Shatel: Nebraska's Sam Foltz helped unite a state in the way he lived

Sam Foltz's teammates brought his jersey to the field for every game during the 2016 season.

One year later, Sam Foltz lives on. In our healing hearts. In memories that are still so crystal clear.

One year later, I can still see the tears flowing down Mike Riley’s face as he left the church in Grand Island. Tommy Armstrong needing help out. So many grown men, reduced to putty.

That Golden Boy rifle. Meeting the Stepp family, from Wolbach, Nebraska, wearing the orange hunting vests they used to wear with Sam.

The kid in the No. 27 jersey, playing catch with the football, right outside the church where they held Sam’s funeral.

The chills down my back as I watched Nebraska line up without a punter.

Week after week, Big Ten opponents presenting jerseys and personal tributes to NU players and Gerald and Jill Foltz. And the pain on the parents’ faces that said they would do anything to have their son back. Mostly, I’ll remember everything I found out about a young man that I didn’t know until he left.

And how I wished I could turn back time and hang out with that young man.

One year later, I was asked to put Sam’s impact into words. Truthfully, I don’t necessarily want to remember how he died.

I most certainly want to remember how he lived.

Good son. True friend. Loyal teammate. The fun-natured boy with a sense of values, humor and adventure, who could be from any small town, any city in Nebraska. The kid next door. The kid upstairs.

The kid we parents all hope to raise, the person Nebraskans aspire to see each day when they look in the mirror.

Sam entered our lives because he was a Husker. But it was the way he chased that dream, as a walk-on, and then humbly handled it once it came true, that snagged our hearts.

There’s a little Sam in all of us, or so we hope, and I think that helped pull the state together last year in the wake of his death.

Nebraska football does that, of course. Winning does that. But so does loss, great loss.

People rallied around the players, the coaches and each other. Nebraskans were there, week after week, to lend a shoulder as Gerald and Jill accepted well-wishes from Big Ten strangers.

The mountain of letters and love that the Foltz family received last year came from mostly total strangers, but in the end, it felt like one big family.

Along the way, as Illini and Buckeyes and Hawkeyes paid tribute, Huskers felt more like part of the Big Ten family, too. And don’t forget Oregon and Fresno State.

And while Husker fans can and will debate the direction of the program — with extreme nonstop passion — it felt like the state came together to give the Foltz family one big hug. And each other, too.

The last two games were a bummer. But in the end, if we learned anything from Sam, it was that there was something bigger going on than 9-4. There’s a power, a spirit, in Nebraska football. And that was most evident in 2016.

So where do we go from here?

There’s an athletic scholarship in Foltz’s name. On Friday, NU released a video showing a plaque bearing Sam’s likeness that will greet the Huskers outside the locker room as they go out onto the field.

These are great. Allow me to add an idea to the mix:

Foltz was a sportsman. He was an All-Nebraska boy, comfortable on the football fields and the hunting fields.

But it was the way Sam lived his life, too. He represented sportsmanship. The games were important but the friendships and the ideal that how you played were even more the thing.

By all accounts, Mike Sadler, the Michigan State punter and Sam’s friend who perished with him in that car crash, was the same sportsman.

I’d like to propose a trophy for future Nebraska-Michigan State games (knowing full well they aren’t played every year), named after Foltz and Sadler.

The Sportsman Trophy.

It will honor the two young men and what they stood for: Win or lose, friendships matter. Sportsmanship endures.

And I think it’s fitting for two programs that already have a healthy respect for each other — two programs brought closer together last year by tragedy.

One year later, the legacy of Sam is that in the end, these silly games are so meaningless.

But this sport we love, and the kids who play it, mean so much.

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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