Beyond the hashtag: The untold story of Sam Foltz
On a Sunday night in July, Spencer Lindsay had something to get off his chest.
It was a couple weeks before the one-year anniversary of the day Sam Foltz was killed in a car accident. Spencer had already spoken to a half dozen reporters, all of whom contacted him for the same reason. He was Sam’s college roommate at Nebraska.
Anybody on the Husker football beat probably knew that the two Central Nebraska natives lived together for nearly their entire time in Lincoln (Google “Spencer Lindsay” and the first suggestion is “Sam Foltz roommate”). They might’ve even known that they were supposed to share a place in North Pointe Villas in their fifth and final year at Nebraska.
Few people spent as much time with Sam away from the football field as Spencer did. They golfed. They talked politics even though they rarely agreed. They watched shows on Netflix (Sam burned through 7-8 hours of “Prison Break” during their first snow day freshman year).
When Spencer’s older brother, Matt, died from bile duct cancer, Sam was exactly the friend he needed. When Spencer wanted to quit football and focus on academics, Sam motivated him to stick with it.
They were more than college roommates. Spencer called Sam his best friend, but he used that term cautiously.
He’s seen too many people try to claim that title since Sam’s death.
For Spencer, social media posts “honoring” Sam that just beg for likes, retweets and favorites are nothing more than a big show. The #SF27 hashtag with which Nebraska Football and Husker fans tag seemingly every Sam-related social media post became unbearable.
“He wasn’t as talked about as much when he was (at Nebraska) and that’s kind of a really difficult thing for a lot of us to deal with because he’s turned into a hashtag that Nebraska and other media have kind of used to grow the Nebraska brand,” Spencer said. “That definitely doesn’t sit right with us or the family.”
Spencer used the word “us.” Part of that “us” refers to Sam’s best friends on the Nebraska football team like Spencer, Ryker Fyfe, Sam Hahn and Drew Brown. They have all been asked to talk about Sam’s days at Nebraska ad nauseam for the last year. Sam Hahn might’ve raised some eyebrows days before the one-year anniversary when he was quoted in a Lincoln Journal Star story about Sam’s legacy not being properly honored.
Spencer’s words took a similar tone that Sunday night in July.
“He shouldn’t be a hashtag, and it shouldn’t be something to try and grow the Nebraska brand because Sam isn’t a product of Nebraska football,” he said. “He’s a product of Greeley and Grand Island Senior High (Neb.) and the people that helped form him into who he was.”
Those are the communities that are still hurting. Each story littered with quotes from people claiming to have known Sam serves as another painful reminder. Some of the people who knew him best haven’t been able to move on, and they haven’t been heard.
Spencer said that there were three guys who had a unique bond with Sam. Long before he became the B1G’s top punter, Sam and his three closest Grand Island buddies built a special connection. Their relationship with Sam couldn’t be summed up by one Facebook post or one tweet. Two of them had never even spoken to a reporter about Sam.
Finally, they got to tell their story of Sam Foltz.
Tom Swanson’s flashbacks are clear as day.
When Sam helped Grand Island Senior High’s 4×400 relay team set a school record, Tom was his secret weapon. When Tom wasn’t competing in discus or shot put, he always had to be at the 300-mark of Sam’s leg.
“Shit. I’m gonna be honest with you, man. I have dreams about this now,” Tom said. “Sam would be coming around that corner and we’d always meet eyes right around that corner. And then he would just kick it every time.
“That’s the stuff that’s just hard for a lot of people to understand. That dynamic that we had…it was like every part of our lives we found a way to be there.”
Will Bamesberger was on that 4×400 relay team with Sam. They only ended up with one state title, but they believed they were Nebraska’s best relay team for their final three years of high school.
Will knew how fast Sam was from the first time he saw him run in elementary school. When Will — a speedster in his own right — showed up late to a track meet in fourth grade, he got some tough news from his buddies about this kid named Sam Foltz.
“They were like, ‘This kid’s faster than you,’” Will said. “And I was kind of offended.”
But they were right.
Will got reminders of Sam’s talent nearly every day for 10 years. Besides running on the same relay team together, Will and Sam were both outfielders on Grand Island’s travel baseball team, they were both guards on Grand Island’s basketball team and they both played receiver and defensive back on Grand Island’s football team.
Will and Tom are irked by the fact that when Sam’s name is brought up, “Nebraska punter” usually precedes it. “Punter” or “specialist” doesn’t do Sam’s athleticism justice. He was the guy who ran 47-second splits in the 400-meter dash. He was the one who power-cleaned 315 pounds. He was the safety who popped an opposing running back (and a future college linebacker) in the ribs so hard that the kid spent the night in the hospital.
Punting was just another thing Sam picked up in middle school. He got serious about it in high school when he realized it could be his ticket to playing varsity football as a sophomore.
