MADISON, Wis. — In any other year, at any other moment, he’s in that car. Ninety-nine times out of 100, Rafael Gaglianone is riding with Mike Sadler to Drew Meyer’s house that night, singing with Sam Foltz, laughing like there’s no tomorrow.
“But I took the freshman punter here, Connor Allen, to the camp with me,” Gaglianone, Wisconsin’s junior placekicker, explained during the Badgers’ football media day. “We were staying at his house for the first time in three years. That’s mainly the only reason why I didn’t go in that car, didn’t go to Drew’s with them.”
Late last month, Gaglianone was working a Kohl’s kicking camp in greater Milwaukee. At the end of one rainy evening, he zigged and fate zagged. A car driven by former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler — a car with Foltz, Nebraska’s senior punter, and LSU punter Colby Delahoussaye as passengers — was involved in a one-car accident en route to the home of Meyer, the ex-Badgers punter.
Sadler’s car slipped on a winding road wet from recent rains, according to a Waukesha County police report. Delahoussaye suffered minor injuries was taken to a local hospital, while Sadler and Foltz were pronounced dead at the scene.
“So it’s even tougher, because it was kind of a last-second decision,” Gaglianone recalled. “I was like, ‘No, I’m going to stay with Connor, but I’ll see everybody tomorrow. And don’t miss me too much.’
“And then the next thing you know, he’s not coming back.”
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Gaglianone will wear No. 27 this fall in honor of Foltz, his friend and confidante, his brother-in-arms for more than two years. A psychologist might label the gesture as survivor’s guilt, but the truth is a lot more complicated than that.
“I always looked up to Sam so much,” the Badgers kicker explained. “I just wanted to have a reminder, every day, that we are blessed to see another day. We’ve got to be thankful. Keep your mind on the little things, you know?”
Foltz, 22, was into the little things. And big things, such as teammates. Teammates and kids. Especially kids:
— Sam Foltz (@samfoltz27) July 19, 2016
They’d first met two summers ago, introduced to one another at a Kohl’s camp by Meyer, a few months before Gaglianone’s freshman year at Madison.
“He was the type of guy from Day 1, he treated me like one of his good friends,” the Badgers’ kicker recalled. “Coming from a small town, he made you feel like you were the special one at that moment. That kind of spoke volumes to me.”
Foltz, a three-year starter who led the Big Ten in punting average last fall (44.2 yards per attempt) was an outdoors type from Grand Island, Neb.; Gaglianone, is a surfer and life sciences communications major from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
And yet they bonded almost instantly, sharing the same drive, the same core values, the same sense of humor, the same lack of ego.
From the day i met you i have looked up to you, not only for what you could do on the field but mostly for the person you were outside of it. You have impacted my life and the life of so many around you, there is not a single person that ever talked to you and did not love you. Like many of the kickers and punters i have been fortunate enough to meet during camps, you were like family to me. I am truly blessed to have gotten to know you and call you my friend over this past 3 years!! You have made me a better person and i will never forget our times together. This season is for you my brother!! #RIP27
A photo posted by Rafael Nogueira Gaglianone (@gaglianone10) on
“(He) was probably going into the NFL as a punter, but to be (remembered) that way, it would be a disservice to him,” Gaglianone said. “That just speaks of how much he is as a person. He’s just a dude. A guy that everybody likes to be around.
“It was just a real tough week. Just kind of going through everything, being so close to home at that moment. And spending those last few days, spending the whole last day with him, talking to him, going places with him.”
During last month’s camp, Gaglianone recounted his journey for the staff and the tenderfoots, from Brazil to homesickness in Chattanooga, Tenn., to a firm footing in Madison. Foltz, who was hearing some of the details for the first time, came away floored.
“I wish you would’ve told me that,” Foltz told him afterward. “Because that kind of speaks volumes of you, too.”
“You’re the guy I look up to,” Gaglianone replied. “You’re the guy me and half the camp looks up to. You’re just the dude.”
“Just — he was the dude,” the Badgers junior continued. “You can’t describe it any better than he was just awesome in every way, and everybody loved being around him.
