LINCOLN, Neb. — Drew Brown sat alone in a booth at a Chili’s in O’Hare International Airport and decided it needed to be him.
He picked at his chips and queso and texted back and forth with his mom from Chicago, and amid the bustle around him, he realized he should be the one to tell the team.
So on July 25, less than 48 hours after the crash, Brown stood in front of the meeting room in Memorial Stadium and explained to his teammates why he was alive and Sam Foltz was not.
How, at some point at the party two nights prior in Wales, Wis., Foltz told Brown he was going to catch a ride home with former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler and LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye, instead of going with him and Drew Meyer as planned.
How Brown originally thought that was a little weird, since they’d ridden everywhere together that weekend, but went along with it anyway.
How when both cars left, the rain picked up, and when Brown and Meyer showed up at Meyer’s place, the other car wasn’t there, so they went out looking.
How that night, after police took statements and didn’t release any details, he texted Foltz he hoped he was OK, unaware his holder had been dead for hours.
When he finished speaking, players gathered around Brown and hugged the junior kicker. And when it was all over, Brown drove home, framed a picture of Foltz, and put it on his bedside table.
Over the past few weeks of fall camp and now one day before Nebraska starts its season, Brown has come around to accepting his new role, the one he gave himself in that crowded Chili’s in Chicago. A role that came from accepting why Foltz took another ride that night and died in the crash along with Sadler. Why Brown was the one who gave that speech in front of the team that day, and not Foltz.
He’s certain now that he stands here today so that this season, and for the rest of his life, Brown can live to tell Sam Foltz’s story. So he can constantly remind everyone who Sam Foltz was as a person. So he can carry on, and live out, the legacy of his holder.
Because holders don’t let kickers down. And kickers never stop holding on.
Drew Brown met his holder on a humid Nebraska day in the summer of 2014.
Brown arrived on the first day of Nebraska’s summer conditioning in Lincoln as a highly touted recruit from Dallas. He played high school ball for powerhouse Southlake Carroll High School, where he held school and national kicking records.
He was a big-city kid. The younger brother of former Nebraska kicker Kris Brown, who was a two-time All-American in the 1990s. He arrived as quiet supply chain management major who followed the rules pretty much no matter what, his father says.
“One of those kids who says he isn’t going to drink until he’s 21 and means it,” Drew’s father, Hobert, said.
Drew met Sam on the first day of conditioning. They ran next to each other during sprints. And soon Brown learned his new holder was, in almost every way, his counter.
Foltz was a walk-on from Greeley, Neb., a town of fewer than 500 people. He was recruited as a wide receiver but won the punting position soon after joining the team. He was a country boy who wore dirty hats and chewed tobacco, drove a Chevy truck and knew everyone’s name in the athletic department.
Foltz changed major league allegiances as often as he changed hats, shuffling among the Royals, the Giants and Diamondbacks depending on his mood, while Brown stayed true to his Texas Rangers.
Foltz never shut up in practice.
Hey, Darlington, you wear those boots to the beach in Florida?
Drew, you never worked a hard day in your life, city boy.
The quiet Brown found a voice of confidence. On the sidelines or in games, Foltz was the one who made sure the freshman from Dallas knew he belonged from day one.
“He assured him he wasn’t here for some fluke of a reason, that he deserved to be here. Deserved to be in the spot he was in,” wide receiver Zack Darlington said.
It got to the point, Darlington said, where Brown was so in awe of Foltz that people started teasing him about it.
But Brown didn’t care. And neither did Foltz.
They began golfing together on weekends, hitting every public golf course in Lincoln. They roomed together on team road trips and went to the Watering Hole on O Street to eat wings. Foltz usually got the more exotic grilled wings. Brown stuck to the classic.
On the field, Brown never had to worry about a botched hold. Foltz would put the ball down early so Brown could see it longer, and even tilted it just like Drew liked it, a little forward and away, so he could hit the sweet spot.
“Good job, buddy,” Foltz would say after a make.
“Let’s get the next one,” after a miss.
They were on the same wavelength all the time, said Meyer, the former Wisconsin punter.
“There’s such a trust (between kickers and holders) because you’re out on an island,” said Meyer, who held for Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone from 2013 to 2015. “As a holder, it’s your job to keep calm in big moments. When he’s struggling, you’re the first guy he’s going to see and the last guy before the kick.
“It’s a special bond and it’s something that’s tough to duplicate.”
Zack Darlington sat on the floor of his apartment, his hands pressed against his head, and asked again.
“Are you sure?”
With tears in her eyes, his girlfriend nodded from across the room.
“You’re sure? You’re positive? How do you know?”
She screwed up the story, he thought to himself. He’s in surgery. Sam’s in surgery. He’s not dead. There’s no way.
It was the morning of July 24, and news was spreading of Foltz’s death. The Foltz family started calling some of Sam’s close friends after the Grand Island Police Department showed up at their door and broke the news.
Word got to Darlington’s girlfriend while he was out grabbing breakfast for the two of them from McDonald’s.
Darlington closed his eyes and clenched his fist, scrunching the hat between his hands.
And then he panicked.
