Let's not rehash the weekend. Let's think of what came before and what drew so many to him. Let's think of that 10-year-old boy the principal in Grand Island had to pull away from the other kids on the playground.

It could be soccer, touch football, basketball. Didn't matter. Principal Gilbertson would sometimes have to take young Sam over by the chain-link fence for a reminder. "Now, Sam, you've got to control it. This is recess. This isn't the Super Bowl."

Maybe not. But it was competition. And if you were competing, Sam Foltz knew of only one way. Go hard. Then go harder.

Though the man in charge maybe couldn't always say it then, the truth is Jeff Gilbertson loved the fire in the kid's belly.

Now the principal at Grand Island Senior High, Gilbertson has worked with kids for more than 23 years. He was Sam's principal in elementary school, middle school and high school.

"There was no other kid, bar none, that had the competitive fire that Sam did," he says.

He'd lock the doors at day's end and realize there was someone still on the school premises. Young Sam on the playground alone, shooting a basketball or kicking a football.

"He just knew that to get good at any skill or craft, he had to have 10,000 hours of practice," Gilbertson says. "Sam understood that at 10 years old."

Let's think of that day eight years later when Sam had reporters gathered around him before the Shrine Bowl. He was going to walk on to play football at Nebraska as a wide receiver and punter.

No guarantees with that. Yet it was the damnedest thing. Anyone standing there knew this kid was no long shot. He knew he'd succeed. He told the story that day of how he learned to punt on the family farm in Greeley.

"I'd punt as far as I could, run after it, run back and do it all over again. I'd do that for hours and hours. After about a month or so, the football wouldn’t take air anymore. So my dad would grab me another ball. I'd just keep doing it."

Let's think of his family. Anyone who knows Sam well will tell you he was raised well.

Gerald and Jill Foltz are, as Gilbertson says, "Just Nebraska people that never felt entitled. ... They treated everyone like equals and understood from a grassroots level that hard work pays off. That's where Sam got that. Yeah."

Let's think of how Sam became not just a great punter but also a standout wide receiver and safety at Grand Island High. "The best safety I ever had the chance to coach," says Islander football coach Jeff Tomlin.

He was also really good at basketball, baseball, running the quarter-mile, whatever you wanted to dish up. He excelled then acted like he was no big deal.

Even when he became Nebraska's starting punter and his moonshot kicks made him a household name in the state, his good friend and Husker O-lineman Sam Hahn says Foltz was the same old Foltzy.

The two Sams connected as farm kids and were proud of their backgrounds. Sometimes Foltz would tell him, "I'm not Sam the football player, I’m Sam the farmer, that’s all I am." He didn't want to be only identified as a football player.

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Not that he wasn't proud of being a Husker. He very much was. He was a leader. A punter leading? Believe it. Maybe it was because he could hang clean more than some guys on defense.

“It takes five guys to work as hard as he does," Hahn says.

Let's think of how that hard work made him the best punter in the Big Ten. He planned on being the best in the nation his senior year. People around him always joked about his future life in the NFL.

Sam wasn't biting.

“He had a few years in the league and a few million to make, that's what I always told him," Hahn says. "But typical Sam, I would always brag to him about him, and he would always shake it off."

Let's think of how even when he was making headlines he'd always make his way home, stop into the school, say hello to all his coaches.

"Never forgot where he came from," Tomlin says.

Let's think of that one night he came back to his old high school and was called out of the stands to shoot a half-court shot at a basketball game. He looked more dressed for hunting.

Give him the ball. The crowd encouraged. "Sam ... Sam ... Sam..." He made the shot, of course.

Let's think of the way kids gravitated to him. And the way he gravitated toward them. Let's think of the word Tomlin uses to describe him: Uncommon.

"He just had an uncommon work ethic. Uncommon positive attitude. Just a joy to be around."

Let's think of a legacy. The kind that outlasts the pain and lack of understanding about why someone so young and so loved is taken away so soon.

"Think of at 22 years old the impact and the ripple effect that he's going to have on fans not only statewide but nationwide," Gilbertson says.

Let's think of the young girl who sent an email Sunday to a newsroom. She had just read about his death. So she titled her email "Sam" and wondered if there was an address to send cards to the family.

She wrote something else. She wanted to be a kicker at her school. "Sam Foltz was my idol, because he was a walk-on and proved himself from the beginning."

He did. Man, he sure did.

We can't say for sure what advice Sam would give her, but maybe this, Punt as far as you can, run after it, run back and do it all over again.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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