Photo Credit: Brady Oltmans

Emotions Return at Sam Foltz Memorial Highway Dedication

July 24, 2022

GREELEY, Neb. –– While the vast majority of the gathered crowd wore white and red, Gerald Foltz wore black.

His sleeveless Blackshirts cutoff and camouflage shorts gave him some reprieve from the sweltering July mid-afternoon heat. The brim of his red Huskers hat continued to soak sweat from his brow. His sunglasses shielded his eyes from the elements and his tears from the crowd.

The middle-aged farmer would have looked as inconspicuous at one of his son’s ball games. Then he approached the podium. He wasn’t much of a public speaker, he clarified. He hoped not to talk anyone’s ear off. Then, after 90 seconds, his strong handshakes and jokes dissipated. Left behind was a father still grieving the loss of his son after six years. And while Sam Foltz’s place in Nebraska Cornhusker lore was cemented in the immediacy of his death––now made all the more permanent by the highway south of his hometown that shares his name––his family’s been left to mourn every day since.

In vulnerable moments, with his voice cracking, Gerald decided Sam’s coaches and teammates would talk about his son. Instead, he extended a hand to his family. Four unique, appreciated and loved children in all. And his wife, Jill, who he’s grateful for every day.

“If it wasn’t for her we probably wouldn’t have gotten through this thing,” Gerald managed.

The Sam Foltz Memorial Highway dedication ceremony, held July 15 on the Greeley County Courthouse lawn at nearly the six-year anniversary of Sam’s death, took years to happen. A formed committee started the project long before its application went to the Nebraska State Highway Commission last November. The commission unanimously approved the application at its next meeting. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ signature in February made it official. From now to forever, that 12-mile stretch of Highway 56 to the Boone County line is the Sam Foltz Memorial Highway.

Sam’s sisters, Betsy and Caroline, cut the ceremonial red ribbon from one of the memorial signs displayed for the occasion. One sign was already posted south of Greeley along Kildare Street. The sign on display for the ceremony will be placed near the turnoff to the Foltz family farm. Next to the sign was a picture of Sam in full Husker uniform and a framed “Foltz 27” game jersey. A pair of kicking shoes hung from its corner.

Marty Callahan, the event’s emcee, said these signs will prompt stories of Sam Foltz. Not just the football player but the person. How the central Nebraska farm kid capitalized on opportunities to become an inspiration. About how he wanted to return to his hometown after his NFL career. He was going to be a crop sprayer after being a millionaire. Out of respect for those unrealized dreams, two crop sprayers flew overhead during the dedication ceremony––just as they had during Sam’s funeral service in 2016.

Jill and Gerald Foltz at the Sam Foltz Memorial Highway dedication ceremony in Greeley, Neb., on July 15.

Jill, Sam’s mother, said just a few words before introducing Father Don Buhrman for the opening prayer. She returned to her seat, wiping tears away. Sam’s brother, Jordan, thanked the community in his brief speech. Tall, broad-shouldered and redhaired, he flashed the same wide smile before the ceremony. With a microphone on the courthouse lawn, however, he once again confronted the hole in his heart.

“When somebody else needs help you just go and you never think about it,” he said between composing breaths. “But it’s truly something else to be the one who needs help and you see it show up.”

Help arrived with the Foltz family’s hurt since July 24, 2016, when Sam died in a single-vehicle crash while returning from a kicking camp in Wisconsin. Former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler, the driver, was also killed. Colby Delahoussaye, a kicker at LSU at the time, survived the accident with stiches and burns. Nebraska players immediately held a vigil outside Memorial Stadium. Husker fans also placed flowers at the foot of a statue memorializing Brook Berringer, a former Nebraska football player who died in a plane crash in 1996. Fans have come to hold the two in similar regard. A painting at the Greeley ceremony showed Berringer in full uniform guiding Foltz from the famed Memorial Stadium tunnel into the light.

