'I know they're with me': Packers' Peter Mortell copes with deaths of Sam Foltz, Mike Sadler

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The group chat will forever remain in Peter Mortell's iPhone messages. Not only can he not delete it -- just as he cannot stop referring to Mike Sadler and Sam Foltz in the present tense, struggling to accept that they are really gone -- he cannot stop adding to the conversation.

"They might not respond," the Green Bay Packers rookie punter said Tuesday, "but I know they're reading it."

Sadler and Foltz were killed in a one-car crash just outside of Milwaukee on Saturday night, when authorities say their vehicle skidded off a rain-slicked road and struck a tree.

Just a few days earlier, the five punting pals -- Mortell from Minnesota, Sadler from Michigan State, Foltz from Nebraska, Riley Dixon from Syracuse and Drew Meyer from Wisconsin -- were rapid-firing texts at one another, cracking jokes and making plans for their annual Wisconsin reunion at the Kohl's kicking camps. Sadler, Foltz and Meyer were in; Dixon, a rookie with the Denver Broncos, was out.

Mortell was the lone undecided, mindful that Packers players were reporting to training camp at 6 a.m. Monday but also knowing he was only a 2½-hour drive away.

"They asked me if I was going to come down," Mortell said, his eyes red. "And I said, 'I don’t think I’m going to make it this weekend, guys.'"

The quintet had grown especially close in recent years -- through fall college football seasons, winter workouts, spring practices, summer camps. And the group message -- started nearly two years ago -- had served as something of a digital oral history of their friendship.

"Even though we only saw each other face-to-face a couple times a year, when we’d play each other or at this camp," Meyer said, "we had a special bond."

That bond grew stronger each offseason as they attended and worked the camp while bunking together at Meyer’s family’s home -- an upgrade from the sweltering UW-Whitewater dorms where the other college players stayed. It was a spur-of-the-moment idea that quickly became a tradition.

"That first year, it was more, 'Guys, I’m going home. Does anyone want to come with me? We have air conditioning,'" Meyer recalled with a chuckle, before his voice trailed off. "It was a unique group of guys."

After spending the evening at the home of one of the camp counselors, playing games and catching up, Sadler, Foltz and LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye were en route to Meyer’s home late Saturday night when Sadler lost control of his black Mercedes on a notoriously dangerous curve. Sadler and Foltz died at the scene; Delahoussaye, who was in the back seat, escaped with burns and lacerations.

'I knew exactly what had happened'

Meyer, who left after the others and took a different route with Nebraska kicker Drew Brown, knew something was wrong when he arrived at his family’s home before Sadler, Foltz and Delahoussaye. When Meyer’s calls to their cellphones went unanswered, he and Brown immediately headed for Beaver Lake Road, with Meyer fearing the worst. When they saw police lights and the road barricaded off, Meyer knew.

"I knew exactly what had happened -- that they had missed that turn -- before we even talked to the officers," Meyer said. Even after Meyer explained who he was and that his friends were in the vehicle, sheriffs on the scene refused to give him any details -- "Can we just ask if they’re alive?" Meyer said he asked one deputy, who did not answer him -- except to say that Delahoussaye had been able to call 911 and was en route to the hospital.

It wasn’t until the next morning, after a sleepless night, that Meyer learned Sadler and Foltz were dead. Meyer, in turn, called Mortell, barely able to speak. The what-ifs that followed have haunted Mortell ever since.

"I think I would have gone if training camp didn’t start on Monday," said Mortell, who shared a room with Foltz the past couple of years. Then, a pause. "I would have definitely stayed at Drew’s house.

"It hurts, because you think of maybe what wouldn’t have happened if you did go. If one variable is different."

Then, another pause, at the thought of the alternative.

"Or," Mortell said, "I’m in the car."

Meyer, meanwhile, was doing the same.

"Should I have insisted they follow me instead of letting them pull out first while I backed out and turned my car around? Should I have called sooner to make sure they were going the right way on the GPS?" Meyer said. "There are plenty of questions we can ask ourselves. But God had a plan."

