How college football made sure Sam Foltz would not be forgotten

Originally posted November 30, 2016 USA Today Sports. Written by Nicole Auerbach

Not even two minutes into Nebraska’s season-opening game against Fresno State, the Huskers faced a routine, yet rather emotional moment: Their first punt.

To be more precise, their first punt since their punter, Sam Foltz, had been killed in a car crash during the summer with former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler.

The Huskers lined up in punt formation with just 10 players; they were and would always be missing one. They took a delay-of-game penalty. As Nebraska players cried and some pointed to the sky, Fresno State players on the field began to clap. The Memorial Stadium crowd roared. And in a display of supreme sportsmanship, Fresno State declined the penalty.

“That was a special moment for a lot of guys who were really close to him, and for everyone else who was teammates with him,” Nebraska kicker Drew Brown said this week. “It was very emotional, and I’m glad we did it. It meant a lot to me, and I know it meant a lot to his family.

“That was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever experienced in sports. We’ve tried to do as many things as possible to honor Sam, and that was one of the smallest things — but it will go down in Husker football history.”

Fresno State declining the penalty was just the beginning of a trend Brown said he didn’t expect to happen, and couldn’t have imagined until it did. Nebraska’s opponents continued to, on a weekly basis, pay homage to Foltz and his family, helping his legacy endure weeks and months after the accident that took the life of the 22-year-old walk-on who inspired everyone around him to work hard to make their dreams a reality.

Foltz’s parents, Gerald and Jill, made a point to attend every Nebraska game, both home and away, this season, no matter how difficult it was to face constant reminders that their son was not on the field.

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and his kicker, Matt Wogan, placed flowers at the 27 yard line — Foltz wore No. 27 — before the Ducks’ game against Nebraska. Northwestern players wore “SF27” decals on their helmets. Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin presented No. 27 jerseys to the Nebraska specialists before their games.

Ohio State presented a helmet to Foltz’s parents, a helmet with 27 Buckeye leaves on it. The Buckeyes’ marching band also honored Foltz during halftime.

When Indiana played the Huskers, the Hoosiers also hosted Karen Sadler, the mother of former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler, who was also killed the same car crash, and she met the Foltzes at that game. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz set up a private tribute to Foltz before its game against Nebraska last weekend with both a Foltz Nebraska jersey and a No. 27 Iowa jersey.

The Big Ten conference also chose to commemorate Foltz and Sadler on a coin that was used for coin flips across the league.

All of those small gestures taken together have been overwhelming at times for the Huskers, who were blown away by their friends on other teams who made these tributes happen.

“It really shows that football is just a game, and there’s more to life than just wins and losses,” Brown said. “What matters is the people actually playing the game and the different relationships you make.

“When we saw teams go out of their way to make Sam’s legacy to last that much longer, it really meant a lot to us. It shows that, throughout all the teams across the country, we’re one tight-knit family.”

Right now, all the commemorative jerseys and helmets are kept in Nebraska’s equipment room, Brown said. He expects the team to frame them and give them to the Foltz family, a reminder of the way college football wrapped itself around them this season.

“Even though they’re our opponents on the field, they really showed that they cared about the loss that we’ve had to cope with,” Brown said. “It was really special, and it’s one of the great things about sports.”