Hlas: Heavy hearts in Big Ten country

Sudden death of two punters mutes normal Media Day buzz

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CHICAGO — The Big Ten’s annual football media days here usually fill a hotel ballroom with positive energy.

A new season is a little more than a month away. A conference-full of emperors (coaches) and their empires are always ready to take on the world. But everything was tempered here Monday.

“With a heavy heart and great sadness …” were the first words from the first speaker at this year’s media days, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. That alone said it succinctly for everyone present.

A tragedy occurred over the weekend near Merton, Wis., 20 miles west of Milwaukee. A car driven by former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler was apparently going too fast on wet pavement, went off the roadway, dropping off an embankment of about 40 feet, and struck a tree.

Sadler and passenger Sam Foltz, about to enter his senior season as Nebraska’s starting punter, were killed. (For details on the accident, read this story on the accident’s sole survivor from the Baton Rouge Advocate.) They were in the area to be instructors at a kicking camp in nearby Wales.

Besides being a wonderful punter, Sadler he had a 25-yard run off a fake punt that helped Michigan State greatly in their 26-14 win at Iowa in 2013.

“Hey Diddle Diddle, send Sadler up the middle,” MSU Coach Mark Dantonio said after the game, in as whimsical a moment as that intense fellow is as likely to ever display.

But on Sunday, Dantonio tweeted this: “He gave us all so much in so little time. Our thoughts & prayers are with him & his family. #RIPMikeSadler”

Later that same 2013 season, Iowa led 17-10 in the third quarter at Nebraska when the Huskers tried a fake punt. Foltz, who was on the Big Ten Network’s All-Freshman Team two years before he was the league’s Punter of the Year last season, was stopped for an 8-yard loss. The Hawkeyes went on to a 38-17 win.

Those unusual plays were just blips in the two players’ careers and lives. What you started reading and hearing immediately after news of their deaths spread was that they were multidimensional people with humility, humor and heart.

Sadler was MSU football’s first four-time Academic All-America. He had a 3.97 GPA as an undergraduate and earned a degree in engineering science. He got a master’s degree in public policy, and was headed to Stanford University’s law school.

He was more than a brainy thunderfoot. He was, said former MSU teammate Travis Jackson, “really good at making people feel special.”

Foltz was noted Sunday not for his superb punting, but for his positive influence on others and his desire to be a good example for kids. He was called giving and loving.

Which brings to mind the words of Maya Angelou. ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” she said.

So many of the players hidden behind helmets and pads are genuinely special, and not because of how well they read a blitz or drop a punt on the opponent’s 5-yard line.

What people have to do to get to the Big Ten level of football or any other sport is for achievers. And often, so-called overachievers.

Foltz was a walk-on from a small central Nebraska town called Greeley, near Grand Island. He turned down full-ride offers from South Dakota, South Dakota State, and other smaller schools. Where he was from, you either were a Huskers fan or you were a stranger passing through town.

“Sam was kind and generous but tough and ornery enough to always be the guy you wanted on your side,” Grand Island Senior High School activities director Joe Kutlas said in a statement to the Grand Island Independent. He was respectful and quick to give credit to others, to look out for others — all the while quietly outworking everyone.”

College sports are full of people like that. But in the blink of an eye, a pair of the best ones are gone.

“I’ve been through that in my coaching career as well,” Penn State’s James Franklin said, “and I don’t think it’s something you ever are prepared for or can handle.”

Sympathies to the families of Sadler and Foltz for facing something you wouldn’t wish on anyone. They should always feel good about the ways their son/grandson/brother made others feel.

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