GREELEY, Nebraska — Even though Sam Foltz’s football skills were honed on a high school field in Grand Island, he always honored his roots in this Irish farm town.

When he trotted onto the field at Memorial Stadium, the announcer boomed: “Sam Foltz. Punter. Small-town, USA. Greeley, Nebraska.”

“He was just like one of us. And he had every right in the world to act like a stud,” said Josh Goodrich, a family friend from Greeley, on Monday.

“It’s a heartbreaker,” said Sandy Rother from his desk at the Henderson State Bank. “It’s all you can think about and talk about. Everybody knows the family.”

If a town could cry, tears were pouring down the face of Greeley on Monday.

Word of Foltz’s death in a one-car accident in rainy Wisconsin late Saturday started circulating around town on Sunday afternoon.

By Sunday evening, a group of a dozen local farmers were putting up hay and checking center-pivots at the Foltz farm in a solemn, small town tradition when there’s a death in a family.

By Monday, the message boards at both of the town’s banks asked for prayers and peace for Foltz and his family.

In somber tones, townspeople remembered Foltz, 22, as a regular pickup-driving guy who never let his football success change him. He came back to Greeley often, pitched in at the town rodeo and once even helped the Fire Department put out a grass fire.

Many drew parallels to another humble Husker football player who died tragically in the prime of his life, just as he was about to achieve even greater glory: Brook Berringer, a tall, strong-armed quarterback who died in a small-airplane crash just prior to the NFL draft in 1996.

“Someone called me after church (Sunday) and asked had I heard,” said Ed Smyth, who grew up playing Little League baseball with Foltz, and still keeps in touch regularly. “I went home. I needed to be alone.”

Foltz’s family moved an hour’s drive away to Grand Island when he was 10 after his mother, Jill, got a job there as a school nurse. But the family never really left Greeley, a town that bills itself as the home of 466 people “and a few old crabs.”

The Foltzes kept their farmhouse south of town and Sam’s father, Gerald, commuted to work the fields of corn, alfalfa and soybeans with Sam’s older brother, Jordan, who lives across the road from the home place.

When it was harvest or planting season, you’d frequently find Sam back on a tractor in Greeley, pitching in. The whole family would be around on many weekends, and Sam, when he didn’t have a game or wasn’t working a kicking camp, would be back, too.

He was just back a couple of weeks ago, and he had already laid plans to go fishing later this week with his dad at nearby Pibel Lake, said a family friend, Marty Callahan, publisher of the weekly Greeley Citizen newspaper.

“He was a small-town farm boy. That’s who Sam was,” Callahan said.

Smyth, who just took a job as a radio sportscaster in Kearney, said that there were only three boys in their grade growing up in Greeley, so they played together on the Little League, T-ball and coach-pitch baseball teams.

Foltz, Smyth said, texted him on Wednesday to ask how he was doing. He was busier this summer, working kicking camps put on by Jamie Kohl, a former kicker and punter at Iowa State. But this fall, Smyth expected that Sam would be back in Greeley to join in a hunt for coyotes or pheasants.

“He said if he ever got a chance to play in the NFL, he’d love that,” he said. “But he was always so down to earth. He’d say he’d have to work hard every day to get there.”

His childhood dream was to play baseball at Arizona State. His backup plan was play football for Nebraska. So he walked on with the Huskers, turning down full-ride scholarships to other schools.

Callahan and others recalled that when Foltz came to Greeley, he’d melt into the crowd, just like one of the guys. But when asked for an autograph, he’d kindly oblige.

Smyth said that Foltz always included a Bible verse on his Facebook page. His priorities were “faith, family and football,” in that order, he said.

This was going to be an especially big year for Foltz. He was a senior and had just been named to the “watch list” for the Ray Guy Award, honoring the nation’s best collegiate punter. An NFL tryout? People here expected it.

But now, the unthinkable was still sinking in. A tragic accident had snuffed out a great guy, a local hero, at age 22. People were speechless with shock, awaiting a funeral they never expected.

“The community had a lot of pride in Sam,” said Smyth’s father, Jerry, a farmer who drives the bus for the local high school’s sports team.

“This is like a death in the family,” he said.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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