me in that being a soccer player and having a team that I supported just filled those needs of having a big cause, something I could identify with.”
The sport became a vital link to the outside world.
When Schultz's family would visit him at the correctional facility, he knew that no matter how difficult or strained their conversations could sometimes become he could always talk to them about the Timbers.
While the sport of soccer helped Schultz strengthen his body and brought him closer to the Portland community he'd left behind, in prison Schultz also discovered that he possessed a voracious appetite for learning. After earning his high school diploma, Schultz went on to earn an associate's degree and two bachelor's degrees. He became so enamored with writing poetry that he developed a curriculum and began teaching it to his fellow inmates.
Out of prison since last fall, Schultz has spent much of his free time giving back to a Portland community he still feels he owes. He's volunteered his time mentoring troubled youth in his old neighborhood through the Morpheus Youth Project; worked with the Portland public defender's office; and is currently in the process of launching his own fashion line, Forgotten Culture Clothing, with best friend Guy Mattaliano.
But few of these precious moments of freedom have felt as sweet as when Schultz and his family went to Providence Park to see the Timbers face the Colorado Rapids last October.
“I lost my voice I think in the first ten minutes of that match,” he says of the experience. “Look, I'm a pretty calm guy now but when I'm watching a Timbers game, I get hyped. I'm jumping. I'm yelling, man. I just get into it. I think a spirit comes over me.”
He pauses as he thinks back on it.
“I felt like that was a huge welcome back from the community,” he says of the Timbers' 1-0 win that day. “It just felt like a really good omen for coming home and coming back to Portland.”