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Sam Foltz's enduring spirit not forgotten by Wisconsin specialists

"It wasn't because he was the punter of the year for the Big Ten," Rafael Gaglianone (27) said of Sam Foltz. "It was because he was this caring guy that cared about everybody and made everybody around him happy. That's what I strive to do, too." Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone had drilled the game-winning 46-yard field goal to beat Nebraska only moments earlier, but Sam Foltz made a beeline toward him on the field anyway to immediately offer his congratulations.

Foltz, the Nebraska punter, wasn't the type of person to let the competitive nature of a game stand in the way of a meaningful relationship. He knew Gaglianone had struggled that day, missing two field goals, including a potential winner minutes before. He wanted to provide encouragement, to build up a friend. What Gaglianone remembers now is how genuinely happy Foltz was for him last October after Gaglianone's kick lifted Wisconsin to a 23-21 victory in Lincoln, even as the Cornhuskers dropped to 2-4 overall.

"I was hoping you weren't going to get a second chance there," Gaglianone recalled Foltz telling him, "because I knew you would make it if you did."

"That moment that Sam came over to me after that game was kind of a turning point for me in our friendship," Gaglianone said. "I really believe so."

The smallest gestures carry the largest impact, and stories like that one help illustrate the type of man Foltz was. He was someone whose authentic, caring personality could make anybody feel better. He brought people together and was inclusive of those he barely knew, treating them as though they had been buddies for a lifetime. Gaglianone said that within 15 minutes of first introducing himself to a large group as a freshman at a kicking camp, Foltz remembered his name and wanted to know more about him. Those personality traits shined through for everyone who crossed his path.

"He walked around with a smile on his face all the time," Wisconsin long snapper Connor Udelhoven said. "There was some sort of charisma, infectious attitude that made him a guy you wanted to hang out around."

All of which made the tragic news of Foltz's death even more devastating to those who knew him. Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler were killed in a July car accident when their vehicle slid off a road in the town of Merton, Wisconsin. They were heading to the home of former Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer after attending a specialists camp at a nearby high school in which Gaglianone and Udelhoven attended.

The accident occurred about an hour east of Camp Randall Stadium, site of Saturday night's game between No. 11 Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) and No. 7 Nebraska (7-0, 4-0). The outcome is of vital importance to each team's College Football Playoff dreams. But the evening also will represent so much more than what happens between the lines.

"It kind of brings all the memories back, and it's hard when you have all the families coming and it's kind of the place close to where it all happened," Gaglianone said. "For the family to get some closure and for you to try to explain as much of what those last few days were, it's going to be very emotional being there."

Gaglianone was one of three Wisconsin specialists to attend Foltz's funeral in Nebraska, along with Udelhoven and Meyer, whose father drove them to the service. It was there where Gaglianone became better acquainted with Foltz's parents, Gerald and Jill. Every Friday since the accident, Gaglianone said, he has communicated with Gerald by phone. Gerald calls or texts to check in on Gaglianone, to encourage him and lift his spirits -- much like Sam once did for Gaglianone.

Gaglianone, the Badgers' three-year starting place-kicker, won't play on Saturday. He is out for the year after undergoing season-ending back surgery last month. But he still plans to make an impact this weekend. He said he would spend Friday night at the Nebraska team hotel to be around players and Foltz's family, who will be in town for the game.

There have been many stirring tributes to Foltz from opposing teams throughout the season. Gaglianone intends to participate in a pregame ceremony honoring Foltz, in which he and Nebraska kicker Drew Brown will carry Foltz's No. 27 Cornhuskers jersey out of the tunnel and onto the field.

"It's something to celebrate a phenomenal man's life," Udelhoven said. "He had a lot of impact on myself and other people around him. If a lot of us had 10 lifetimes, I don't know if we could quite reach the impact he's made in his 22 years down here."

Gaglianone spent time with Brown in Lincoln after the funeral, and they have grown closer in the months since the accident. Before the season began, Gaglianone changed his jersey number to Foltz's 27 to honor his friend, and he has remained in touch with several other Cornhuskers players since announcing the gesture.

"One of the reasons why I wanted to play with the jersey 27 is just for all the things that you do on and off the field," Gaglianone said. "It's the person you are off the field and how you carry yourself. That's why Sam really stood out. It wasn't because of the way he played, and it wasn't because he was the punter of the year for the Big Ten. It was because he was this caring guy that cared about everybody and made everybody around him happy. That's what I strive to do, too."

Gaglianone noted this week would not be easy. He still finds it difficult to understand and accept what happened to his friend, and those feelings will be magnified as the game approaches. He and Udelhoven, however, both recognize the importance of this weekend in the healing process.

One thing is certain, they vow: Although Sam Foltz is gone, his spirit won't be forgotten.

"The last thing I said to the guy before I headed out this summer is see you when we're both undefeated," Udelhoven said. "Nebraska kept up their end of the stick. We did our best to get there. But it's pretty neat seeing them come in. Whether he had something to do with that or not, who knows? But I wouldn't be surprised."