GREELEY, Neb. — It’s a quiet afternoon, warm and a little sticky from the humidity, but not too bad as the clouds pass back and forth in front of the sun.
A couple of young girls are riding their bikes down O’Neill Ave., a road that runs through the heart of town. Down that road to the west, a few pickup trucks pass by, the drivers lifting a finger from the steering wheel to say hello.
Every Saturday during football season, Sam Foltz introduced himself to Husker fans on Memorial Stadium’s big screen: “Sam Foltz, punter. Small Town, USA.”
Greeley is that small town. Depending on which route you take, it’s about 2 1/2 hours northwest of Lincoln. Foltz loved every inch of it. While he attended and graduated from Grand Island Senior High School, his heart was always an hour to the north.
On July 23, 2016, Foltz died in a car accident near Merton, Wis. Yet his memory is vivid here in Greeley. It’s found on mailboxes painted red with his name. It’s on the back of cars and pickups with red 27 stickers. One drive around town shows just how much Greeley loved him back.
His memory lives on through his friends. Those closest to him – from Greeley to his Agronomy classes at Nebraska – knew Foltz as much more than just the Huskers’ punter. He was the kid from Greeley who loved to hunt, dream about his future farm and spend time with those he loved the most.
Botany 109 and a farm in Montana
Jared Seier first met Foltz at a party before his sophomore year at Nebraska. He noticed Foltz talking to a couple of his friends, so he introduced himself. They quickly hit it off.
“The thing about Sam is that he would go out of his way to talk to you,” Seier said. “He was a real sociable person, real vibrant and easy to get along with.”
Not long after, Seier showed up for his first day of Botany 109 on East Campus. Having switched from a physical therapy major to agronomy, Seier looked around the room for any familiar faces. He spotted Foltz and took a seat next to him. The rest, you could say, was history.
“We had a lot of fun in that class,” Seier said.
The pair became fast friends. They’d study together – often with a few more of their friends – in the press box on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium.
Seier laughs thinking about the days and nights he spent studying there with Foltz, Sam Hahn, Tanner Zlab, Spencer Lindsay and Joey Lewandowski. For the most part, they were good about focusing on their work but there were always those moments. One small conversation would lead to another and before they knew it, they’d be laughing.
(Video courtesy of Joey Lewandowski)
“As farm kids, we’d always talk about farming,” Seier said. “They’d give me a hard time because [my hometown is] up in heavy clay area so there’s a lot of good soil there. Foltz is down where it’s sandier so it’s a little trickier to grow crops. He’d always say, ‘Up there in Jared’s country, God’s country, things are so easy.’ Just joking back in forth. We’d have Hahn then jumping in, and then Joey.
“Soon enough, we’d have someone looking at us telling us to be quiet.”
And when Foltz needed a break from the studying, Seier would catch him Googling the same thing: farm land in Montana. Foltz had a dream to own land one day. His friends figured he’d spend a little time in the NFL first, but they knew where he wanted to be when he retired.
“We would say we were going to buy a bunch of ground, raise cattle and grow alfalfa,” Seier said. “We’d talk about that and how Foltz was going to do all the spraying and crop spraying. Hahn does a lot of custom hay back home and my family has a lot of cattle, so I was going to run the cattle, Hahn was going to do the haying and stuff like that and Sam was going to do all the spraying and guided hunts.
“That was kind of our dream, as you might say.”
They had yet to think of a name for their farm, but Seier said he imagined it would have been something goofy to match their friendship. And if that dream had become reality, Foltz would have called Hahn and Seier. That was the thing about Foltz. He held true to his promises.
After all, the friends – like Seier – that he’d sit with for hours on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium were more than just friends. They were his brothers.
“As soon as you became a friend, you became family to him,” Seier said.
Scouting fields and late night drives
Joey Lewandowski’s pickup truck rolls down a sandy dirt road that looks out over the town of Greeley. He knows the area well. He points to land on the right. He recently scouted it. He talks about pivots and alfalfa, occasionally stopping to take it all in.
Lewandowski grew up in Omaha, Neb., but he was always more familiar and happy in Foltz’s neck of the woods. He would spend his summers at his grandma’s farm in Loup City, about 45 minutes southwest of Greeley. He spent his last five summers working, interning and scouting fields around Loup City and Greeley.
Foltz had a plan. With Lewandowski’s experience scouting fields, they’d team up.
“One of the things we talked about was looking at these fields,” Lewandowski said. “Before he died, we were going to come out and scout fields together.
“That would have been something we would have done to hang out.”
Lewandowski turns his pickup down another road. He and Foltz had almost every class together at Nebraska their final year. They would then hang out after class and study on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium. They’d crank up the ’80s hair bands music and be told to turn it down.
“I’m trying to study,” one of their friends would say.
When Lewandowski would need a break or time to talk after a night of studying, he and Foltz would hop into his pickup truck and roll around town. Lewandowski is a night owl, so this was his time. The pair would each grab a pop and they’d just drive.
No topic was off limits. For Lewandowski, it was what he needed in a friend. As his truck rolls down the streets of Greeley now, he smiles thinking about those nights.
“That was really fun because it was just him and me,” Lewandowski said. “We’d talk about everything.”
The ‘Flow-Bro Club’
Tanner Zlab started growing his hair out before his sophomore year of college. He can’t recall exactly what prompted him to grow it, but he was in the process of transferring from Doane (Neb.) to the University of Nebraska. That extra hair was the impetus for a friendship.
Foltz and Zlab first met at the Gage County Fair in Beatrice, Neb. before sophomore year, but they became friends in a soils class that fall. It was there the “Flow-Bro Club” was put into motion.
“I started growing my hair sophomore year and if I remember correctly, it was already starting to grow out when I came to UNL,” Zlab said. “I just kept it going and stuck with it. Foltz would always comment on it.”
Because of Foltz’s comments, Zlab was known to accentuate his hair with his outfits. He remembers showing up to one of their 8 a.m. classes in a camouflage sweatshirt, hair pulled back in a ponytail and a backwards camouflage hat to complete the look. Foltz laughed.
“I knew he liked that look,” Zlab said.
Whether or not Foltz truly liked Zlab’s style, he did like his hair. Something about it intrigued him, so he decided to do the same. As Foltz’s hair began to grow, Zlab made the decision to cut his own. He was ready for a change.
That was until Hahn joined in.
“I got jealous of [their hair],” Zlab said. “So I said, ‘Screw it. I’m going for a second round on my hair.’”
And that’s how the “Flow-Bro Club” was born. The trio eventually cut their hair, documenting it all in before and after photos.
Through it all – long hair and short hair, good days and bad – Zlab found a solid friendship with Foltz. When Zlab walked on to the football team during the 2016 spring semester, Foltz was there to cheer him on the whole way.
“He was very uplifting,” Zlab said. “He was often in a good mood and saying positive things. The way he made you feel is what I liked about Sam the most.”
Back in Greeley, the sun begins to set over the fields. It’s quiet, broken only occasionally when the doors open at Whistler’s Pub and Grill.
This is the town that Foltz loved. And it’s a town that is missing him. Foltz was a Nebraska football player, but he was also a son, a brother, an uncle and a friend.
He was also, and forever will be, a proud member of Small Town, USA.