Last week marked the start of college football season, perhaps one of the best signs that fall is here and that summer is on its way out. By the end of this weekend, the NFL will be up and running too. Football is back, and like always, this season should be filled with excitement and spectacular plays.
But there is one play from last week that is already the best of the year, and I don’t think it will be topped any time soon.
In their 43-10 victory over Fresno State, Nebraska started their season at home with a three-and-out on their first drive. On the fourth down, Cornhuskers head coach Mike Riley sent out the punt team for their first action of the year.
Ten Huskers came out on the field, lined up and got ready to punt, but no one was ready to receive it. There was no 11th Husker on the field. That final spot was for Sam Foltz, who passed away in a car accident in late July. Former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler also passed away in the accident.
As the play clock wound down, the crowd at Memorial Stadium only grew louder. Husker players on the field stood and encouraged the applause while gesturing to the sky. Teammates on the sideline somehow kept their emotions intact and got down on one knee. As the clock hit zero, the crowd of 90,000 grew even louder, with Fresno State players applauding the Huskers’ gesture for their teammate and declining the penalty.
The video is impossible to watch without getting goosebumps and chills down your spine. It is such a touching and clever honor to a player who truly made his mark not only on the gridiron, but off of it as well.
Big Ten Network announcer Joe Beninati described the moment best as it unfolded right in front of him.
“A poignant reminder of how fragile life can be,” Beninati said. “How a dear teammate will never be forgotten. With points towards the sky, one man short in the formation, but he will forever be in the hearts and minds of Husker fans.”
Beninati could not be more right. Life is fragile, and Foltz’s story is truly an example of it. The senior punter began his career as a walk-on before working tirelessly to start for three seasons with Nebraska and earn the Big Ten Punter of the Year award last season. He was also one of the most well-liked and well-respected members of the team.
Riley did not have to honor Foltz in the way that he did. There were other ways to carry on his legacy. But Riley’s decision to honor Foltz in the missing man formation is a statement that represents something obvious, but often lost in today’s world: sports are important, but they are far from the only thing that is important in life.
Foltz was not honored in this way due to his achievements on the field. He was honored for being himself and a strong leader who was frequently involved within the community. Riley could’ve deemed the moving pregame ceremony as enough and not risked taking a penalty in the game. Instead, he wanted to make a statement and to truly show Foltz’s impact on the program.
In a way, Foltz’s death is not much different from that of former Husky Jasper Howard, who was fatally stabbed to death shortly after UConn football’s homecoming game on Oct. 18, 2009. Like Foltz, Howard was a strong student, leader and darn good football player whose life was cut tragically short. While Howard’s time on campus was short in the grand scheme of UConn’s timeline, his presence is still felt to this day within the program.
Howard’s No. 6 is forever memorialized at Rentschler Field with a statue, and defensive back Jhavon Williams specifically chose the number to honor Howard and all of the values he championed on and off the field.
Players like Foltz and Howard show us the good side of sports, how true leaders can positively affect a team long after they are gone. As the Huskers, Huskies and many other programs take the field this season, they will remember those they have lost and the lasting mark they left. So while you sit back and enjoy the thrill of big hits, great catches and the rush of victory, don’t dwell too much on the bad parts. Some things are always bigger than football.