The Lone Survivor

One year after losing two friends and fellow kickers in a tragic car accident, LSU's Colby Delahoussaye now realizes what he may have gained.
photo of Lars AndersonLars AndersonSenior WriterJuly 28, 2017

They were back where the horror all began, the father and the lone survivor, sitting side by side in the cool of the Wisconsin summer night. On the back deck of a house in the wooded countryside—the same house where Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler spent the final hours of their lives one year ago—the two men talked and talked and talked as the stars above twinkled in the sweeping Midwestern sky.

My, what a sight this was last Saturday night: Gerald Foltz and Colby Delahoussaye losing themselves in the warm glow of their memories. For hours, as pizza was devoured and sodas were drained, as several young kickers leaned in and listened hard, they discussed Sam and Mike and the fragility of life. They acted like they knew each other so well—some at the party commented that they seemed like father and son—but in truth this was the first weekend they had ever physically met.

“We’ll always be here for you,” Gerald said to Colby. “You and Sam are so much alike.”

“We are family now,” Colby said to Gerald. “Forever.”

Saturday night ticked toward Sunday morning. More stories on the deck were shared about Sam, his love of tractors and farm life, his curious mind and how he could seemingly punt a ball a country mile. Then 11:43 p.m. arrived: one year, to the minute, of when Foltz and Sadler were killed in a car wreck.

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Delahoussaye closed his eyes on the deck and remembered.

Suddenly, he was back in the black Mercedes on that rainy night deep in the woods of Wisconsin. The three friends had just pulled out of the driveway of this countryside house: Mike, the former Michigan State punter who was three weeks away from starting law school at Stanford, was driving; Sam, the Nebraska punter, was riding shotgun; Delahoussaye, the LSU place-kicker, was in the back seat.

From the driver’s seat Mike pushed in a CD. “I hope you guys don’t mind,” said Mike, smiling mischievously. The beats of Justin Bieber filled the two-door coupe.

Just then, as they rolled through the darkness and into a storm, the three kickers laughed like they didn’t have a care in the world.

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

They were back where the horror all began, the mother and the lone survivor, standing in the hallway of Kettle Moraine High in Wales, Wisconsin—the same school where Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler spent the last afternoon of their lives one year ago at a kicking camp. Upon spotting each other, they hugged and hugged and hugged, embracing like they never wanted to let go.

My, what a sight this was last Saturday afternoon: Karen Sadler and Colby Delahoussaye so openly showing their affection and tenderly holding each other for more than 90 seconds. A few in the hallway who saw this spontaneous eruption of love remarked that Karen and Colby looked like they were mother and son.

Sep 24, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA;  Fans display a Sadler Strong banner honoring Mike Sadler former punter for Michigan State Spartans who was killed in a car accident over the summer prior to a game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Spartan Stadium. Man
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Truth was, they had known each other only a year. Over that time they had usually talked or texted each week, sharing so many memories of Mike: how his mind was so agile (he was the first four-time Academic All-American in school history in any sport) and his wit was so quick (he liked to verbally spar on Twitter with @FauxPelini and had 26,600 followers, the most of any college punter in the country).

Now on this Saturday afternoon, as they embraced, Karen Sadler thanked Delahoussaye. You see, exactly 363 days earlier, he had given her something she feared she’d never have again:

A sense of peace.

EUGENE, OR - SEPTEMBER 6: Mike Sadler #3 of the Michigan State Spartans punts the ball against the Oregon Ducks during the game at Autzen Stadium on September 6, 2014 in Eugene, Oregon. Oregon won 46-27. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Two mornings after the accident, Karen met Colby for the first time in the lobby of the Wildwood Lodge in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. She desperately needed to know one thing: Was Mike happy in the final moments of his life?

“Yes he was, we all were,” Colby said. And then Colby—in shock, in tears—told her what happened.

Two days earlier the three kickers had been coaches at Kohl’s Kicking Camp, instructing hundreds of young kickers. They had spent the evening at the home of Luke Radke, a teacher at the camp. Around 11:30 the three left to drive to the house of Drew Meyer, a former Wisconsin punter who lived near Merton, a small town outside of Milwaukee.

Not knowing the rural back roads, Sadler used the GPS device in his Mercedes. The three were all wearing their seatbelts, and Sadler hadn’t been drinking. The rain intensified.

