GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — “Amazing Grace” played as mourners took seats inside Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church Saturday for Nebraska punter Sam Foltz’s funeral. In the minutes before the prayer-and-hymn-filled service, some attendees looked intently at pictures of Foltz — wearing that friendly, confidence-giving smile — arrayed in the church’s foyer.
Shortly before the mass began, seven buses arrived from Lincoln.
They carried Nebraska’s football team, athletic department officials and university leaders, who came to grieve, pay respects and help carry the sorrow of losing a native son who was beloved by teammates and honored by a state with a long, firm reputation of coming together in tough times.
Husker coach Mike Riley saw it firsthand. He called the state’s collective outpouring of grief and support “a beautiful thing” in what has been a “heartbreaking week” after Foltz died at age 22 last weekend in a Wisconsin car accident.
“As you go through it, you find out more and more about people — the Foltz family, the Nebraska family, the state of Nebraska,” Riley said as he stood with two reporters in the food pantry of the church. The lights were off, and Riley spoke softly. “Everybody’s really tried to stay strong together. But it is sad. And it will be. We’re all very thankful for everybody who’s put their arms around us. This day is really a good indication of that.”
Husker football coaches and players — plus athletes and coaches from several other NU athletic programs — took up nearly one side of the church. An estimated 1,500 mourners attended, some of whom sat in the foyer and hallways on white folding chairs. The Rev. Don Buhrman — a priest at St. Leo’s, Foltz’s family church — presided over the service. He said Foltz “was there for others in a very real way.”
“He was focused on others,” Buhrman said, “and he gave his full attention and cared for others.”
Nebraska running back Graham Nabity read scripture; he was the only Husker player or coach to speak during the service. Several of Foltz’s teammates told stories and gave tributes the night before at a wake at Blessed Sacrament.
Most mourners had driven through a morning rainstorm that left large puddles on Grand Island’s streets. They parked in a nearby field, directed there by the Fire and Rescue squad from Foltz’s hometown of Greeley. Foltz’s family moved to Grand Island when he was in grade school, but the family still has a farm near Greeley, where Foltz had hoped to return one day.
A senior on Nebraska’s football team, Foltz had a “can’t-miss” NFL punting career ahead of him, Riley said, and strong friendships throughout the team. Not all punters could so easily make friends with other players, but Foltz was a four-sport athlete at Grand Island High School, and his outgoing personality allowed him to build bonds easily with all kinds of people.
“If you think about it as a celebration — which it really is — it makes it so much easier,” said Nebraska kicker Drew Brown. “There’s so many good things you can say about Sam, whether it was football or life or the wonderful family. It’s been really neat being able to reflect on all the wonderful times that we shared.”
Another close friend, kicker Spencer Lindsay, said Foltz would have been the best man at the weddings of three Husker teammates — at least.
“He had a way of making you feel like you were almost closer to him than you were,” said Lindsay, who told stories about Foltz at the Friday wake held in the church. “He made everyone feel extremely close to him, which is why he had so many friends.”
More to the point, Lindsay said, Foltz had no enemies.
His vibrant, friend-filled life led to a scene inside the fellowship hall after the funeral, where attendees ate barbecue sandwiches with homemade salads and desserts.
In a corner of the room sat Sam’s dad, Gerald, who received one Husker football player after another, each of them coming to express his condolences. This procession included players who’d just joined the team, like quarterback Tanner Lee, and Husker veterans, like safety Nate Gerry, whom Gerald Foltz locked in a long, back-slapping hug.
In the middle of the room, Riley chatted with fans as they approached. He marveled at the way Grand Island had rallied around the Foltz family and the team as a whole.
“This is an amazing sight,” Riley said. “It’s a show of everything — love, support, caring.”
He paused, shifting moods.
“It’s just sad,” he said.
It was a moving experience for Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst.
“Just thinking of him,” Eichorst said after pausing for a moment. “Sam lived a life of purpose, he lived a life of pride, he lived a life of passion. He left an indelible mark on how we all need to look at life, embrace life, live life, care about one another. He was the ultimate team guy, right? What did he say? Teamwork makes dreams work.”
Foltz’s service included seven hymns from green hymnals found in the Blessed Sacrament pews. The last of these songs, “O Loving God,” is common at funerals, in which the church sends a “son” home to God. Mourners began to exit the sancutary as the song played.
Gerald Foltz, weeping next to his wife, Jill, walked as they carried out the urn holding Sam’s ashes. The urn had a Nebraska scene — a windmill among the features — etched into its side. Foltz’s extended family was followed by the Nebraska contingent, led by Riley and Eichorst, who was arm in arm with Nebraska chancellor Ronnie Green. The line of players was long. Some — like quarterback Tommy Armstrong — were awash in grief, while others paused in front of the array of flowers and memorials for Foltz lined up on tables.
The memorials — like the attendees — reflected the diverse parts of Foltz’s life. A flower bouquet had a deflated football embedded in it. A .22 Golden Boy rifle — from lifelong deer hunting buddies — had been mounted in a display case by men who wore their orange hunting vests to the funeral. There was his Grand Island Senior High letter jacket. Bible verses dotted the scene.
Also on display was Foltz’s Nebraska letter jacket, red with the cream-colored sleeves.
Near the jacket sat a plaque.
“No words of farewell were spoken,” it read. “No time to say goodbye. You were gone before we knew it. And only God knows why.”
In the lunch room, an hour later, Brown — the last Husker to be with Foltz before he died — summed up the mood of the morning.
“Everyone loves Sam,” Brown said. “And he loved everyone.”