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I never met Sam Foltz personally.
We had some mutual friends. We went to rival high schools about an hour apart from each other and may have met in passing, but he was also a few years younger than me.
So when I heard of his passing early Sunday morning, I couldn't figure out why it bothered me so much. I'm a big Husker fan, yes, but I don't let Husker happenings control my life (outside of game day, according to my wife). As the day went along, I finally figured out why it bothered me.
It's the same reason that Brook Berringer's death still hurts so much for a generation of fans. He lived out my, and many more young Nebraskans, dream.
A small-town kid, Foltz grew up in Greeley, about an hour away from our office in Neligh. His mom was a nurse for Grand Island Public Schools, so he made the journey there to attend school while his dad worked on the family farm in Greeley. He used to go out in the fields and practice punting and chasing the ball. He grew up playing a variety of sports just like many other young Nebraskans, albeit with a little more talent than most of us.
The first time I watched Foltz play football was actually his senior year of high school. I was a student at the University of Nebraska-Kearney at the time, where Kearney High plays its football games. Grand Island was in town for the annual rivalry games, and I had heard good things about Grand Island's quarterback, Ryker Fyfe. I figured it'd be a fun game to go to. Once the game got going however, Foltz really stole the show.
I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what his exact stats were. I do remember him making a few big plays at receiver, playing great defense from his safety position and booming a few jaw-dropping punts to pin Kearney High deep in their territory. When I heard a few months later that he had decided to walk-on to Nebraska as a wide receiver, I wasn't too surprised.
All reports from his redshirt season mentioned how athletic he was. He likely would have made an impact as a receiver for the Huskers, too. However, when the graduation of Brett Maher left a void at the punting position, Foltz made the switch to the less glamorous position to get on the field sooner and help the team. His freshman year was full of promising moments and shaky moments, but he eventually worked to shape himself into one of the best punters in the nation and in school history.
He did what countless young Husker fans dreamed of doing. He grew up and joined the home-state program. Despite not getting the scholarship offer he wanted, he worked hard and eventually earned one as a sophomore. He made his way from an almost unknown walk-on to a star on his favorite team. He did it all with a drive that could be an inspiration to many. His drive was exemplified in a tweet he sent out just a few days ago.
"I'm a walk on who wasn't recruited," the tweet read. "I'm not entitled to anything, all I do is put my head down and work."
He did work. He worked hard. He never lost his sense of himself though. He was active in the community, so much so that he was named to the 2016 Brook Berringer and Tom Osborne Citizenship Teams. According to his biography, he spent time doing hospital visits, helping with School is Cool week, the Lincoln Marathon and Nebraska's Sportsmanship Rally. All of that in between classes, studying and working to keep his earned spot on the Huskers' roster.
He made it a point to maintain a good image of himself and be a mentor for young kids. He was so influential to young children that Kevin Sjuts, sports director for 10/11 News in Lincoln, could barely keep his emotions together when telling a story of his son and Foltz. His son looked up to Foltz so much that when his first grade class had "Superhero Week," he invited Sam Foltz of all people to join them at school. Foltz had done so much for this kid and was so influential to him that the younger Sjuts considered him to be larger than life.
Foltz knew kids looked up to him. He didn't let it get to his head. Instead, he used it as a platform to improve the world around him. Four days before his death, he sent out a Tweet with a photo attached of Foltz and other Huskers jogging with kids at the Uplifting Athletes Road Race outside of Memorial Stadium. One kid in particular was jogging with Foltz and is looking up at him with a look of pure fascination.
"You never know who's watching," the Tweet said. "What impact do you wanna leave on the next generation to aspire too?! #dreambig"
Like Brook Berringer before him, Sam Foltz lived out a Nebraska boy's dream. He did it through hard work, humility and leadership. He aimed to inspire others.
He did inspire others. He connected with Nebraskans in ways he never intended. Thank you for that Sam. Rest easy now.