About to begin his senior season as the Cornhuskers’ top-notch punter, former walk-on Sam Foltz had a very bright future.
That inspiring story ended tragically late Saturday night, when Foltz died in a car accident near Merton, Wis. Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler had been working as instructors at a kicking camp in Wales, Wis. The 2012 graduate of Grand Island Senior High was only 22 years old. Senior High head football coach Jeff Tomlin says the death of Foltz was "devastating, to say the least."
Tomlin said Foltz’s death is "very sad for Grand Island and Central Nebraska for sure."
"Sam was a blessing to coach. He was an incredible athlete and he was an even better person," Tomlin said.
"Sam just had a positive presence about him that just kind of rubbed off on everybody. He was an energy-giver." He would just "infuse energy in any place that he was," Tomlin said.
GISH boys track coach Montie Fyfe knew Foltz very well, "with him being Ryker’s teammate and Ryker’s close friend all the way" back to elementary days." Fyfe is the father of Husker quarterback Ryker Fyfe, another member of the GISH Class of 2012.
Montie Fyfe started coaching Foltz in the third grade, beginning with baseball and basketball and then track and field in high school.
"So it’s a tough loss for our family. It’s a tough loss for the Huskers and the Grand Island classmates he had," said Fyfe, who attended a vigil in Foltz’s honor Sunday in Lincoln.
Foltz, who was "an outstanding young man," touched the lives of many people, Fyfe said. "He has a great family. His parents have always been very, very supportive of everything he’s ever wanted to do."
Foltz’s parents, Gerald and Jill Foltz, own a farm near Greeley but also have a home in Grand Island, Fyfe said. Jill is the school nurse at Grand Island Senior High.
As someone mentioned at the vigil, Foltz "died on a day that he was still trying to make himself better than he was the day before," Fyfe said. "He was just always trying as hard as he could to be the best he could be."
Fyfe described Foltz as an incredible person. "People have always loved his personality. He’s a very, very caring person about what’s going on around him."
He would usually finish a conversation "with a big old smile" on his face, because he was "a very happy kid," Fyfe said.
"He was always happy, no matter what you talked to him about. Usually he was happy about what was going on in life."
At this point in his life, Foltz "had a lot of things going for him," Fyfe said.
Each of the last two years, Foltz was named to the watch list for the Ray Guy Award, given to the top punter in college football. In 2015, his 44.2-yard punting average led the Big Ten Conference.
Earlier this year, Foltz was named to the university’s Brook Berringer Citizenship Team. Berringer died in a plane crash in 1996, a few months after his playing career concluded.
"Sam is truly one of the finest young men I’ve ever been around," GISH Activities Director Joe Kutlas said in a statement. He described Foltz as big-hearted, selfless, smart, determined, positive, a tremendous teammate and a "tremendously gifted athlete, but unfailingly humble.
"Sam was kind and generous but tough and ornery enough to always be the guy you wanted on your side," Kutlas added. "He was respectful and quick to give credit to others, to look out for others — all the while quietly outworking everyone. The Huskers have lost an outstanding punter, athlete, teammate, representative and friend. We’ve all lost a man of the highest caliber."
Tomlin said Foltz was a young man of character, integrity and honor. He feels "really proud and blessed to have had a chance to work with Sam."
At GISH, Foltz was a three-year starter in football, playing safety and wide receiver. In addition to being an all-state safety, he was also a team captain and squad leader. "So he had a very decorated career," Tomlin said.
"He was extremely competitive. He hated losing," Fyfe said. The whole class in Foltz’s and Ryker Fyfe’s senior year was that way, Montie Fyfe said. "And they fed off of each other. They made each other better because they were always trying to compete to be the very best."
Next week will be the 10th anniversary of the Grand Island Little League team making the Midwest regional in Indianapolis, Fyfe pointed out.
Even though they were only 12, that was the beginning of the young men "realizing that they could be a special group" in high school, Fyfe said. "Sam was a huge part of that all the way through."
The baseball team included four youngsters who went on to become Division I athletes. Joining Foltz and Fyfe were Kyle Simonds, who went on to pitch at Texas A&M, and Will Bamesberger, who played baseball at Creighton.
Foltz attended school in Greeley until third or fourth grade, Fyfe said. He then attended Starr Elementary and Barr Middle School before heading to GISH.
Even though he had offers from other colleges coming out of high school, Foltz was determined to play football at Nebraska. Foltz also attracted interest for his track abilities, but he stuck with his plan.
"He didn’t really want to look at any of the schools, even though he was the fastest 400-meter guy we’d ever had at Grand Island," Fyfe said.
In addition to still holding the GISH record for the 400 meters, Foltz was part of the school record-setting 4 by 400-meter relay effort.
Besides playing basketball for GISH, he played Legion baseball for Home Federal until giving up his last season of baseball to attend kicking camps.
Tomlin isn’t surprised that Foltz, a walk-on, became such a successful college punter.
"I thought Sam would make a really positive impact. He had such a tremendous work ethic, and he was a very, very good athlete," Tomlin said. He figured that when Foltz began to specialize in punting "that his athleticism would take over, and that he would really excel at it."
In high school, the 6-foot-2 Foltz was a multi-sport athlete. "But when he got to college, he locked in on that one job," Tomlin said.
Foltz was a pretty good punter for the Islanders, even though he was busy. "When you’re playing receiver and you’re playing safety and trying to punt, you’re pretty worn out," Fyfe said. Foltz was still booting the ball 40 yards "after being on the field the entire time."
Fyfe knew that once Foltz got to Nebraska, he had a chance to become a special punter. "Because he’s not going to have to run up and down the field anymore."
In addition to having a lively leg, Foltz could run the quarter-mile in 48.2 seconds, Fyfe said.
"Grand Island Public Schools, Grand Island Senior High and the Islander football family are all saddened to hear the news of the death of Sam Foltz," said a statement from GIPS. "Our thoughts are with the Foltz family as they go through this tragic event."
Foltz, the statement said, "was a great Islander student athlete. His caring personality and positive attitude have impacted many across the state as he continued his education at the University of Nebraska.
In another statement, GISH Principal Jeff Gilbertson noted that he "had the privilege of being Sam Foltz’s principal in elementary, middle school and high school. Sam was always an active, competitive kid. He was also a great example of what we mean at Senior High when we say ‘Wear Purple, Be Gold.’ He cared about others. He always worked hard to give his best. What fans saw on the football field is a reflection of the dedication he gave to life. Our hearts hurt today for his family and all those he impacted."
The GIPS news release concluded by saying, "We ask you all to keep the Foltz family in your thoughts and to respect their privacy as they grieve the loss of a great son and brother."