The surviving namesake on the Big Ten’s Eddleman-Fields Award met the reigning winner last December in Indianapolis. Brandon Fields liked Sam Foltz almost instantly.
Their conversation was short, “but he seemed like a good kid,” Fields, the former Michigan State punter, said of Foltz, the 2015 recipient of the honor that bears his name. “Other than that, the conversation as a whole was very good, very pleasant.”
Another week, another tribute, another tear. When Nebraska brought out a punt team with 10 men — and no punter, signifying the loss of the Cornhuskers specialist, who was killed in July along with ex-Michigan State punter Mike Sadler during a one-car crash in Wisconsin — in the opener against Fresno State, the Bulldogs declined the penalty.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and kicker Matt Wogan made a point last Saturday before the Ducks played Nebraska at Memorial Stadium to place a bouquet at the 27. Foltz’s old number.
Oregon brought flowers. Northwestern’s players will wear helmet stickers honoring No. 27 when they host Foltz’s friends and brothers this weekend. Illinois’ players recently printed up T-shirts that pay tribute to both Foltz and Sadler:
— Illini Specialists (@UofISpecialists) September 20, 2016
Class supersedes rivalries, boundaries.
It’s time for the Big Ten to step in. And step up.
The Foltz-Sadler Award.
Put their names on the trophy.
Or, better yet, create a trophy to put their names on.
In December 2010, the league announced a series of best-of-position awards, each named after a pair of the most outstanding examples in league history at that particular vocation. The quarterback of the year is named for Purdue signal-callers — yes, kids, there was a time when the Boilermakers groomed capable quarterbacks for themselves, rather than exporting them to the SEC — Bob Griese and Drew Brees; the linebacker of the year is named for Dick Butkus at Illinois and Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, and so on and so forth down the line.
The newly created punting award was bestowed in honor of two men: ex-Illinois great Dwight “Dike” Eddleman and Fields. The former was arguably the greatest multisport athlete in Illini history, a man who played in the Rose Bowl, jumped in the 1948 London Olympics and became a two-time NBA All-Star. Fields was an All-American at Michigan State in 2004, an Academic All-American, and a Pro Bowler with the Miami Dolphins in 2013-14. He received the Nat Moore Award, presented to the Dolphins player who excels in service to the community, in 2011 and 2012.
And here’s the kicker: If the Big Ten wants to add Foltz and Sadler’s names to the punter-of-the-year award, well, he’s good with that, too.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Fields said. “I’d be up for anything more. Whatever they decided to do, I’d be behind it.”
The Foltz-Sadler Award.
Make it stick.
It could be about punting, and punting alone. But it would be even better, even more apropos, if it wasn’t.
At a time when the headlines reminded us daily what was wrong with big-time college athletics, Foltz and Sadler provided a breath of fresh air, a beacon of light. Sadler was a 2013 Ray Guy Award semifinalist and the first four-time Academic All-American in Michigan State history. An NFL prospect, Foltz had a million-dollar leg and a trillion-dollar heart; the Greeley, Neb., native was a five-time member of the Nebraska Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll and the 2016 recipient of the Huskers’ Student-Athlete HERO Leadership Award.
While he has a standing invitation by the conference to attend the Big Ten championship game every year, Fields doesn’t have a say in who wins the league’s punter-of-the-year award. Or whose names wind up on the trophy.
“I know they haven’t approached me about (whether) they were thinking of something along those lines,” the former Dolphins specialist said. “But at the same time, if they were going to make that decision, I doubt they would ask.”
Eddleman, a basketball All-American who led the Illini to the 1949 Big Ten hoops title and a Final Four, passed away in 2001. Fields kicked with the Spartans from 2002-2006; Sadler joined Michigan State in 2009.
“I believe we kicked together once,” Fields said of his fellow Spartans specialist. “When I went and helped out with a Michigan State punting camp, I had kicked a little bit afterward with him.”
They even had the same agent at one point, back in 2015, after Sadler’s collegiate eligibility was up and he was trying to get an NFL foothold.
“I got to know him a little bit, talked to him some,” said Fields, who punted with the Dolphins from 2007-2014 and with the New Orleans Saints last fall.
Sadler and Foltz were working as clinicians at Kohl’s Kicking, Punting and Snapping camps this past summer when the fatal accident occurred; Fields recounted similar experiences — and similar camaraderie — as a collegian at various ProKicker.com camps.
“Similar concept,” the NFL punter said. “I mean, it was the same (deal) with guys, where we’d finish a camp and be driving through the night to get to the site of the next camp the next day, rinse and repeat. And I definitely know what they were doing and what they were going through, just kind of the day-to-day grind of working the camps.”
Which made the tragedy hit closer to home, even from miles away. Especially when Fields realized one of the victims this summer was the well-spoken, bright, courteous young punter who’d made a point to reach out at Indianapolis the previous December.
“That kind of made it even more surreal,” Fields said. “Because the names sounded familiar when I’d heard the news about it. And when it dawned on me (who they were), that made it more sad and surreal.”
The Foltz-Sadler Award.
Make the sad count for something.
Make the memorial permanent.
“Obviously, it was an honor to be named to the award to begin with,” Fields said.
“If the Big Ten chooses to do something else or to put their names on it instead, something for people to memorialize those two guys, it’s not like I’m going to argue or be kind of up in arms about it.”
When your program changes its uniform in your honor, that’s a tribute. When other programs in your league change their uniform in your honor, that’s a legacy. The kind worthy of bronze and stone. The kind worthy of forever.