LINCOLN, Neb. — The darkness and the awful and the memories rest 70 miles east, give or take, where he’d collapsed on a field and didn’t want to get back up again.
Drew Brown is going to try like crazy to block that part out. To forget that the last time he was in Wisconsin was the last time he saw his best friend alive.
“First I’ve been back,” Nebraska’s junior placekicker told Land of 10 this week. “So it’ll be a little bit emotional for me, at first. But I think that then I’ll be able to focus more on the game. It still takes my breath away a little bit.”
The emotions come in waves, ebbing, fading and crashing back again. In that sense, Saturday’s stage is the best and the worst place Brown could be, all in the same labored breath. The No. 7 Cornhuskers (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) are in Madison, Wis., for a massive test against the No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers (5-2, 2-2). It’s one of the last big elimination games in the battle for the Big Ten West, an adrenaline rush stronger than 10 cans of Red Bull.
Less than 90 minutes away, some three months earlier, Brown soldiered through one of the toughest weekends of his young life.
While working a Kohl’s Kicking and Punting Camp in suburban Milwaukee, Drew’s teammate and holder, Huskers punter Sam Foltz, was killed in a one-car accident along with former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Foltz, the reigning Eddelman-Fields Big Ten Punter of the Year, was a passenger when the car Sadler was driving on wet pavement in Merton, Wis., struck a tree.
“It’ll be good to kind of give them a big hug.”
— Nebraska kicker Drew Brown
The news filtered in Sunday morning as the other specialists reconvened. The image burned into the brain of camp director Jamie Kohl is that of Brown, who’d attended the camp at Foltz’s behest, crumbling to the ground on a nearby practice field, awash with shock and grief.
He never forgot it.
“I mean, it was tough,” Kohl said. “It was not a fun day, by any means.”
Parts of Saturday won’t be much easier. The Huskers, home and away, bring Foltz’s No. 27 jersey to the field before every game. At Camp Randall Stadium, Brown and injured Badgers kicker Rafael Gaglianone, one of Foltz’s many camp admirers and confidants, plan to carry the jersey together — four hands, two teams, one friend.
“Yeah, there’s definitely going to be some feelings there, I’m sure,” Kohl said. “And from my perspective, I just want Drew Brown to make every kick he gets the chance to. And to do it for Sam.
“I know he’s trying to do it for Sam. Those two were best friends. They kind of helped each other and so — he cared a lot about Sam and he cares a lot about that family. And he kind of feels like he’s playing for Sam this season and even for Gerald (Foltz, Sam’s father) a little bit. So I just hope he continues to do well.”
Brown has connected on seven of his first nine field-goal attempts, including a 51-yarder in a win over Purdue last weekend. Gaglianone, who switched his number from 10 to 27 to honor the late Huskers specialist, also got off to a strong start this fall, notching seven of eight field-goal tries before back surgery ended his season after three games.
“We’ve obviously grown a lot closer to each other (after) this summer and throughout the season,” Brown said. “It’s been really nice getting to know him.”
If it wasn’t for Foltz, Brown and Gaglianone wouldn’t have become pals in the first place. The Badgers kicker, a native of Brazil, used to run with Foltz, Brown’s former holder, at the Kohl’s camps, where the two bonded over a kindred spirit, a kindred sense of humor. And any friend of Sam’s …
“It’s obviously a big conference game, but when you get to compete against your friend, it just means that much more,” Brown said. “But it’ll be good to see those guys and see them again since this all happened, and just (see) them in a different situation rather than immediately after all that stuff happened. It’ll be good to kind of give them a big hug.”