LINCOLN, Neb. – About an hour before Nebraska’s season-opening kickoff against Fresno State, junior kicker Drew Brown and senior kicker Spencer Lindsay walked over to Sam Foltz’s locker.
It was decorated like always: Foltz’s name and picture lit up on an iPad above the wood paneling of the locker, his scarlet 27 jersey draped over a cream hanger.
Brown took the jersey down and began walking toward the door, the specialists gathering behind him to go to the field to warm up. As he and Lindsay left the locker room, they each grabbed a corner of Foltz’s jersey.
It wasn’t planned, it just kind of happened that way, Brown would say later.
The echo of Brown and Lindsay’s cleats bounced off the underbelly of Memorial Stadium, and when they got to the red carpet that leads onto the field they broke into a jog. Past a few fans, around the corner, under the “I Play For Nebraska” sign, the specialists ran into the September afternoon heat behind the jersey of their late friend.
They ran to the student section, stood on the bench and presented Foltz’s jersey to the students, who stood and applauded in light rain.
Brown then laid Foltz’s jersey on an orange Gatorade cooler, turned around and began to warm up. Lindsay fluffed the jersey a bit, positioning it so 27 didn’t have any wrinkles. Holder Zack Darlington tapped Foltz’s jersey before throwing a ball around. Long snapper Jordan Ober knelt and said a quick prayer.
And as they did, a tradition of honoring Foltz began. And it spread.
After Foltz died in a car crash in July, shortly before the start of his senior season, Huskers players and coaches decided to dedicate the 2016 season in his honor. And along the way, they found an outpouring of love and support from across the Big Ten.
From game to game, stadium to stadium, Brown and Lindsay did the same pregame ritual, home or away. And opposing teams joined in, presenting Brown and Lindsay at midfield before kickoff to exchange jerseys or flowers or stories about Foltz, the All-Big Ten punter from Greeley, Neb.
It has meant the world to Brown, and the rest of the team.
But as all college football traditions eventually do for seniors, this one will come to an end at home on Senior Day against Maryland on Saturday.
It won’t be easy. Brown’s not really looking forward to it, running out of the tunnel behind No. 27 for a final time at Memorial Stadium.
But like the first game of the season, he knows he has to face this. He knows it’s time to start moving on.
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There isn’t one Foltz tribute that stands out, but collectively the honors this season have meant more to senior guard Sam Hahn than opposing teams will ever know.
“It just goes to show, you know, we’re playing a game of football here, life is much more precious than that,” Hahn said.
For Nebraska, this season has been marked week by week with different honors for Foltz.
There was Oregon, which placed a bouquet of flowers on the 27-yard line. And opposing teams put the 27 decal on the back of their helmets. Ohio State’s band formed 27 at the end of its halftime show, not to mention the 27 sign the Buckeyes put outside Nebraska’s locker room.
“We don’t just let that go,” Hahn said of the tributes. “We remember that and keep that in mind.”
And with those tributes, memories rush back for some of Foltz’s closest friends, like Hahn, Brown and Lindsay.
In a way, it has kept the spirit of Foltz alive, Hahn said.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping his memory alive and talking about him and not shying away from it,” Hahn said. “We all share stories almost daily about Sam or memories we have with him or remind each other what he would want or want to work for as well.”
Players have their own small rituals to remember their teammate. Senior safety Nate Gerry writes “RIP 27” on his wrist tape. Hahn has the same written on his cleats. And when the coin toss is held with the commemorative coin the Big Ten uses for each game – the one with Foltz on one side and and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler, who died in the same car crash, on the other – the Nebraska captain always calls Foltz’s name.
The tributes began, of course, with Brown and Lindsay bringing Foltz’s jersey out first for warmups against Fresno State. Hahn was among the few who knew they were going to do that.
But he was happy to see those two in particular begin the season by honoring Foltz.
Foltz was a big brother to Brown, his holder for three years. Lindsay was Foltz’s longtime roommate. To see those two bring out his jersey like that? That hit senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp pretty hard.
“Those are Sam’s best friends and they wanted to honor him and that was just one of the ways they chose, and it’s great to see that,” Westerkamp said. “It’s great to see that a guy like Sam has left such an impact on our community here in Nebraska. It’s amazing.”
— Christopher Heady (@heady_chris) November 12, 2016
Saturday marks the final home game for 28 seniors. Foltz, in a way, was emblematic of the dominant themes of the 2016 class: a walk-on who earned a scholarship and made a lasting impact.
“He is kind of the epitome of everything,” coach Mike Riley said this week.
Foltz, who played for Grand Island Senior High, was originally recruited by former coach Bo Pelini’s staff as a wide receiver. He earned a walk-on spot, then decided to try his hand as a punter. He soon won the position.
“He was an integral part of this group of kids that are playing the last game here,” Riley said. “It’s going to be sad, but it’s also, there’s things that make you smile about Sam Foltz and it just makes you thankful for him.”
In a lot of ways, Saturday’s game will be as tough emotionally as the first one was, Brown said.
The reminders of Foltz, the painful ones, will be everywhere. In a way, it’s like a second wave of sadness, Hahn said.
“The first one was like, ‘Hey, this is the first one without Sam,’ and now we’re at Senior Day and it’s like, ‘Oh, Sam’s not here for Senior Day.’ It’s going to be tough,” Hahn said.
The hardest part, Hahn said, will be seeing Foltz’s parents on the field during the pregame ceremony.
Brown’s not sure if he’ll be able to stand on the field during it all. Not with Foltz not there.
“I don’t think I could take it,” Brown said.
But Brown is thankful for this Nebraska team, for how this season has gone. He’s thankful for the 2016 seniors, all of them, and how they had his back during the good parts of this season and lifted him up when he needed it. He’s glad he feels like he’s come out of his shell a bit and created friendships with more teammates, something he wanted to do after Foltz died as a way to live out his legacy.
Brown also knows that running out with Foltz’s jersey next year doesn’t make much sense to him. If Sam was alive, Brown said, his jersey wouldn’t be in Memorial Stadium during the 2017 season anyway.
“At some point,” Brown said, “you have to start to move on.”
So, for one last time, Brown will do what he’s been doing every home game for three years.
About an hour before kickoff, he and the rest of the specialists will line up by the locker room door and walk out together behind No. 27.
They’ll walk until they hit the red carpet, then break into a jog. They’ll pass a few fans, round a corner and emerge from the tunnel.
And with his hand clinging to Foltz’s jersey, Brown will run onto Memorial Stadium behind his best friend one final time.