GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — As Nebraska’s football team began to grieve last week over the death of punter Sam Foltz, one of Foltz’s best friends, Spencer Lindsay, had some excellent advice for his teammates.
In the moments after Foltz’s funeral on Saturday, he repeated it for a couple reporters. Lindsay’s words carry weight because he has experience with grief. He lost his older brother, Matt, to bile duct cancer a little more than two years ago.
“Right now is hard,” Lindsay said. “When it gets really hard is a couple weeks down the line and a couple months down the line when media and Twitter isn’t talking about it as much, because they’ve moved on, but it’s still on your heart and your mind. When we’re really going to need each other is a couple weeks down the road and a couple months down the road, when things get incredibly hard. What I told guys (is) we need to continue to lean on each other even more moving forward.”
Nebraska starts practice this week. Over many years, players and coaches alike have said, preseason practice is a grind, with ample enthusiasm at the start before the “dog days” set in. At some point, fall semester classes get added to the platter, and it’s even more of a grind.
Foltz’s loss will weigh heavily on the team during camp. It’ll weigh heavily on coaches and even the media, which had come to look forward to a weekly conversation with Foltz.
The team will miss his energy, smile, friendliness — and, of course, his punting skill. But Foltz’s football talents were clearly a small part of his gift to Husker football. How he approached the game — and life — was the bigger gift.
Coach Mike Riley hinted at that during a brief interview after Foltz’s funeral. Riley has lost a player before — in late 2011 at Oregon State — so he understands the process teammates go through. He understands that players grieve differently and on different timelines. He said NU will find different ways to honor Foltz — preserving his locker, for example, and perhaps a helmet sticker — but Riley wants something else from his team, too.
“What I hope our team takes is Sam’s love for what he did,” Riley said. “That’s what stands out. If I could have anything passed on from Sam to all of us in what we do, is the passion in how he did it and how much fun he had doing it. You guys saw it. He loved it. He was so proud of it, and he was such a competitor at it.”
Foltz was also the team’s holder. This was an underrated role. You can’t just put any guy in that role, said special teams coordinator Bruce Read, because it takes practice time to be good at it — which can disqualify, for example, a starting wide receiver who is busy practicing offense — and it takes a certain composed personality.
The holder is responsible for making sure the extra point/field goal team is lined up right, responsible for timing, responsible for executing the rare fake.
“It takes a good athlete, it takes a smooth athlete,” Read said in an interview last week. “You can’t be mechanical. You’ve got to be cool. You’ve got be the quarterback of that field goal team.”
Foltz, Read said, was “lights out” in the holder role, especially since close friend Drew Brown was the kicker.
“Drew really grew as the season went on,” Read said.
Brown carries the biggest load here, having been the last Husker teammate to see Foltz. Brown is a transparent, thoughtful guy — and a very good kicker. He has a strong family support system and teammates who will come around him. Brown knows Foltz would have wanted teammates to forge ahead with the upcoming season. Perhaps that’s why, even though weight lifting was optional during Monday and Tuesday of last week, most of the Huskers went anyway — because that’s what Foltz would have wanted.
“It doesn’t seem like it, but we’ve got a season coming up, and we’ve got games to play, and I know Sam — for sure — would want us to focus on the games and focus on playing well and doing the best for our team,” Brown said. “It’s tough, but you have to be able to move forward, especially with the season coming up.”
It will be tough. Inside Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on Saturday in Grand Island, you saw the faces of Foltz’s teammates, but, more than that, you saw their hands, as so many held Foltz’s funeral program. Players tended to alternate reading from the back page of the program — which had Foltz’s obituary — to looking at the front page, which included a picture of Foltz.
A lot of players were running their thumbs over that picture.