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Sadler and Foltz families reunite in Lincoln, Nebraska

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Gerald, Jill, Karen, and Katie will honor Mike and Sam prior to the MSU/Nebraska game

Gerald Foltz is up in his combine, harvesting his family’s land in Greeley, Nebraska – as he’s done for decades now – when his phone rings. It’s a chilly Tuesday evening in November and the sun is already down.

“Is this Gerald?” the voice on the other end of the phone asks.

“Could be,” Gerald replies, in a non-committal-yet-still-congenial manner, almost with a laugh.

And so begins a 15-minute conversation that wanders all over the place, from the mundane to the poignant and back again.

Gerald has already harvested his family’s soy beans. Right now, he’s doing the corn. It’s usually a 50/50 split but this year he ended up with slightly more corn than beans.

“How many acres do you own?” the voice on the phone asks.

“The way the prices are, way too many,” Gerald replies with a hearty laugh.

Where is Greeley located, anyway?

“Fifty miles north of Grand Island.”

The silence on the other end of the line betrays the fact that his description didn’t help clarify too much.

“Nowhere, Nebraska,” clarifies Gerald.

Yeah. That sounds about right.

“That’s what Sam used to call it,” said Gerald. “And he loved it.”

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Gerald and his wife, Jill, have spent their entire married life on the Foltz family farm. In fact, the 2019 farming season will mark 100 years of farming in the Foltz family.

Gerald and Jill ventured out of Greeley 36 years ago to tie the knot. They headed about 10 miles north on US Route 281 and then took a right turn and went another 10 miles east on Highway 91 to Spalding, another tiny village in Nowhere, Nebraska.

Since then, they’ve raised four children together -- two boys, two girls.

Gerald’s third child, Sam, used to ride on dad’s lap in this very combine – until he got old enough to operate it himself, as all the Foltz children tend to do eventually. Sam continued to operate the farm equipment throughout his teenage years and into his college years at the University of Nebraska, where he was a punter for the Cornhuskers football team.

Gerald’s mind is focused on running his farm right now but in a few short days, he and his family will bundle up and make the trip to Lincoln – 107 miles or so to the southeast, as the crow flies – to join his other family, the Nebraska football family.

Gerald and his family regularly attend 3-4 games per year at Memorial Stadium.

But this one will be different.

For this game, the University of Nebraska – headed up by head football coach Scott Frost and Adam Clark in Football Operations – has a suite set up for Gerald’s family. Former players are expected to show up and swing by and visit.

Gerald’s and Jill’s oldest daughter, Caroline, and her husband will join their youngest daughter, Betsy, at the game. Their oldest son – Jordan – should be there as well, with his two sons, Max and Lane. Max and Lane led the Nebraska football team out of the tunnel in September 2016, wearing #27 – the jersey of their uncle Sam.

Nebraska football players run with the nephews of deceased Nebraska punter Sam Foltz during the tunnel walk at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Sept. 3, 2016. DN | Adam Warner

Also joining them in the suite this Saturday will be their friends, Karen and Katie Sadler, dressed in green and white, the colors of the visiting football team. Karen’s son and Katie’s brother – Michael Sadler – was also a collegiate punter, for the Michigan State Spartans.

“Our family and the Foltz family became members together of the club nobody ever wants to join,” Karen Sadler said earlier this week.

Sam Foltz and Michael Sadler both died in an automobile accident in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on July 23, 2016.

“We both lost kids in the same automobile,” said Gerald. “That more or less bonds you for life. The Sadlers are great people and we talk to them from time to time. You’re constantly thinking of them, hoping that everyone is getting along well. It’s a pretty tough deal.”

The deaths of Mike and Sam shook the universities and the communities they called home. And through their two foundations – the Michael Sadler Foundation and the Sam Foltz Foundation – the families are keeping their memories alive.

“The Foltzes are gracious, giving and humble people. We are very grateful to the people at Nebraska and MSU for honoring the memory and legacies of Mike and Sam this Saturday,” said Karen. “When he spoke at Mike’s celebration of life, Coach Dantonio said our two schools will always have a special bond because of Mike and Sam.”

“The effort that’s gone into making this game special is an example of that bond,” Karen continued. “Spartans and Cornhuskers are special people, and I think that’s why Mike and Sam chose MSU and Nebraska. While nothing will ever fill the void of losing a child, it warms our hearts to know that people remember the accomplishments of Mike and Sam, and the joy they brought to this world.”

A coin commemorating Sadler and Foltz will be used for the pre-game coin toss for the MSU/Nebraska game on Saturday, just like it was for all seven of the Big Ten’s conference games on October 1, 2016 and at the Big Ten Championship Game on December 3, 2016.

A coin honoring Mike Sadler and Sam Foltz

It’s been a while since the Foltzes and the Sadlers were all together, though Gerald and Karen did both meet with town officials in Merton, Wisconsin about three months ago to discuss why no guard rail has been installed at the site of their sons’ 2016 accident.

“Needless to say, both families are stunned,” said Karen. “So are local residents in the area. We are hopeful the town will build the small expense of a guard rail into their town budget – which is in the process of being compiled now.”

Karen and Katie are flying to Nebraska as guests of the Michigan State football team. About an hour before the game, the Foltz and Sadler families will join the head coaches from Michigan State and Nebraska for a ceremony honoring the two late punters. It will be filmed and shown throughout the game and on the FOX broadcast.

MSU AD Bill Beekman, Karen Sadler, Katie Sadler, former Cotton Bowl Foundation Chair Dan Novakov. Photo: Michael Sadler Foundation

Katie Sadler, Mike’s sister, said it’s incredible to see how Michigan State and Nebraska have come together over the past two years.

“I know that Mike and Sam would be proud of how the communities have made something positive come out of a terrible situation,” Katie said earlier this week.

“I wish I knew Sam better, but from everything I’ve been told, Sam and Mike were very similar,” Katie continued. “They were both outstanding individuals that cared more about the people around them than themselves. They were both constantly striving to learn more. They were both going to make huge impacts on the world.”

Katie knows that the Michael Sadler Foundation and the Sam Foltz Foundation are working to carry on the legacies that each of them left behind.

“We hope to make even a fraction of the difference that Sam and Mike would have made,” Katie said. “This Saturday is an opportunity to continue to make that difference.”

Katie says she is really looking forward to seeing the Foltz family again.

“I wish we were brought together under better circumstances, but it’s been an honor to get to know Sam’s family over the past two years,” said Katie. “Sam’s sister, Betsy, and I keep in touch and I can tell that there is a lot of Sam in her – she’s incredibly strong and kind, well beyond her years. We’re thankful that Michigan State and Nebraska are providing us an opportunity to celebrate Mike and Sam’s legacies this weekend.”