LINCOLN — After learning of Sam Foltz’s death, Nebraska football teammate Kieron Williams on Sunday felt inspired to quickly organize a prayer vigil at Memorial Stadium in Foltz’s honor. Williams explained in a speech, both funny and thoughtful, what Foltz meant to him and teammates.
After the vigil, media encircled Williams to ask the 21-year-old junior a few questions.
Ten seconds into his answer, grief hit him, raw and real.
“That’s my brother, man,” Williams said. “That’s my brother. That’s my brother. And he’s gone — he’s gone. That’s my brother and he’s gone, he’s gone. And we can get another punter, but it won’t matter. That’s a human being. Football doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. It’s a sport.”
Those kind of sudden shifts in emotion happen a lot after shocking deaths, said Jack Stark, a performance psychologist who worked with Nebraska football for 16 years and helped coach Tom Osborne and Husker football work through its grief after the 1996 death of NU quarterback Brook Berringer.
“It’s very common,” Stark said Monday. “And it’s more common in people who care. When people care very deeply, it takes a bigger toll on you. You have post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes. You get these flashbacks and, as you’re talking — and you’re able to rationally think about things — all of the sudden, it will trigger off a scene, and it grabs you.”
Foltz’s Saturday night death — spread by social and traditional media on Sunday — was a “grab you” moment for Stark. The memories of Berringer — to whom Stark was close — flooded back in, as did memories of a 2004 plane crash that took the life of race car driver Ricky Hendrick and nine others. Stark was working with Hendrick Motor Sports at the time.
Berringer and Foltz — their interests, their small-town roots, the way they lived their lives — are similar, Stark said.
“A part of everybody in the state died over the weekend,” Stark said. “That’s us. That’s who we are. That’s a part of us.”
The impact will hit fans, students and even the media, Stark said. But players and coaches will feel it most. And working through stages of grief — from shock to an eventual, gradual acceptance — will take time. At some point, Stark said, players will feel anger, too, over why this happened to 22-year-old Foltz.
The process was in its nascent stages Sunday as most of the Husker team attended the vigil, then sat with Nebraska coach Mike Riley in an evening meeting at Memorial Stadium.
“My main purpose was just seeing them as much as what I say to them,” Riley said after the meeting. “I told them, ‘It’s impossible for me to say anything to make you feel better.’ That’s not the purpose. It’s just to be together. That’s what we wanted to do. I just wanted to see them. Just let them know: Everybody understands their grief, and they grieve in different ways.”
The Huskers’ licensed athletic psychologist — Dr. Brett Haskell, in her third year working with NU athletes — attended the meeting, as well. Within Nebraska’s department of athletic medicine, the Huskers have Haskell, one pre-doctoral psychology intern, one post-doctoral psychologist and a psychiatrist.
“We have a really strong mental health component within athletic medicine,” said Haskell, who’d previously worked at the University of Kansas. “We’re well-resourced in comparison to a lot of other NCAA Division I institutions.”
Haskell said she also provides “education and training to our staff around what to expect in the grieving process and how they can listen and support student-athletes.”
Riley said he liked what Husker quarterback Tommy Armstrong said in the team meeting.
“He just kind of summed everything about staying together, being a team, gathering some guys at his place,” Riley said. “Really good stuff.”
Monday, Armstrong posted a video to social media of a March hunting trip he took with Foltz and two other Huskers. The quartet was in a car, singing to Garth Brooks.
“Didn’t know it would be our last,” wrote former Nebraska offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles on Twitter. Sirles also was in the video.
Riley didn’t want players “off by themselves” after the meeting. Indeed, as players filed out of Memorial Stadium, they left in clusters. A group of Husker teammates waited at the door for Nebraska quarterback Ryker Fyfe, who threw passes to Foltz at Grand Island Senior High, as he thanked two members of the media for remembering Foltz.
After a few minutes, Riley emerged from the elevator with Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst. Just hours before, Riley had been in Texas, preparing to head to Chicago for Big Ten media days. Sunday night, in the grand entry hall of North Stadium, Riley’s words echoed.
He’s been through an experience like this once before. In December 2011, Fred Thompson, a 19-year-old freshman defensive tackle at Oregon State, died of a heart attack while playing pick-up basketball.
“It’s such déjà vu,” Riley said. “The shock. Kind of the surreal — not connecting the realness of it, initially. And then going through it with the team is probably the biggest thing of how that went — getting the support that they need.”
The most recent Husker coach to deal with the death of a player is Nebraska soccer coach John Walker, whose team lost Jenna Cooper in April 2004 to injuries sustained in a shooting. The program also lost assistant coach Peter Underwood, who was killed in an August 2015 car accident.
“There is no great predictor for how each person will deal with this type of loss,” Walker said via email from Slovakia. “The other big thing is that it was much more common for a player to simply have ‘a bad day’ for no obvious reason on that day.”
Walker said he had teammates list Cooper’s top qualities and characteristics and then agree to incorporate those traits into their lives. Walker said it was a good way to “keep them in the room.”
“I did not know Sam, but it sounds like he possessed a lot of the same characteristics as Jenna,” Walker said.
Riley, Walker said, has the “wisdom and compassion” to shepherd the program through a difficult time.
“This is true coaching — helping young people deal with real life adversity — and I believe that Mike’s wisdom and compassion will be so helpful for these young athletes in the days, months and years ahead,” Walker said. “He will find a way to help the players honor Sam with their effort and attitude on and off the field.”
Nebraska’s large senior class, Riley said, also can take a leadership role. Foltz was a senior. Twenty seniors were on scholarship and more were walk-ons.
“Knowing them now — and seeing how close they are now — is pretty neat,” Riley said. “They will provide. They’ll be, in some ways, the most sad, but they’ll provide the most strength.”
One of those seniors, fullback Graham Nabity, vowed on Sunday that the team would bond over the memory of Foltz.
“We were brothers before, but now we’re that much closer,” Nabity said. “This situation is now igniting a flame for the Husker team coming in this year. We’re going to be one tight, close-knit team. We’re not going to have to go looking in other places to find motivation and drive. We’re already going to have it. The football world out there better be ready. We’re going to be coming. We’re going to be so close.
“It’s going to be something pretty special. And that only could have happened because of what Sam did in our lives — and the fact that he got taken from us.”