Shatel: Huskers saluting a fallen teammate by taking his approach

Husker placekicker Drew Brown, wearing a No. 27 necklace to honor Sam Foltz, said it’s tough to think about playing football in the wake of Foltz’s death. Foltz was a close friend and also the holder for his kicks. “It’s really going to hit me when Sam isn’t there warming up with us,” Brown said.

LINCOLN — So it’s August and you’re ready. You’ve done your homework. You’ve got the weather report for Madison, Wisconsin, in late October.

You’ve got your Husker schedule and you’ve got the W’s and L’s marked by each game.

Maybe you did this in June.

If your Husker mug is half full, you see a blueprint from the bowl game, coaches and players on the same page and a bunch of swing games coming back the other way this time. If it’s half empty, you see five road games and the same old issues surfacing again.

But now there’s an analytic nobody planned on.

The dynamic of this season changed July 23, when senior punter Sam Foltz was killed in a car crash.

Nebraska’s football band of brothers buried a teammate Saturday in Grand Island. Thursday, they report for practice.

They’ll do so wearing a sticker honoring their fallen brother. They’ll dress in a room where Foltz’s locker will remain as it was, including his name above it.

The journey began Wednesday night, with a moment of silence — at 6:27 p.m. — before Fan Day.

Then NU’s administration announced other tributes, including a Sam Foltz Memorial Scholarship presented annually to a football player. And a Sam Foltz “Hero 27 Leadership Award,” given to 27 student-athletes across all sports.

Excellent.

But life moves on. Football marches on.

And then what?

There is no playbook for getting through this. No road map for the journey they’re about to embark upon.

These young men are only human. And we’re about to see the human side of Big Red football.

I was curious to see it Wednesday, as several players did interviews at Memorial Stadium. Hear their words. Read their body language. Gauge their mood.

It was quiet. Businesslike. It has to be hard, because there’s so much joy to the beginning of August. They’ve been waiting since the Foster Farms Bowl to get back out here. It’s a time of energy, hope, smiles.

But the tone Wednesday was respectful. Determined. And still a little raw.

“Obviously we’re very emotional right now,” said senior receiver Brandon Reilly. “I can still see the family walking out of the funeral, carrying (Foltz’s ashes). It’s the kind of image I’ll never forget.

“Sam brought a positivity to everything we did: practices, games, meetings. It’s up to us to carry on that same way. His impact will be felt by every single player every single day. Even the freshmen, who didn’t know him well, have commented they can’t believe his impact.

“Tanner Lee only spoke with Sam three times, but he said he remembers each time and won’t ever forget it.”

There wasn’t a lot of talk on that bus ride back from the funeral Saturday. Soon, the seniors will meet with coach Mike Riley. And captains will be chosen.

They’ll be short one captain. Riley acknowledged that Foltz would have been a captain.

Senior receiver Jordan Westerkamp said position coach Keith Williams addressed the loss of Foltz in a meeting.

“He’s very good with messages and he helps us,” Westerkamp said. “He told us, this is sad for Sam. But he also said it’s a wake-up call for the rest of us.

“He said people are saying a lot of great things about Sam right now. He said, ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ ”

Westerkamp knows exactly.

“Sam had a passion that was unmatched,” Westerkamp said. “I think the way to honor him is to live life to the fullest. Every play, every practice, every rep. It can all be taken away just like that.”

Most of the seniors answered questions about a sense of urgency, this being their last year, last chance to set a legacy. They have a new perspective on that.

“I remember talking to Sam about this year, our last year,” said fifth-year senior center Dylan Utter. “He said, ‘This is the year. Let’s do it now. It’s time to win the Big Ten.’

“All the stickers and stuff are nice, but the best tribute would be to win.”

That would be the storybook now, right? To stand on that podium at Lucas Oil Stadium, holding a trophy.

Some will see a mystical impact by Foltz, looking down from the heavens, and anytime NU gets a bounce or break or wins a close one, the narrative will be the Huskers had a 12th man on the field. And you know what? That’s OK.

On Saturday, at the funeral, two of Sam’s friends and hunting buds were saying just that.

“I wouldn’t want to play Nebraska this year,” said Tom Stepp.

Said Larry Stepp, Tom’s brother: “All those one-touchdown games last year might go the other way this year.”

There’s no telling. There’s no playbook. In 1985, after tight end Brian Hiemer committed suicide in August, Nebraska lost its opener 17-13 to a very good Florida State team. The Huskers then won nine straight before finishing 9-3 with losses to Oklahoma and Michigan (Fiesta Bowl).

Could Foltz provide an inspiration? Yes. But as Riley said, every player will handle this differently. Some were close to Foltz. Some weren’t. Some might raise their level. Others might be in a funk.

Put a whole team of different reactions together, and you have this season.

Chances are the Huskers will not be thinking of Foltz when it’s a six-point game in the fourth quarter against Oregon. Or the first series at Wisconsin. Under the lights at Ohio State.

They’ll be thinking about the business at hand. As they should. As Foltz likely would insist.

But could the No. 27 serve as an inspiration along the way? Absolutely. A story in the locker room or the road hotel that brings a smile. A glance at the empty locker before heading out to practice.

It’s risky business to say you’re playing every game for Foltz. It’s a good way to have the emotional tank go empty. If you lose, you feel like you’ve let your brother down.

The way to get through this will be to keep it simple, and Riley seemed to have a good plan.

“My personal advice is, do it like he did it,” he said. “Enjoy it like he did.”

If looking at that 27 reminds them to play this game with a relentless joy and passion — to play with focus and efficiency and take daily pride in their craft — then it won’t matter what the record says. They will have honored him.

Then again, if they all play like Foltz would play, this is going to be one heck of a ride.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

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