Foltz was at that kicking camp in Wisconsin, he thought to himself. And so was Brown. Which means Brown was in the car. He had to have been in that car. Brown went everywhere with Foltz. Oh, my God, Brown had to have been in that car.
“Thank God,” Darlington said.
But then the second wave kicked in. Because if Brown answered, that meant he wasn’t in the car that fell 40 feet down the ravine, which meant he was kicking himself for it.
“Zack,” Brown said on the phone. “That was the first time all trip I wasn’t there next to him.”
“I know,” Darlington said.
Drew Brown took the field for the first time without Foltz on Aug. 3.
That whole day, that whole practice, it was weird. It was uncomfortable. That first day of fall camp, Foltz was everywhere. On the back of everyone’s helmets with a No. 27 decal. A red 27 painted on the 27-yard line.
In stretches, in warmups, everywhere Brown looked in the Hawks Championship Center, there was a memory.
And it didn’t help that the second drill of the day was the field goal unit.
The first person to hold for Brown was Darlington.
There was something about the speech Brown gave in front of the team that made Darlington want to hold.
He’d done it for Brown a few times before, when they were roommates freshman year. Darlington held for kicks when Foltz wasn’t around and did it a little in high school back in Florida, which helped.
Just a few months ago, Foltz joked that when he graduated, Darlington would be next up to hold.
So a few days after Brown’s speech, Darlington told the special teams coaches he wanted to hold and told Brown he wanted in as well.
Darlington and Foltz were lifting partners for two years. They loved trucks and country music and would bet on who could throw the ball farther at practice. Last year, for no apparent reason, they challenged each other to grow out their hair and beards as long as they possibly could. Foltz won.
Maybe that’s why he wanted to hold, Darlington said. Because he gets it. He shares a part of that hurt, that pain.
“I knew that Drew felt a vacancy,” Darlington said. “And I wanted to fill that vacancy with someone who deeply cared about Drew. Because Sam cared about Drew that way.”
That first day, Brown kneeled down to show Darlington a few tricks, like where to tilt the ball so Brown didn’t kick it with his ankle.
And over the past few weeks, the two have helped heal each other. For Brown, it’s nice to have a holder he knows, he said. Trotting people out to hold for him until they found some sort of match, that wouldn’t have been good for him mentally, he said.
For Darlington, it’s a way to help Brown cope. A way to do his part, even just a small part.
Holders, he said, have small but crucial roles. Their job, more than anything, is to support the kicker.
“But they’re doing everything they can to do the best they can for their teammate, both on the field and emotionally,” Darlington said. “And I knew I wanted to fill that spot.”
A few days ago, Brown asked Darlington and long snapper Jordan Ober if they wanted to go get pedicures, just to loosen up their feet before the season.
Darlington thought he was kidding. Brown was not.
They piled into Brown’s F-150 and got their feet done, half as a joke. And at the end, Brown picked up the bill, and turned to Ober and Darlington.
“You guys make my job look very easy,” he told them. “And that’s the best thing that anyone can ask for. So thank you for that.”
“And I was like, wow,” Darlington said. “Because that’s something Sam would have done.”
The change in Brown is becoming obvious to everyone around him. His father can tell when they talk on the phone. His coaches can tell in the locker room. Nebraska coach Mike Riley said this week he can tell the quiet kicker is trying to be more vocal, more of a leader.
Which is true. Brown says he’s starting to go out of his way to talk to people more than before. Trying to make people feel more included. Trying to set the example on the field and off, show people the ropes Foltz showed him.
After all, he believes it is his duty.
“I look at it as, Sam’s not here anymore,” Brown said. “I look at it as, why don’t we celebrate what he did and try to do the best we can to emulate it, just like a blueprint.”
His final test, he thinks, is on Saturday when Nebraska takes the field for the first time this season against Fresno State.
That whole day is going to be tough, Brown says. From waking up and not rooming with Foltz, to the bus ride to the stadium, to warmups, to the first extra point or first punt or first field-goal attempt.
“It’s going to be hard, that whole day,” Brown said. “I think what I’m going to do is just control what I can control. It’s the only thing I can do.”
Darlington is nervous too, for himself and for Brown. Their jobs require steady nerves.
“As kicker you have to be emotionally stable and you have to be able to really focus in when you really need to and just not let things affect you like they affect other people,” Brown said.
But Brown can take solace in one thing.
All through fall camp, and a few times this week, when the wind blows just right, Brown feels at peace. He can’t quite explain the feeling. More than anything, he feels an urgency. An extra gear. Like someone is keeping an eye on him to make sure everything is going OK.
“It’s weird to think,” Brown said, “but I can tell that he’s there.”
A few days after Foltz passed away it rained all day, especially out in Greeley. Brown thinks that was Sam, putting some water down for his dad’s crops.
“He’s got so many friends and people that loved him so I don’t think he’d put all of his attention on me,” Brown said.
But Brown is sure, at some point, Sam will be looking down and watching over him.
Because holders don’t let kickers down.
Chris Heady is a staff writer for Landof10 and covers Nebraska football and recruiting. He’s on Twitter at @heady_chris.