Fond memories

The cathartic stream of memories just kept coming Tuesday night. Mortell had just finished with the Packers' special-teams meetings inside Lambeau Field and was headed for the dorms at St. Norbert College; Meyer had driven back to Madison to visit his college roommates' new place and play pingpong. Neither distraction had taken their minds off their loss.

Both questioned whether they should be sharing their grief publicly, but both reached the same conclusion: Foltz and Sadler were such remarkable people, they owed it to them to share them with others.

Plus, they had too many good stories.

Like the time the Wisconsin coaches couldn’t find Meyer at the start of pregame warm-ups because he was still in the locker room getting his uniform on -- because of Foltz.

"I was almost late, because I’d spent too much time talking to him on the field beforehand," Meyer recalled.

Or the time Mortell’s Gophers rallied in the fourth quarter to beat Foltz's Huskers, and Foltz bee-lined for Mortell after the game ended, seemingly oblivious to the outcome.

"He told me he loved me, and asked if we could take a picture -- in which he's grinning ear to ear," Mortell said. "Who does that after a heartbreaking loss? That's the guy Sam was. Even though Sam was younger than me, I looked up to him and he made me a better person."

Or the time Foltz picked up a Nebraska first down on a fake punt and Meyer’s Wisconsin teammates’ heads all turned when they heard their own punter cheering on the bench.

"I got excited when Sam picked up the first down and ran one of our guys over. And guys were looking at me like, 'What are you getting excited about?'" Meyer said. "Hey, it was my best friend."

Or the night after one camp a couple of years back when Mortell unexpectedly turned casual dinner conversation into a thorough dissection of the pooch punt.

"We’re all sitting down, and the next thing you know, we’re all putting down our plates and passing a football around, showing how we hold the ball, the angle we make contact ..." Meyer said.

Or all the times Sadler, who was set to leave for Stanford Law School next month, would self-deprecatingly discuss his brief NFL career.

"After I signed with Green Bay, he called me and joked, 'If you make it past lunch, you'll have been in the NFL longer than I ever was. I'm so proud of you,'" Mortell said. "I'll never forget that."

Added Meyer: "Mike was very proud of his two-day career with the Buccaneers."

'I can feel them'

On Tuesday, Mortell did his best to focus on football, to earn the NFL career that Sadler so wanted him to have.

Before heading out to the first training camp practice as a Packer -- where his competition with incumbent punter Tim Masthay began immediately, with the first of many head-to-head punting periods -- Mortell grabbed a marker and inscribed Sadler's and Foltz’s jersey numbers on his cleats, a small way to acknowledge that he might not even be in this position without them. Especially Sadler, who had been an unofficial older brother to the rest of the punters in their group.

Last summer, Sadler, who’d already finished his eligibility at Michigan State, drove up to Green Bay with Mortell after the Kohl's camp ended. Sadler basically moved in with Mortell’s parents, spending a week helping Mortell prep for his senior year. Then, once the season started, Mortell took each practice punt and screen-shared the video of it with Sadler, who scoured each kick for areas for improvement.

"People who aren't part of the 'specialist world' of college football don't understand the icons these two guys were -- not only in the Big Ten but around the country," Mortell said. "Mike had a very decorated career at Michigan State, and Sam was destined for the NFL -- but you wouldn't know it by talking to them. They never liked talking about themselves and were always so willing to listen.

"One thing I'll never forget about Mike was how willing he was to help. He gave me so much advice and always helped me get out of slumps that specialists sometimes find themselves in. Mike taught me how to keep an even head and have fun with the game. He taught me about the importance of memories and how at the end of the day that's all we'll have left.

"You know, we all got to know each other over these camps, and then as the football season went on, we’d always checked in on each other and we tried to make each other better. Those two were so successful, and while they made me better, I think that made them better. We had a pretty good dynamic.

"I know they’re not here with us physically, but I can feel them. I know they’re with me."