“Sam was the kind of guy who always had this smirky smile. He was just always proving to you that he knew so much stuff. Not even in a cocky way. And just was always so funny with all the stuff that he would do.”
Gaglianone remembered Foltz telling him he ran a sub-4.50 40-yard dash late in his high school days. It never quite sunk in until Nov. 15, 2014 at Camp Randall Stadium, when the Cornhuskers punter took off from deep in his backfield on 4th-and-11 in the second quarter. Foltz zoomed to the right boundary and lowered his shoulder, barreling over Wisconsin defender A.J. Jordan — Gaglianone’s teammate — for a 14-yard gain on the fake:
The home sideline fell silent, save for one man going bonkers with joy. Teammates turned around and wondered what the devil Gaglianone was so excited about.
“And everybody on our sideline was like, ‘What are you doing? He just crushed A.J.,’ ” the Wisconsin kicker recalled with a grin. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, never mind.’
“But I looked at him and I was like, ‘I see you, boy.’ ”
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Gaglianone had followed through on his audible that Saturday night and gone to Allen’s. A short while later, the cellphone rang. Meyer.
“Drew called me and he’s like, ‘Did the guys leave already?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, they left,’ ” the Badgers kicker recalled.
“And then I didn’t think anything of it. So Drew never called me back. Never told me anything. He didn’t want to scare anybody.”
The pieces came together, slowly, late Sunday morning. Nebraska kicker Drew Brown came in for the next day’s pre-camp meeting, but folks started to wonder why Foltz, Sadler and Delahoussaye weren’t with him.
“That’s when we started getting really scared,” Gaglianone said.
The tension lingered, following them like a cartoon cloud. Gaglianone was next to Brown when the call came mid-day Sunday describing the accident, affirming the worst.
“And everybody was just in disbelief of everything that happened,” the Badgers kicker said. “It was just so quick. It could’ve been anybody. To lose a guy like that …
“You’re just having a good time with the guy 15 minutes before it happened. You don’t think much of it. You know, you’re not telling everybody you love them every time you say goodbye to them. But you know, you wish you did.”
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They’d kidded one another last October during warm-ups at Memorial Stadium, the usual repartee. I don’t want you to fail. I just don’t want you to get the chance to plunge a dagger right through the soul of our locker room.
“Please, no 50-yarder this year,” Foltz told Gaglianone as they went through their respective paces. “Don’t do us like that. Just don’t break our hearts.”
He broke them anyway, on a 46-yard game-winner with :04 left. Badgers 23, Huskers 21.
“I’ll never forget,” Gaglianone said. “That was a heartbreaking loss for them. He comes (over) with a huge smile on his face. He’s just really happy for you and for the type of guy you are. So we always kind of cheered for each other, regardless of whether we played together or not.
“He was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. I was hoping you weren’t going to have another chance, because I knew you were going to make it.’ So I was like, ‘I appreciate it. I’m sorry I had to do it, but it’s either you guys or me.’”
The inside jokes took on lives of their own. Occasionally, a few reached the outside, too.
During the third quarter of the Nebraska-Wisconsin game at Lincoln last fall, the public address system played their song. The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” which they’d adopted while tutoring field-goal sessions at Kohl’s a few years earlier.
I can’t feel my face when I’m with you …
Gaglianone looked for Foltz on the other side of the field. Foltz looked back. Before long, the two special teamers were lifting their arms, raising the roof in tandem.
“And so I just looked at him and just raised my hands up and just was going crazy,” Gaglianone said. “And he was, too.”
But at least we’ll both be beautiful …
And stay forever young …
“I want to be a better person, to carry that ‘27’ and try to be better at everything I do, especially off the field,” Gaglianone said. “It really doesn’t matter who you are on the field. It’s all about the person you are (inside).
“Nobody really cared that Sam was a baller. Nobody really cared that he was going to go into the NFL. He treated everybody like they were the special one. That’s what he meant to me and that’s what I’m trying to do now — just give all my attention to whomever I’m talking to, let them know that I care about them and those little things.
“That’s what it means to me to wear 27. It’s just a huge honor to carry on that. And hopefully be half the man he was.”
Forever beautiful. Forever young.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler