Nebraska's Spencer Lindsay lost two best friends in three years. What remains is the precious, incommunicable past.
The jersey hangs on the wall by itself now, white with red numbers, a Holiday Bowl patch on the right chest, Nebraska patch on the left, the "27" in perfect condition. At their old apartment, the one on the other side of the complex, they wallpapered the living room with jerseys from their favorite teams (like the Cleveland Indians) and favorite players (like J.J. Redick and Eric Crouch), giving them a colorful, textured reminder of all their adventures.
But then Sam Foltz died and Spencer Lindsay couldn't handle looking at all that every day, couldn't handle being in the two-bedroom apartment where his best friend was never going to sleep again. So he packed up everything and moved into a smaller place, where grief felt more manageable.
Lindsay is a walk-on kicker at Nebraska, the backup to Drew Brown. He is best known as the former roommate and best friend of Foltz, the Huskers' punter who died on July 23 in a car accident that also killed former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Lindsay says his most rewarding accomplishment, without question, is his friendship with Foltz. Second to that, he is proudest of his inclusion in the 2012 walk-on class at Nebraska, a program that boasts about its rich walk-on history.
The 2012 walk-on class is impressive. To wit: Andy Janovich (Denver Broncos starting fullback), Ryker Fyfe (backup quarterback), Ross Dzuris (starting defensive end), Brandon Reilly (40 catches in 2016) and Lane Hovey (former receiver now playing as a graduate transfer at Montana) have all been critical pieces of Nebraska's roster the past few seasons, and that's just a sampling of the 2012 class. But more impressive, perhaps, is Lindsay's perseverance through the personal heartbreak and tragedy that have littered his walk-on journey.
"People use that phrase a lot, 'Life isn't fair,'" Lindsay says. "What I've learned is, it's one thing to say that, but it's a whole other thing to wake up every day, swallow the lump in your throat and know that it's true."
Lindsay and Foltz met in high school in Nebraska, playing then at rivals Kearney (Lindsay) and Grand Island (Foltz). Back then, Foltz was a do-everything player for the Islanders, a defensive back and part-time quarterback who was one of the best punters in the state. "A true jock," says Nebraska coach Mike Riley, noting Foltz's third-place finish at the Nebraska state track meet in the 400-meter dash. Lindsay, like many Nebraska walk-ons, was a small town kid known for his work ethic.
They befriended each other at a Wisconsin kicking camp. No one is quite sure why or how they hit it off. "They were kinda like the odd couple," says Gerald Foltz, Sam's dad. "Watching them go back and forth, you couldn't get entertainment like that on television."
They exchanged trash-talking text messages and didn't miss an opportunity to poke fun at the other one. When Grand Island came to Kearney for a basketball game, Lindsay cut out a giant Foltz head and danced it around in the crowd. When Foltz caught the ball, Lindsay led chants of "BIE-BER! BIE-BER!" a nod to the pop superstar. Their rivalry game story has reached legendary status in the Nebraska locker room. Kearney had beaten Grand Island 10 years in a row when the teams met in 2010, Foltz and Lindsay's junior year. Lindsay was playing safety, and Foltz was lined up at receiver. Grand Island's running back took the handoff, then tossed it back to Fyfe, the Islanders' quarterback. He launched it 60 yards downfield, to a streaking Foltz. "Ugh," Lindsay groans. "He was already celebrating in the end zone by the time I jogged in there. It was so embarrassing that we lost to them! He was always quick to remind me about that game."
Lindsay bit so hard on the play fake, Gerald Foltz says, that when you watch it on replay, Lindsay isn't even in the frame.
When they both decided to walk on at Nebraska, rooming together in the dorms was a no-brainer.
In Lincoln, they relished the freedom in being away from home, and took their antics to the next level. Toward the end of their redshirt freshman season, with Nebraska eliminated from Big Ten title game contention, they hatched a plan to attend the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, between Auburn and Missouri. To fully enjoy the weekend, they lied to their strength coaches about why they were missing Friday workouts. Foltz said he had to attend a convention with his mom in Atlanta; Lindsay said he had to go to Omaha. "Looking back on it, the reason I made up totally did not make sense," he says.
Two days later, after one missed shuttle connection, an accidental trip to a rough neighborhood and a desperate phone call home to ask their moms for more cash, Foltz and Lindsay arrived back in Lincoln, exhausted but giddy. "Man, this would only happen to us," Foltz had said at multiple points during the trip, dissolving into laughter. Lindsay loved it, too. Then they showed up in the weight room Monday morning for previously scheduled workouts, and discovered their secret getaway wasn't as covert as they thought. "The worst part," Lindsay says, laughing, "was when I walked in, Sam had lifted before me and he whispers, 'Get ready. They know!' as he walked out."
They loved road trips the most. Once, after a mission trip with their church to Washington state, Foltz and Lindsay caught a shuttle from central Washington to Seattle, then took the train down to San Francisco to watch the Giants. Like many college-aged men, they didn't think through the laundry situation. "It turns out some hotels don't have washers and dryers!" Lindsay says, still incredulous. "I'm not sure who initiated the idea, but before you know it, we're filling the bathtub up with hot water and soap and throwing everything in there—shirts, socks, underwear. Then we got four blowdryers from the front desk and well, we went to work for awhile."
The outlier proved to be a pair of jeans Foltz foolishly plunged into the hot water. Two days later, they still weren't dry. This at least partially contributed to their decision to fork over a couple hundred dollars for official Giants gear, mostly in the form of sweatshirts and sweatpants. Sitting in the right field stands, just off the water from McCovey Cove, gets a little chilly, especially when you don't have jeans to keep you warm.
They went everywhere together: To Kansas City to see the Royals, to Denver to watch the Rockies and a Manchester United exhibition game. Road trip music was a mix of country and Justin Bieber, with a little Kanye West and Chance the Rapper thrown in. Sometimes they listened to stand up comedians while driving, and that might have been Lindsay's favorite, because he can still hear Foltz's laugh. "Like a hyena gasping," Lindsay recalls.
Off the field, they were always together. On the field, they started to separate. Foltz became the starting punter as a redshirt freshman, earning a scholarship soon after. Lindsay was relegated to mostly backup status, recording kickoffs in a handful of games over his career. But Foltz never treated Lindsay as less than equal, and encouraged him endlessly. "He was the holder, and he'd take time to hold for me, too, every day at practice," Lindsay says. "That can really wear on your knees, but he wanted to make sure I got as many reps, and opportunities as everyone else. He was my No. 1 guy through what's been a very strange career." Foltz did get vocal a couple times, though, including last off-season, when Lindsay was mulling a grad transfer to Hawaii in hopes of playing right away. It was Foltz who persuaded Lindsay to stay.
A few months later, he was dead.
Lindsay remembers both every detail and almost nothing from the day he heard that his best friend was gone. Walking to his car on his way to church, Lindsay got a text from his mom telling him to call her right away. He worried that maybe his dog, who had been sick, had died.
"I called, and my dad answered and I just remember him saying, 'Sam died in a car accident last night.' I froze. It's like I was paralyzed. I was crying, yelling in my car. My dad stayed on the phone because he didn't know what to do, but he knew he didn't want to hang up."
The rest of the day is mostly a blur. His parents, Bill and Kay, drove to Lincoln immediately. That night, the Huskers gathered for a somber team meeting. "The two saddest rooms I've ever been in in my life," says Riley, Nebraska's second-year coach who has guided a team through this type of tragedy before. At Oregon State, where Riley worked for 14 years, the Beavers lost a defensive tackle to a heart attack in December 2011, when coaches were on the road recruiting. "Even if you've been through it, you just feel ill prepared."
Lindsay can relate. That night, when devastated teammates tried to comfort each other, someone asked Lindsay if he had any words of advice to share. It was immense pressure to heap on the shoulders of a heartbroken kid. Male athletes in their early 20s typically don't "get into all their feelings," Lindsay says. But in that room, in that moment, no one could hide. So he stood in front of the group and talked about being patient with yourself through grief, and understanding there's no rush to feel like a happy person again. "If you're having a s----- day, it's OK to be honest with yourself about that," Lindsay said.
Teammates listened, Riley says, because Lindsay—like his best friend—is one of the most respected members of the team. Guys like and want to be around him. But also, they listened because they knew Lindsay spoke from personal experience.
Before Foltz took on the role of Spencer Lindsay's No. 1 fan, it belonged to someone else.
Matt Lindsay was born eight years before little brother Spencer, and took it upon himself to teach Spencer how to kick and throw a football. A lifelong soccer player, Spencer learned the game because he tagged along to Matt's practice—coached by dad Bill—while acting as manager. He was "the guy I looked up to," Spencer says, and Matt loved it. As Spencer weighed a scholarship offer from Northwest Missouri State, Matt, then living in Chicago and working the in Blackhawks office, told his parents excitedly, "Nebraska is going to offer him a spot, I know it. They're gonna give him a shot."
A diehard Husker fan, Matt was thrilled when Spencer chose the tougher route. "I don't think anybody enjoyed going to those Husker games more than Matt," says mom Kay. Spencer would visit Matt in Chicago and marvel at his big brother's decision to pack up and move to an unfamiliar city, in awe of how he settled in and found friends. At a White Sox game once, with the Red Sox in town, Matt and Spencer sat 30 rows behind the first base dugout, close to the foul pole. David Ortiz got up and rocketed a foul ball in their direction. Spencer stood to catch it, stretched out his arm, watched the ball smack into his hand … and then fall four rows in front of him. His reaction time wasn't great. Spencer was crushed. Matt couldn't stop laughing at the look on little brother's face.
