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That Guy's Wearing Red, Too!

Exploring the State of Nebraska and its unique football tradition

Mixed Emotions

“I have a lot of real mixed emotions about the game.” These were among the first words spoken by Head Coach Mike Riley at the post-game press conference following his team’s 43-10 win over the Fresno State Bulldogs. Although in this case Riley was referring to the uneven performance of his team on the field and their sometimes “sloppy” play, it had indeed been an emotional day for his players, coaches and the 90,013 spectators who had come to watch the opening game of the 2016 season.

On everyone’s mind was the loss of Sam Foltz. While the team playbooks and coaching manuals are filled with detailed descriptions of how to respond to the myriad of different situations that may arise during a football game, there is surely no section of any of these manuals that deals with how to handle the loss of a key player during the off-season. Instead, Foltz’s family, friends and teammates would have to improvise their own course of action to honor his memory. And with a little help from “upstairs” – and I don’t mean the coaches’ box in the West Stadium – they combined to create a very fitting and moving tribute to the memory of number 27.

Prior to the game, Drew Brown and Spencer Lindsay had carried Foltz’s number 27 jersey out on to the field and raised it before the student section of the crowd, who cheered loudly. They then returned it to the sideline and draped it over the bench where it remained for the duration of the game. A little while later as Foltz’s parents and family members watched from the sidelines, Sam’s two little nephews Lane and Max walked through the tunnel with the players (who lifted them up to touch the horseshoe) and then led the players as they ran out on to the field together.

However there was more to come on the fourth play of the game. Nebraska had the ball first but its opening drive stalled after 3 plays, and so the punt unit ran out on to the field. But in a surreal scene that few will ever forget, only 10 players lined up. Everyone was set in their assigned location except for the punter. The Huskers had created a “missing man” formation in the same way that Air Force pilots pay tribute to their fallen comrades by flying in a formation with a space left empty for their lost brother-in-arms. As the play clock ran down with the motionless players fixed in their positions, the enormous crowd rose to its feet and cheered for the memory of the missing man Sam Foltz. Tears flowed freely on the field, on the sidelines and in the stands.

When the clock finally ticked to zero, the officials threw a penalty flag for a delay-of-game. But in a classy move that will be appreciated by football fans everywhere, Fresno State declined the penalty. When talking about this moment after the game, the Bulldogs’ Head Coach Tim DeRuyter choked back tears as he empathized with Nebraska and the way that he would feel if he lost his 23-year-old son, who is serving in the Air Force. Indeed the entire Fresno State team had worn “SF” decals on their helmets throughout the game to honor the memory of their fellow collegiate athlete.

Unbeknownst to many of the players on the field and certainly to my wife and me who were seated in the north-east corner of the stadium, there was a final word to be added to the Sam Foltz tribute. It had been raining prior to the game almost up until the kick-off, but finally the storm clouds moved away. Apparently the missing man punt play had been sent upstairs for further review but, signaled by a rainbow that appeared to the north-west right after that play, the call on the field was upheld – or one might say it had received a blessing from above.

RIP Sam.


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