GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Sam is gone. And he is not gone.
This is the paradox in which Gerald Foltz lives.
The 57-year-old knows, as well as he knows the Nebraska soil and fickle Nebraska weather, that his youngest son is dead. He remembers standing at Sam’s wake for six hours and how that felt like five minutes. He remembers Sam being laid to rest in a spot off U.S. Highway 281 near Greeley. He also has the proof of Sam’s death on his phone, and with his smashed left thumb — he was setting a post, his thumb got in “the wrong place” — he scrolls through pictures. The blackened shell of a car that burned for 45 minutes. The tree it hit. A car, a hill, a curve, a wet road in the dark. The tree. The tree. The tree. If only the car had veered. If only a thousand other things ... Gerald is matter-of-fact about the sad facts of what happened. He feels the loss acutely. He says more than once that losing a child is, well, a hell of an experience.
And yet Gerald knows with a certainty rooted in faith that Sam is here. All around. With him. With them.
Sam is in the cacophony of a stadium on game day and in the silence of a combine cab at harvest.
He is in the things Gerald can touch, like footballs that come in the mail with Sam’s signature on them.
He is in things Gerald can see, like the photographs crammed onto the piano in the living room and the table in the dining room. Infant Sam at baptism, holy water dripping off his tiny head. Preschool Sam at Halloween, wearing a pumpkin costume. Senior High Sam at homecoming, in a dress shirt and slacks and crown. Husker Sam in his jersey, No. 27. Uncle Sam in an armchair holding his newest baby niece, Preslee.
Sam is here, in the family’s Grand Island home, which is stuffed with cards and memorials. He is in the graveyard an hour north by the Foltz farm in Greeley, where people keep leaving things like the silver firefighter badge from Jewell, Iowa.
Sam is even in the wind. On Senior Day, Gerald watched a balloon drift down, down, down to the 27-yard line. And stay there.
He’s in Gerald’s heart and on his mind and on his feet. Gerald lifts a jeans leg to show a brown cowboy boot. Sam’s. They both wear size 10½.
He’s also in Gerald’s pocket, in a slideshow of photos of his life — like his bruised, swollen, injured, naked foot he’d sent his father. And death, like the cross memorial a friend made out of horseshoes. It spells Amazing Grace.
Here, Gerald, says, and pulls up Sam’s text messages, 1,637 of them.
It’s how the father and son talked to each other. They didn’t really call. Gerald and Jill raised Sam to be independent and to know his folks were there if he needed. Sam didn’t seem to need. But he came home a lot, and before he left Lincoln, he would bang out a message: What’ve you got for me to do? On a farm, there’s always something to do.
The last string of messages between father and son occurred July 23, hours before the accident.
The conversation eerily foreshadows what is to come.
You guys getting rained out again? he’d texted Sam.
Sam: Yep, raining right now and has been all afternoon.
Gerald: How’d you guys do. And yeah, if you have some rain, bring some rain home.
Sam: Doesn’t look good. Probably gonna be a long day tomorrow.
Gerald: Hang in there.
Sam: Will do.
“The last thing he texted was, ‘Will do,’ ” Gerald notes almost curiously.
His thumbs fly on the phone. A slideshow. Football games here and there. Kickers from this team and that. An ESPN reporter who gave a special tribute. A wheat field where someone had disced Sam’s initials and his Husker number, 27.
It’s all so surreal, so strange. This attention. The myth-making of a young man whose own feet were firmly planted on the ground. And at home, he was Sam first, and No. 27 a distant second.
Gerald chuckles wistfully at the memories of a Sam fans never saw. The Sam who accompanied him to O’Neill to buy farm equipment or sat next to him at a Fourth of July tailgate in Greeley. Friends would say: How’s your boy doing down there in Lincoln? And Gerald would say: Why don’t you ask him? He’s right here.
Sheepishly because he didn’t want to sound boastful, Gerald said he walked into the Greeley Citizen to get “some therapy” from his friend, the publisher. Gerald ribbed Marty Callahan, asking how come Sam never cracked the front page of the small-town weekly. He said Callahan told him he was wrong and talked about that one issue where Sam was featured — along with others — for his work putting out a grass fire.
Gerald described how he’d been to plenty of funerals and had friends who lost children, but nothing, nothing prepared him for losing his own.
“Whoever thought you’d have a kid die?”
But on this cold December day, nearly five months after Sam was killed, Gerald did not sink into his grief. “Just got to look at it as part of the Big Guy’s plan,” he said.
Gerald said he’s tried to be grateful in the face of loss.
“I could be mad at God,” he said. “Or I could change my thinking and thank him.”
Gerald said he got Sam for 22 years. And he tries to focus on that. And what he still has: three other children who need their dad. Grandchildren who need their grandpa. His parents, who still need their son. His wife.
Gerald and Jill Foltz went to every Husker game this past fall and had to acknowledge Sam’s death with well-meaning fans and television cameras. Their private pain was made public, and I asked if that was torture. “Depends on what memories hit you,” Gerald said.
But the games gave him and Jill a place to be and a thing to do. The games provided both distraction and a chance to connect in a very real way with Sam’s teammates and coaches. Some text him still, every week. He’d look in the stands and be amazed at all the support, at all the love.
Instead of sinking into his own sadness, he rose up.
“You’ve got to be strong,” he said, “because they’re hurting.”
How would he confront the quiet Saturdays of the offseason? What would he do next fall?
He does not know. It is too soon to decide. He says that friends still call Sam’s phone to hear his voice on the recording.
“Eventually,” he said, “we’ll have to disconnect.”
During our interview, the youngest Foltz child, Caroline Perry, popped in to drop off her baby daughter for a couple of hours. Gerald scooped up his granddaughter, who is almost 6 months old. He bounced her in his arms, looked right into her eyes and cooed. And smiled.