LINCOLN — At the end of the specialists’ portion of football practice, Nebraska special teams coordinator Bruce Read would sometimes gather his kickers, punters, snappers and holders for a brief word.
When Read was done, he said, he’d turn to Sam Foltz.
“I’d just look at Sam and say, ‘what else?’ ” Read said Tuesday. “He was definitely the leader of that crew.”
As Nebraska football continues its grieving process after Foltz’s death — and prepares for his Saturday funeral in Grand Island — Read said he’s just trying to recover from losing a beloved guy in his room.
“It seemed to get worse every minute on the first day,” Read said. “The next day was a blur. Today you’re still trying to cope with everything.”
Foltz, he said, was the kind of kid you’d want to coach. Or have for a teammate. After news broke that he had died in a Wisconsin car crash, Read and other specialists just tried to talk about Foltz — who he was, how he approached football and life — and console one another.
The one player who probably needed consoling the most — kicker Drew Brown — was finally able to address the team Tuesday morning. Brown was in a different car from Foltz the night of the crash, but he and ex-Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer found the accident site after Foltz, LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler — who also died in the crash — didn’t make it to Meyer’s house.
Brown was a hub of information for two days for teammates and coaches, including Read himself. The kicker was right in the middle of learning the worst about Foltz and communicating that to others. The fact that Brown was able to just talk to the team, Read said, was a step toward healing.
“Drew and Sam had been joined at the hip since Drew got here,” Read said. “He’s struggled with the fact that they were together for that whole trip — except they got in separate cars. On the same plane, on the same bus, on the same field — except for that one time they split up.”
Read said he expects “great things” from Brown this season. Brown may have been the Big Ten’s best kicker by the end of last season, and he rarely missed in spring practice. Foltz was his holder.
Addressing the pieces around Brown — and snapper Jordan Ober — will be a struggle that Read has to address quickly with fall camp nearing. It’s hard for him to even conceive the need to replace Foltz. He looked at a personnel sheet — and saw Foltz’s name. He looked at some film he’d prepared for camp. Foltz is all over it.
“Oh, man, it’s going to be hard,” Read said.
He’ll ask his players not to try to carry the “burden of the whole football team on their shoulders.” He’ll look for a holder to work with Brown — “you don’t just drop anybody in there” — and a new punter. Read, who worked in pro football, said Foltz was a surefire NFL guy — “ I’ve coached a lot of ’em. There’s no doubt in my mind.” He’d already been a good mentor to NU’s backups, walk-on Isaac Armstrong from Lincoln Southwest and freshman scholarship punter Caleb Lightbourn from Washougal, Washington.
At Sunday’s prayer vigil remembering Foltz, Lightbourn stepped out of the crowd to offer his own brief memories of Foltz, who was helping Lightbourn refine his punting technique.
“The special thing about Sam was — even though I was behind him, he took me under his wing and wanted to make me better,” Lightbourn said. “He wanted to make sure that, no matter what happened, not only was he improving himself but the people who were coming after him.”
Lightbourn said he’d try his best to follow Foltz. Nebraska had planned on redshirting Lightbourn this season.
“There’s no way I could ever replace him,” Lightbourn said. “But knowing I had the opportunity to work with him — even though it was a short amount of time, only 2½ months — I became a better person in that short of time. I’m a better person because of Sam.”
Read said the same thing. He was much older than Foltz, but learned from him. He said Foltz’s teammates did, too, and those lessons would help the specialists process their grief and come together.
“If there was any hint of feeling sorry for themselves or backing off or not having a full-on, 100 percent attitude, Sam would punch you right in the mouth,” Read said. “We all know what Sam would want us to do. And that would be to grind, and work and represent and do the best we can.”
“And it helps me somewhat, thinking ’bout that,” he continued. “Knowing his attitude. Phenonemal work ethic. Self-made guy. Happy. Everything you want in a player and teammate. He was — fantastic.”