And though Sam developed into the best high school punter in the state of Nebraska, punting wasn’t originally expected to be his ticket to playing college football. As a Nebraska High School Super-State safety, Sam had FCS offers to play defensive back.
“Punting to him was easy,” Ryker said. “That was nothing to him. He doesn’t get nervous for punting. He had to do so much in high school. In football, he was one of our best players. In basketball, he was our scorer. In baseball, he was a great outfielder and a great hitter. In track, he was one of the best in every event he did.”
Ryker saw Sam develop into the decorated All-B1G punter that many remember him as. Like Spencer, Sam Hahn and Drew, Ryker was close with Sam at Nebraska. But unlike his Nebraska teammates, Ryker met Sam at a track meet back in fourth grade. Ryker saw the kind of athlete Sam was. Ryker watched Sam run races against his Grand Island classmates and “he’d just kill them.”
At the time, Sam was living in Greeley with his dad, which was 50 miles north of Grand Island. Greeley’s population was approximately 500 people. Grand Island, on the other hand, was a town of approximately 50,000. Ryker wanted the fast kid from Greeley to join forces with him, and he knew that Sam’s mom, Jill, was a school nurse in town.
In fourth grade, Sam moved to Grand Island. He still spent plenty of time back in Greeley. His dad, Gerald, was there. Their family farm was near Greeley. His hunting buddies were there. Once he was old enough, Sam drove back to Greeley for weekends and summers.
But for the next eight years of his life, Grand Island was where he spent the majority of his time.
It was time well spent.
For most people, the five-and-a-half hour road trip from Grand Island to Chadron, Neb. is a sleepy, uneventful journey.
But for Sam, Ryker, Tom and Will, that road trip was the start of summer.
It began as a tradition before their freshman year at Grand Island. They’d all load their stuff into a tiny van and make the 11-hour round-trip trek for the Chadron State football camp.
It was the first time the four of them spent significant time together. Ryker, Sam and Will went to middle school together, but Tom didn’t. At Grand Island Senior High, they all got to be together.
For a Class A school located in Central Nebraska, road trips come as often as math class. They logged countless hours on I-80 East traveling by bus for road games against the metro schools. Tom and Sam sat together on every single football road trip.
They had other rituals. There was a group of 10-15 guys that went to Balz Sports Bar and Cafe every Thursday night from the start of football season to the end of basketball season. They described themselves as introverts, but hanging out with each other didn’t seem like a social event.
Will remembers times when he’d be at home watching TV with his dad in the living room and he’d get a text from Sam that he was in the basement playing Xbox.
“We weren’t like the typical high school guys going out and doing extracurriculars. We’d play sports and we’d hang out. We’d hang out at the lake fishing or we’d be in somebody’s basement playing video games,” Will said. “It was just kinda like, you just couldn’t get enough time with each other.”
But it wasn’t all just hanging out. They would often talk about their goals.
They dreamed about what they were going do in college and what they were going to do after college. They talked about flying. They wanted to start a crop dusting business one day.
They all signed their letters of intent to become Division I athletes, but there was a mutual understanding. They’d all go off and do what they had to do to succeed as college athletes. If one of them got an opportunity to pursue a professional career, they’d do it as long as they could. Ultimately, though, the road still led back to Grand Island.
“There was always that plan,” Will said, “of picking up where we left off as seniors.”
While they were away at college, they stayed in touch. Sam and Ryker had it easy playing on the football team together. Even though Sam spent most of his time with the specialists, he’d still pop over to Ryker’s place at least once a week.
It was a bit more challenging for Tom and Sam to keep in touch, especially at the start of college. Tom attended the United States Naval Academy on a track and field scholarship. After he finished up his first phase of boot camp, Navy hosted a parents weekend. Tom’s parents couldn’t make the cross-country flight to Annapolis, Md.
While all of his classmates were out with their families, Tom went outside and sat on a bench.
Out of nowhere, Tom’s phone started ringing. It was Sam.
Sam had no way of knowing that Tom had his phone back for the first time in months. Nobody in the world knew just how alone Tom felt up until that moment.
“We just kind of had this sixth sense for each other,” Tom said. “It was one of those moments that I’ll never forget.”
When Will, who attended Creighton and played baseball, had a one-game series in Lincoln, Sam made sure he was there. Sometimes Sam would drive up to Omaha to catch a Creighton baseball game. When he could, Will drove down to Lincoln to watch Sam on Saturdays in the fall. It was different getting snippets of time together instead of seeing each other every day.
“It always left you wanting more,” Will said. “But you could always hold on to, ‘Well, in a couple years when we have more time…we’ll have all we can ask for.’
“Then it all just never really happened.”
One of the lasting images in the wake of Sam’s death was when Nebraska put only 10 men on the field for a punting situation in the 2016 season opener. The student section then held up a banner that read “Dream Big. Work Hard. Stay Humble.”
It’s true that Sam embodied that phrase to the best of his ability, but Sam wasn’t perfect.
His friends know that best.
While media coverage portrayed Sam as the fun-loving guy with the squinty-eyed smile, Ryker, Tom and Will said Sam wasn’t afraid to yell at teammates if he thought they weren’t taking something seriously.
The notion that Sam never had a bad day wasn’t true, either.
On the football field, all four of the friends were star players and captains. But even with all that talent, they never won a state championship. When the final seconds ticked down on their high school careers, Tom kneeled next to Sam and they bawled their eyes out.
Knowing that side of Sam was part of what made seeing the #SF27 posts on social media hard to stomach.
Will and Tom knew that for most, Sam was just someone people had met in passing. He was the guy who talked to every teacher in the hallway. While Sam did make a lasting impression on many people, for those who really did know him, his personality created the perfect storm in the wake of his death.
“It’s Sam’s fault for making them feel like they’re the most important people in the world,” Will said. “That’s just the way he was.”
After his death, many people spoke on Sam’s behalf.
Mike Riley spoke about Sam publicly as much as anyone despite the fact that he knew him for little more than a year.
Guys like former Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong and former Husker receiver Jordan Westerkamp were the faces of the program, so naturally they were asked to speak about their late teammate on many occasions.
But while others spoke, Will, Ryker and Tom remained relatively quiet.
“There’s so much coverage from all these people and me and Will and Ryker are standing back and we’re just hurting,” Tom said. “We’re just thinking about, we wanted to tell our story.
“We wanted to remember Sam, too.”
The day of Sam’s death is not a memory that Ryker, Tom, and Will want to relive. It’s the moments surrounding that day that stay with them.
A week before Sam’s accident, Ryker and Spencer took a road trip to go to a Kansas City Royals game. One moment of that drive stands out to Ryker.
“I remember Spencer in the car saying, ‘I wish Sam would’ve come with us,’” Ryker said.
They couldn’t have predicted that would be Sam’s last chance to take a trip with them. But in an odd way, it was almost as if Sam knew he had certain things he needed to do one more time. In the last month of his life, he took more trips back to Greeley to hang with his dad. They even squeezed in one more fishing trip.
On a Saturday night that summer, Ryker, Tom, Will were all back in Grand Island. Along with a few others, they planned on going to the bars. It wasn’t a special night. It was just that three of the four of them were in the same place at the same time.
At some point, Will looked down at his phone and saw a text from Sam.
“Hey, are you in G.I. hanging out with Ryker?”
“Alright, I’m comin’.”
Sam then got in his truck and made the hour-and-a-half trip from Lincoln. Will still can’t get over the fact that Sam decided to drive three hours round trip to spend four hours with them.
How did he know?
Near the end of the night, they went back to Ryker’s house. Eventually, guys trickled out and went their separate ways. Will and Sam walked out together and made their way across Ryker’s driveway. Before Sam climbed into his truck, he looked at Will and bid him farewell.
“Love you, buddy.”
“Love you too, man.”
Those were Sam’s last words to Will.
At Sam’s wake, Will thought about standing up and sharing that story. He didn’t. It would’ve been too tough to get through.
The last year was tougher to get through than any other for Will, Ryker and Tom. They shared many late-night conversations centered on Sam. As each of them moved on from their college athletic careers and into the real world, they felt Sam’s absence.
“That’s something I learned from this whole deal. You just can’t take your friendships for granted,” Ryker said. “I think about that. It’s been a tough year.”
Ryker, Tom and Will don’t like using the term “best friend” when it comes to Sam. Their connection was deeper than that.
“From that first day when we were fresh out of middle school and taking the bus to Chadron to the final second of that last football game to every single time we’d text or call…we were just growing up together,” Tom said. “I can honestly say that the only thing that didn’t make me and Sam brothers was blood. He was my brother.”
This past June, Tom got married. There was one less groomsman than bridesmaid. Dressed in his full Naval Academy uniform, Tom walked in holding a pair of Sam’s old cowboy boots.
He placed them exactly where Sam would’ve stood.
“That’s how much he meant to me,” he said.
There will always be a void.
Ryker, Tom and Will won’t get to live their lives with their friend in a Central Nebraska town. There won’t be a crop dusting business. There will be no more fishing trips.
It’s a void that can’t be filled by banners in the Nebraska student section. No helmet sticker or commemorative coin will do Sam’s legacy justice. All the #SF27 posts won’t bring them solace.
What does bring comfort are the memories. They knew the fourth grader who could outrun all of his classmates. They knew the high school senior who knelt to the ground and wept in the final seconds of his final game. And they knew the guy who would drive an hour and a half to spend a few hours with his buddies on a random Saturday night.
That was the real Sam Foltz. And that was the story they wanted to tell.