CHICAGO — I’ve written this column before, and I prayed I would never, ever have to do it again.
Twenty years ago last April, Nebraska quarterback Brook Berringer died in a plane crash. The tears on my keyboard had finally just dried.
Give me another towel.
One of the benefits of following college football is being around these young men at a great time in their lives — for many, it’s the time of their lives. It’s truly a joyful thing and a terrific escape from the cruelties of real life.
But real life just sucker punched us again.
Late Sunday morning, we got the news that Husker senior Sam Foltz, the punter next door, died in a car crash in Wisconsin on Saturday night.
I couldn’t type it 20 years ago. I struggle to type it now.
There’s no good timing for this, but, man, this is tough right now.
Husker Nation is numb today and will be shaken up for a long while. Nebraska football practice begins next week but there will be one fewer player reporting, one fewer dream out there, one fewer reason for joy.
The void will be felt as soon as Monday, when the Big Ten football teams and fans assemble for the annual media days. There will be 13 teams there. The Husker contingent is staying home, as it should, and thus begins a season like no other.
There’s no good reason to ask coach Mike Riley what he learned from last season. It seems inappropriate to talk about Jordan Westerkamp’s star power, to pepper Tommy Armstrong with questions about interceptions, to throw darts in July about how many wins Riley and Co. can find this season.
None of these things matters today.
What does is that a young man, a beautiful young man with a huge spirit, is gone.
The news spread throughout Nebraska on social media late Sunday morning, as several players posted the news on Twitter. News travels faster than ever these days, and that’s not a good thing in the case of bad news.
This was a stunner, and it’s not the first time Nebraska has been shook to its core before a football season.
Just three weeks before the 1985 opener and his senior season, tight end Brian Hiemer committed suicide at his parent’s farm near Shelby, Nebraska.
That one hurt because Hiemer was a former walk-on who seemed to have it all going, living the dream of every Nebraska kid. It was a mystery, explained away at the time by the pressures of big-time football and because we really don’t know the young men inside these uniforms.
We thought we knew Berringer. He was the face of the 1994 national championship season, a humble country kid from Kansas and a role model. Also, he was a quarterback, in the spotlight. His story was told over and over.
Punters are different. Punters don’t do many interviews, unless they have one blocked. Punters aren’t celebrities.
And yet, Foltz seemed to be different. He was a local legend born in Greeley who went to Grand Island High, a character from his beard to his lengthy hair, a role model with an infectious smile.
On Sunday night, Husker athletes and fans held a prayer vigil by the statues of Tom Osborne and Berringer. Some may find a symmetry in that, others may not care for the comparison.
I’m OK with it. I knew Berringer and remember him as a humble, religious young man who was popular with teammates. Someone they looked up to.
One of the cruel ironies of death can be that we finally get to hear about a person after they are gone. As I read some stories about Foltz on Sunday night — and heard Kevin Sjuts’ poignant report on Foltz on Channel 10/11 — it was like reading about Berringer all over again.
A generation later.
Foltz was the returning All-Big Ten punter, a thunderfoot with a big future. But he was really a good man who happened to punt.
Social media can be a bathroom wall that forever stains reputations. But Foltz had a couple of messages on Twitter that should be bronzed.
One was: “I’m a walk-on who wasn’t recruited. I’m not entitled to anything, all I do is put my head down and work.”
That tweet was a response to a post Foltz made about participating in a road race for Nebraska athletes July 19. The original came with a photo of a little boy running alongside and looking up at Foltz:
Foltz could boom a punt over 60 yards in the air, but his legacy will be in giant footsteps left for other young men to follow. He had the stature of a leader, and imagine, a punter who could be a captain and inspire.
At some point, we will wonder what impact Foltz’s death will have on the 2016 Huskers. Will it inspire? Will it pull the Husker family closer together, create a bond that wins on the road?
At some point, we will ask if Riley is capable of this Herculean task, leading a group of men through this rain storm that showed up on the eve of a season. He seems to have the savvy and maturity and compassion for it.
But those are things for another day, another week. Nebraska football will pick itself back up and move on. Young people are resilient, optimistic, able to take the pain and find the sun. They did in 1985, and they did again in 1996.
Life goes on, it keeps rolling, and in death’s debris, we have to collect the memories and find the stuff that matters.
Last Friday, I lost a dear friend of the press box and golf course, Denver Post sports scribe Tom Kensler. A bunch of his buddies posted memories on Facebook. And as I get older, I realize it’s not about the accomplishments you leave behind, the jobs and awards and cool events you covered. It’s not about what you wrote. It’s the friends and what they say about you. What they keep from what you left behind.
I thought about that all weekend, between tears, and I’ll think about it again today as I read more and more about “Sam the Punter,” as Riley affectionately called him. And I’ll think about how I was going to finally take the time to get to know the punter this season.