Berringer was also a native Nebraskan who, after moving to Goodland, Kansas, helmed the Nebraska offense for much of the 1994 season while legendary quarterback Tommie Frazier was injured. In much of the way Berringer’s story brought inspiration, Jordan Foltz hoped his brother’s tale would do the same. Not just to small-town dreamers but to everyone. He hoped those who aspired to greatness could see his brother’s name and know it could be done.

Through those aspirations and legacy retellings came the punter’s place as a folk hero. Because Sam Foltz actualized Nebraska folklore. Football-crazy small-town kids across the state grow up dreaming of playing for the Huskers. They hear the stories of the program’s fabled walk-on program. They’re told of the dedication, hard work and humility it takes to get there. And how with enough of all three could come the ultimate prize––a football scholarship. Sam did all those things.

Former Nebraska staffer Jeff Jamrog shared memories during the ceremony earlier this month. He said character helped Sam stand out. He could tell Sam came from a good family and good people. Jamrog remembered how he met with then-coach Bo Pelini about awarding scholarships to walk-ons. Sam was among the selected. Jamrog told him the news. An ecstatic young man corralled the coach for a hug. The assistant director of football operations then explained how that scholarship could be taken away. If that were to happen, the punter would have to wait an additional year for his next chance.

“Coach, you don’t have to worry about that one,” Sam told him. “You’re not getting that scholarship back.”

Brandon Reilly, another former walk-on, received his scholarship the same day. It’s a day that he’ll always remember––getting his scholarship with Sam. Reilly revisited his old teammate’s inspirational words, the ones printed on the back of t-shirts for the dedication ceremony. What impact do you want to leave on the next generation to aspire to? That’s the person Sam was. That’s his legacy, Reilly said.

Most said Sam could have played a different position. Former Nebraska assistant coach Barney Cotton said Sam was athletic and talented enough to roam the secondary as a safety. Instead, the Greeley native developed into a punter with credentials that would have made for a decades-long NFL career, Cotton said.

Dan Pensick, father of former Husker Cole Pensick and a former Husker himself, said Sam was the first punter he ever liked. It was an earned distinction. Pensick could count on Sam to kick the ball wherever he wanted. Then they got to know each other. Their bond grew with time. Eventually, he’d babysit Sam’s dog when the two were neighbors.

Former Husker Sam Hahn shared how they bonded over being small-town Nebraska guys. (Hahn is from DeWitt.) That upbringing followed them to Lincoln. Hahn reminisced how they’d take their trucks to UNL’s East Campus a few minutes early to drive through the first snowfall each year. He thanked the village of Greeley for raising his friend.

The new sign marking Sam Foltz Memorial Highway, a 12-mile stretch of Highway 56 south of Foltz’s hometown of Greeley, Neb.

In Greeley, as with most of the state, being a member of the Nebraska football team carries a special designation. It’s a society that draws attention years after graduation. The label follows forever as a military ranking would. Fittingly, the dedication ceremony happened among the Greeley County Veterans Memorial on the courthouse lawn. Names of service members bookended guests. An engraved stone memorial shadowed each speaker. An American flag canopy was raised to shade them. Like a decorated service vehicle leading the procession, a Nebraska football semi parked along Kildare Street in full view of the ceremony. The crowd, nearly all wearing a Nebraska football shirt or jersey out of respect for the fallen Husker, awed at the sight.

Despite the pageantry, emcee Callahan said the event was meant to be low-key. There was no flash, outside of a few TV cameras. Town hall and the adjacent library were silent behind the Nebraska football truck. Electric drills hummed from the car shop across the street. After all, it was still a work day and work still needed to be done.

“In other words, very Sam Foltz-like,” emcee Callahan said.

Pastor Arsene Lumami delivered the final blessing. The crowd basked in the cascading heat. Then, with the Nebraska fight song playing, everyone dispersed. Some of them walked to their cars, license plates showing different counties. A vanity plate––“SF 27”––parked a block south. Some cars were destined to drive the Sam Foltz Memorial Highway. They could ride its rolling hills at least to Boone County.

Most in the area likely will for years to come.

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