The corn fields of Greeley County seem to stretch forever, over the hills and through the dust and into the horizon. Harvest season is a test of endurance. Days end after midnight. Chores start before dawn.
“I always told the kids, it doesn’t take long to sleep three hours,” Gerald Foltz said.
The break comes on the weekend. That’s when the Foltz family leaves the International combine behind, packs the Honda Pilot and heads east. Sometimes 150 miles to Lincoln. Sometimes much, much farther.
They planned on seeing every game of Sam’s last season as a Husker. After his death on July 23, a plan became a vow.
“It wouldn’t feel right if they weren’t there,” kicker Drew Brown said.
The night of the season opener, the Foltz family presented Brown with the inaugural scholarship bearing Sam’s name. They had just arrived at their seats when Nebraska’s punt unit took the field without a punter, a tribute to No. 27. The Foltzes were all over the big screen that night. Unlike Sam, they don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight.
Two weeks later, Gerald pressed against the chain-link fence behind Nebraska’s bench, joining the postgame mob in congratulating the Huskers — Sam had circled the Oregon game.
At Northwestern, Gerald was struck by how many strangers approached him. Reminded him of the letters that arrive in the mailbox from all over the country, some from people who knew Sam, some from those who didn’t.
“Just had no idea that kid touched so many lives,” Gerald said.
At Indiana, the Foltzes met Karen Sadler, whose son, Mike, was driving the car that slid off the road and killed two of football’s brightest young punters.
“You can imagine,” Gerald said. “Lot of emotion.”
Perhaps the most valuable supporters, though, are Sam’s teammates. After the funeral, one of Sam’s uncles pulled Tommy Armstrong aside at the church and asked a favor. The public attention would wane as weeks went by, he told the quarterback. Loneliness would set in. Don’t forget Sam’s family.
The Huskers haven’t. When fall camp started, Mike Riley extended an invitation. Come down anytime you want. Anytime you need.
Gerald visited practice a few times, just like he did last year. He trades weekly text messages with several players, not to mention Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone and LSU’s Colby Delahoussaye. And every week during pregame warmups, he greets the Husker kickers.
“Without having them along, I don’t know where I’d be mentally,” Brown said. “Just seeing them be OK brings a lot of strength to me.”
Said Armstrong: “We’re all open arms. They’re like our family.”
Back home in Greeley County, where Gerald’s eight-row cornpicker rolls under the stars and over broken stalks, his mind is free to wander. Doesn’t take much to spark a memory. Like last fall, when Sam hurried home for deer hunting season. He only needed a couple hours.
“I remember that like it was yesterday,” Gerald said. “He took off running down a canyon and damn near caught the deer.”
In the process, Sam got hung up on a piece of barbed wire. He’s lucky he didn’t tear his leg off, Gerald said.
“He was like an old hound dog after a coyote.”
Come Friday, the Foltz family continues its own chase, this trip a little tougher than the first two. Sixty miles east of Madison, Wisconsin, is Beaver Lake Road, a wooded two-lane with no shoulder and a sharp curve. The crash site. The Foltz family will likely see it for the first time.
Then it’s back in the car, 600 miles home. Another week in the fields followed by 900 miles to Ohio State. Harvest won’t be finished for another couple weeks, but the Foltz family isn’t resting now. Senior year doesn’t last forever.
All these close games — all these fourth quarters that fell Nebraska’s way — “sure as hell make you wonder,” Gerald said. Are the Huskers getting a little help from Sam?
“He always dreamed of a season like this.”