"Going to Chicago, those are some of my best memories," Spencer says. "He was my original adventure partner. When things were tough and I was wondering what I got myself into, he's the one who kept me going."
Shortly after Spencer arrived in Lincoln, the family got shocking news. Matt, who had dealt with colon problems most his life, was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a progressive liver disease; it is well known as bile duct cancer, and was the cause of Walter Payton's death. Matt went through chemo treatments that spanned three years, but when Spencer returned from his San Francisco road trip with Foltz, his parents told him the truth: Matt would likely not survive.
"When Spence was asked to walk on at Nebraska, as a parent you feel so much pride," Bill says. "But then, a year later, you find out your other son has terminal cancer and football is put in perspective."
Spencer had no idea how to tell anyone, let alone his roommate, that his brother was dying. So he wrote Foltz a note, left it in the apartment and flew to Chicago. When Matt died on May 29, 2014, at just 28, Kay recalls, in a shaky voice, "Sam was the first kid in our house."
"There was a great sadness the first few games in the fall of 2014, when we had to go to Lincoln without Matt, and Spence was there on the sideline without his brother," Kay says. "Those were some very dark days. I don't know if he thought about quitting but I know he was a pretty sad kid."
Foltz walked Spencer through every day, good and bad. When Spencer needed a distraction the day after Matt's death, Foltz grabbed a ball and a mitt and played catch. He joined the family to play in the annual Matt Lindsay Memorial golf tournament, where the Lindsays raise money for cancer research. Like Spencer, Foltz wore a blue, white and orange wristband—the colors of Matt's favorite team, the Chicago Bears—with the words "Matthew B. Lindsay, Never Forgotten" every day. And with Matt gone, Foltz became Spencer's No. 1 cheerleader.
Barely two years after Matt's death, Foltz was gone, too.
Lindsay isn't sure if there's an answer to the question, Will you ever get used to them being gone? "I do think that my experience might have helped some of our teammates deal with this," Lindsay says. "It's not to say I've mastered the process. I'm not sure anyone can. I'm not sure anyone wants to."
He relives death almost every morning, when he wakes up and remembers two of his favorite people aren't coming back. There are reminders everywhere. Foltz's jersey is in the living room, and he regularly wears one of Foltz's favorite hats. He's trying to grow his hair out, like Foltz, long and wavy, the kind that looks good when the wind catches it. But Lindsay's is thinning, and it's not quite the same, he laughs. If Foltz were still here, he'd absolutely be making fun of him.
Along with his blue, white and orange Matt wristband, he wears a red and white one that reads, "Dream big, work hard, stay humble, SF 27." He keeps one of Foltz's bag tags in his room. Lindsay considers himself a deeply private person. Heartache is one thing; very public heartache is a different beast to tackle.
Gestures from other teams this season have humbled and moved him. If anyone needed proof that college football is a brotherhood, he says, this season is it. But also, it's a little exhausting emotionally, because every moment of silence, every flower left on the 27-yard line, every honorary Sam Foltz jersey given to the Huskers is one more agonizing opportunity to think about who isn't standing next to him anymore.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think, 'If Sam were here, he'd say this,'" Lindsay says. "The worst part is that every day you wake up and have to swallow reality again."
He's grateful that his family, which is too familiar with loss, has formed the worst kind of unbreakable bond with the Foltzes. Bill's first wife (and Matt's mom) Jill, was killed in a car accident in 1991. Elizabeth, Matt and Spencer's older sister, was also in the accident, and suffered debilitating injuries that left her paralyzed. The family has grieved privately for years, and their pain is still raw. They did not want to discuss details of past tragedy though Kay acknowledges that losing Sam has "brought back a lot of the emotion we felt losing Matt," and other loved ones.
Motivation to go to practice, or even get out of bed, comes and goes. He reminds himself that Matt and Sam would have never put up with a quitter. Bill and Kay check in with Spencer constantly, and on off days will drive two hours east to Lincoln to take him to dinner, look him in the eye and make sure he's O.K.
As much as Lindsay is enjoying the Huskers' undefeated run so far, a small part of him wonders if it'll get better once he graduates. The only people who really understand his pain are his teammates. But they're also the ones who remind him most of Foltz. Riley says you can't go a day in the Nebraska football offices without hearing a Sam Foltz story. After the season Lindsay, a history major, plans to study in Amsterdam, and then it's off to law school.
"I've really had to fight this year," he says. "I'm a person of faith, so I have to still hold out hope that something important can happen this season, something special with me or the team, something that wouldn't outweigh the negatives but make it more …"
Lindsay trails off. The word he's looking for is manageable. But a small part of him wonders, too, if something could even be joyful again.
"Maybe there's something. I guess we have to wait and see."
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com