CHICAGO — You could count the holes.
The little ones on the schedule Monday at the Hyatt Regency, where the Nebraska Cornhuskers were slated to help open Big Ten Media Days.
And the big one. The big one right in the middle of Jamie Kohl’s heart.
“They were true friends of mine,” said Kohl, the director and coach of Kohl’s Camps — the kicking and punter camp Nebraska punter Sam Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler were staffing when both were killed in a Saturday auto accident — told LandOf10.com. “Both treated my family so well.”
And the family vibe went both ways. Foltz, Sadler and LSU punter Colby Delahoussaye, who was injured in the crash, spent the past weekend tutoring at Kohl’s, one of the largest and most esteemed specialist camps in the country.
Kohl said he even made a point to travel with his son, J.J., in the fall to watch both Foltz and Sadler play at their respective Big Ten programs.
“J.J. looked up to both as big brothers and specifically asked often about both young men because they were so great to him,” Kohl continued. “(Foltz) was going to be our top NFL recommendation after this fall season and Mike was headed to Stanford to become a lawyer.
“Sam helped at many Kohl’s camps this summer because he loved my staff and loved helping kids. Mike helped at many different Kohl’s camps this summer, as well as leading a Kohl’s division in Michigan.”
Foltz, Sadler and Delahoussaye worked a Kohl’s camp at Kettle Moraine High School in the Milwaukee suburb of Merton, Wis. According to the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office, Foltz was a passenger and Sadler was driving a car that lost control on a wet road and struck a tree.
The report indicated that Foltz and Sadler died at the scene and Delahoussaye called 911 to report the accident. The trio was reportedly heading to a private residence for the evening when the accident occurred.
Kohl said he planned to spend the rest of Monday with the families of the victims, trying to make sense of the senseless.
“They are both loved and missed,” Kohl said, “and loved by so many.”
The Huskers elected not to attend Media Days in Chicago after news of Foltz’s death stunned the Lincoln campus and left the Nebraska roster in shock. A prayer vigil was held Sunday outside Memorial Stadium.
Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys has walked more than a few terrible steps in Husker coach Mike Riley’s wingtips. The Gophers dealt with a sudden tragedy of their own in April 2012, when senior linebacker Gary Tinsley was found dead in his apartment with an enlarged heart.
“And we had to cancel (a few) practices,” Claeys said. “You have to do what’s best for your team and get your kids and take care of them.
“So my heart goes out to them — that’s a tough situation when young people lose their lives too early. But I’m sure Coach Riley will handle it (well), and as long as every day you go into your office, you remember you’re there for the kids, it’s easy to make the right decisions on how to handle that.”
The Big Red were out of sight Monday at the Hyatt Regency, but far from out of mind. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald opened the first news conference of the afternoon by offering condolences to both schools, their staffs and fans.
The Wildcats coach recalled recruiting Sadler, a four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection from 2011-’14 — at the time, only the 20th Spartans player to ever repeat that particular honor four times.
“He’s a ‘wow’ person, great family, just an unbelievable young man,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m sure it’s well-documented, and I don’t want to speak for (Michigan State coach) Mark (Dantonio about) the impact that he had there in East Lansing. I believe I read he was going to Stanford to go to law school. That’s (a) ‘wow.’ As a father and a parent and a coach who’s got 110 under his watch, (to see) a young man … going about his post-graduate work the way he was preparing to do. Just taken way too early. Way too soon.”
A candle burning bright one instant, snuffed the next. Sadler was writing the next chapter of a storybook academic journey. Foltz was the leading punter in the Big Ten (44.2 per attempt), a bona fide prospect with an NFL leg and a 24-karat heart.
“Just to be recognized as the Big Ten (punter) of the year, that was an unbelievable accomplishment,” Northwestern cornerback Matthew Harris said of the former Huskers star. “Just to think that a couple years ago, a year ago, he was on the field with me. Like you said, it’s about perspective. And I hate for it to happen. Again, thoughts and prayers go out to those families.”
It’s a fine line, especially at that age, that gilded 16-to-23-year-old window when you think you’re invincible, when you know everything and nothing in the same step. A coach wants nothing more than to see a kid spread those wings, so long as they make it back to the nest in one piece.
In the meantime, like parents, they hold their collective breaths. Every time.
“You always do,” Claeys sighed. “You always do. But at the same time, you can’t keep them caged up all the time, and you’ve got to let them go. And part of growing is going out and taking advantage of those experiences. You just hope for the best and that they’ll make good decisions. It’s a tough world to be safe in sometimes.”
And getting tougher by the day.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler