CHICAGO — The Big Ten’s annual media event, normally a display of enthusiasm and optimism, had a somber undertone as it opened inside a hotel ballroom Monday afternoon.
The unofficial start to the league’s football season was still worth celebrating, but seemingly everyone — whether behind a camera or in front of it — wanted to take a moment to express sympathy and support for the two conference programs dealing with tragedy.
Nebraska senior Sam Foltz, one of the league’s promising specialists, died in a car accident in Wisconsin on Saturday. Former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler, a gregarious standout during his MSU career, also was killed in the crash.
The Huskers didn’t make the trip to Chicago. No Mike Riley. No player representatives. Michigan State’s contingent wasn’t around Monday, either, set to meet with media members Tuesday.
But the two teams were certainly on the minds of their Big Ten peers all day long.
“Your heart’s just ripped out for them,” Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said.
Hazell struggled for words as he met with a small group of reporters. Fresh on his mind was defensive tackle Will Colmery, who suffered a seizure in the weight room last month and soon had a benign tumor removed from his head. But Colmery is recovering. He may play again.
Foltz and Sadler are gone.
“It’s just a tragedy,” Hazell said.
That was the sentiment shared by each coach Monday. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany issued a statement before the press conferences began, saying that he and conference officials were “sending our thoughts and prayers to the families, teammates, coaches, administrators and friends who have been impacted” by the deaths of Foltz and Sadler.
ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore, on hand to help host the league’s kickoff luncheon Tuesday, offered his time to talk with several staffers and reporters, conveying his condolences and sharing his memories. Tessitore’s son, John, is a rising junior who’s pursuing a collegiate kicking career. They were both at the Kohl’s Kicking Camp over the weekend, along with Foltz and Sadler.
“Sam and Mike being back at that camp was special,” Tessitore said. “They’re rock stars.”
That’s why Monday was so difficult for coaches. They couldn’t openly gush over the potential of their team without acknowledging the pain felt by players across the league.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was first. He stood at a lectern, decked out in blue and white Big Ten labeling. Three pieces of hardware — the conference championship trophy and the prizes for the two division winners — were resting at a table to his right.
“It’s with heavy heart and great sadness that I kick off here,” Fitzgerald said. “On behalf of Northwestern, our football program and all our players, we’d like to express all the thoughts and prayers to their families, Coach (Mark) Dantonio, Coach (Mike) Riley and the Spartan and Husker families on their tragic loss.”
Hazell was next. Then Rutgers’ Chris Ash, Penn State’s James Franklin, Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys. They all had something to say about the devastating accident.
Some went into further detail later. Franklin recalled his past experiences. Fitzgerald, too. They all understand how tough this is. And they know nothing they say will make it any better.
“They went way too early,” Claeys said.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh addressed the accident during a side-session with reporters after his press conference. Harbaugh played for Riley in San Diego.
“A tragedy like this, it just — it takes the breath out of you,” Harbaugh said.