Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Sam Hahn wasn't wild about me writing this column, and he makes a decent point as to why.

That said, Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of Sam Foltz's death in a one-car accident in Wisconsin, a tragedy that hit the Nebraska football program and many other folks in a profound manner. With due respect to Hahn, it only makes sense for readers to remember Sam on this day, and perhaps to think about what we learned from the situation.

However, "One of the things that I took out of it is kind of a negative thing …" said Hahn, who was one of Foltz's closest friends.

In fact, Hahn, a senior offensive lineman on last season's Husker squad, planned to have Foltz as his best man when he married.

"One of the things I wanted to say to you and talk to you about, it's kind of a tough, touchy situation to bring up," Hahn said. "But to me and a couple other guys who were close to Sam, and maybe some of his family members, it's just been kind of irritating to see how some people have handled the deal — how they've used Sam's name and the tragedy for their own benefit and own limelight a little bit.

"Like you see people put stuff on social media — like making drawings or doing 'SF 27' things — and there's not really a sense of attachment to Sam for them. It just seems more like something to get their name out there."

To a certain degree, Hahn has a point.

On the other hand, Foltz's death had a genuinely strong impact on many people who weren't necessarily close to Foltz or even knew him at all. After all, he was a native son, a walk-on from Greeley who made it big for a program that unifies the state.

Many Husker fans expend a significant amount of emotional energy on their team. When a popular player dies, it has a wide-ranging impact. It's only natural.

Foltz was a special young man away from the field, and Hahn hopes people always remember that part. Many do remember. Last week, I heard from several people who weren't close to Foltz but nevertheless felt a special connection. 

A mom emailed to share how her 9-year-old son once encountered Foltz in a restaurant's waiting area. Foltz was staring at his cell phone, but when the boy approached, Sam stuck his phone in a pocket and offered his undivided attention. That obviously meant the world to the young mother. So, of course, Sam's death saddened her in a real way.

I also heard from a parent who lost his son around the time of Foltz's death.

"It is something you never get over," he wrote in an email.

He felt awful for Foltz's parents.

Such tragedy can create awkward situations. For instance, that parent said some folks "will avoid you because they don't know what to say."

Another example of awkward: I felt awful that Sunday morning when I learned via Twitter of Foltz's death. But because I didn't know Foltz personally — I never once interviewed him one-on-one — I wasn't overly emotional for a sustained period even though a lot of fellow media expressed that sort of sentiment.

Consequently, I felt guilt. Was I being insensitive?

I'm guessing there are others who felt such inner confusion. Even some of Foltz's teammates surely felt that way — younger players, for instance, who may not have known him well or at all.

"Our incoming freshmen, they were like, 'Yeah, this is sad,' but it didn't affect them," Hahn said. "They didn't know Sam, and that was just fine. I can appreciate that. Say you're sorry. Say, 'Wow, that's really awful that something tragic like that had happened.' But don't sit there and act like you knew him if you didn't know him. It's fine if you didn't.

"The thing that's agitating is when people use what happened to him to go get 'likes' or retweets. …"

I appreciate Hahn's sincerity. I also appreciate that he opened up to me about intense feelings even though we hardly know each other.

His grieving continues.

"It comes and goes," he said. "Sometimes I won't think about it for a couple weeks and then I'll see a picture of Sam or hear something that reminds me of him. I'll choke up a little it. I'll take my minute, and kind of get back to it."

Hahn actually needs more than "a minute" sometimes.

"A lot of times I'll take a little while and let myself really feel it, I guess, and then just kind of keep on going," he said. "It really hasn't slowed me down as much as I thought it would. I don't know … I just try to keep going."

A native of De Witt, Hahn works at the agronomy center for Farmer's Co-op in Plymouth, 52 miles southwest of Lincoln. Foltz had earned his bachelor's in agronomy and was interested in setting up a crop-dusting business.

"He always wanted to learn to fly," Hahn said.

Let's be real, though. Foltz would have punted in the NFL for several years. I'll long remember Foltz, during night practices, booting punts so high that you could no longer see them in the darkened sky.

Although I didn't have a personal relationship with Foltz, it was clear he was a good dude. Others obviously sensed the same, even if they weren't close to him.

"Sam was one of those people you saw and his smile made you feel welcomed," one of his former classmates in Grand Island wrote in an email.

Yeah, of course, Foltz was an excellent athlete, but he was so much more, Hahn said.

He also hopes people understand the level of Sam's humility.

"He was a big deal but never realized he was a big deal," Hahn said.

Foltz, in short, was essentially everything Husker fans want out of players.

Nothing questionable about that.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


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