They were joking and laughing—the picture of footloose and carefree college kids—as they turned onto Beaver Lake Road. It was about as dark as blindness. At 11:42 Colby noticed on the GPS that a sharp curve was approaching on the two-lane road.

“Mike, it looks like there’s a corner coming up here,” Colby said from the backseat.

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 10: Students of the Nebraska Cornhuskers honor deceased player Sam Foltz with a banner before the game against the Wyoming Cowboys at Memorial Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska defeated Wyoming 52-14. (Ph
Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Sadler hit the brakes, causing his Mercedes to hydroplane on the slick asphalt. The car slid off the road and rocketed down a 30-foot ravine, striking a tree and igniting a fireball, the flames licking high into the sky as the car landed on its driver’s side. Foltz died on impact; Sadler lost his life within minutes.

Delahoussaye woke up in a whirling daze. Fire engulfed the car. He doesn’t remember how he did it, but he managed to extract himself, crawl up the steep, muddy embankment and call 911 from his shattered cellphone.

In the lobby of the Wildwood Lodge only 36 hours after the accident—police later said the poor road conditions and bad weather contributed to the crash—Colby shared every detail he could recall. Karen then grabbed Colby tight. “Thank you,” she whispered. “You have no idea what this means to me that you’re still alive.”

“Colby is now a family member and he’s with us for life,” Karen Sadler says now. “Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries—we’ll be there for Colby, and we know Colby will be there for us. It’s one of the most special relationships I’ll ever have, because I feel like I’m with a part of my son when I’m with Colby.”

BATON ROUGE, LA - OCTOBER 12: Colby Delahoussaye #42 of the LSU Tigers prepares for a play against the Florida Gators during a game at Tiger Stadium on October 12, 2013 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. LSU defeated Florida 17-6. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Ima
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

One year has passed, and so much has changed.

Nebraska coach Mike Riley says he thinks about the accident and Sam Foltz every day. In the Cornhuskers’ season opener last year against Fresno State, the coaching staff had Nebraska line up in a “Missing Man” formation for its first punt—10 players on the field without their kicker.

Riley still experiences a full-body shiver of emotion when he recalls that moment of the Missing Man and looking into the stands and seeing thousands of wet eyes gazing down onto the field.

“Sam exemplified what Nebraska football is all about,” Riley says. “He was a walk-on kid who got a scholarship, and all he wanted to do was go back and work the family farm. He would have had to wait about 15 years because that’s how long he would have punted in the NFL, but his real goal was to farm.”

Jill Foltz, Sam’s mom, only took five bereavement days from her job as a high school nurse in Grand Island, Nebraska—a testament to her Midwestern work ethic. She spent the one-year anniversary alone at her dining room table, reading stories about her son and looking at pictures of him in his prime. She felt the dichotomy of grief: tears flowed while a smile lit her face.

LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 19: Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. #4 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers places a rose in memory of deceased player Sam Foltz before the game against the Maryland Terrapins at Memorial Stadium on November 19, 2016 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (P
Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

“Sam touched so many people,” Jill says. “And we wanted to show others that you have to carry on with your life after something like this. There’s no reason we shouldn’t go on living. We hope young people can gain something from watching us.”

Last Saturday, Karen Sadler climbed down into the ditch where her son perished. She laid two dozen red roses at the base of the tree. “There are still so many people who send us notes and letters,” Karen says. “Mike was a person who got along with everyone and connected with everyone. He was an inspiration by how he lived his life. He was a light. We still see that.”

Gerald Foltz was back on the family farm this week, tending his cattle and corn. He was thankful for a recent rain. “No one talks about what Sam did on the football field. They talk about the relationships he had,” Gerald says. “There’s a lesson there.”

Sep 24, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans walk the field near the midfield logo honoring former Michigan State Spartans punter Mike Sadler prior to a game against Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Spo
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Colby Delahoussaye was back in Baton Rouge, staying in shape and hoping for a call from an NFL team. Last season was unlike any other for Delahoussaye at LSU, and not because he made 11 of 15 field goals and 40 of 41 extra points. For the time in his life, Delahoussaye savored the small things: the smell of the grass on game day, the wide-eyed smiles on little kids faces in the stands, the rumble of expectation that rolled like thunder through stadiums as he approached the ball for a kick.

“It would have been harder to cope with everything if the Foltzes and Sadlers hadn’t been so positive and always checking in on me to see if I was OK,” says Delahoussaye, who earned his master’s degree in business this spring. “I mean, they lost their sons, and how can they be so loving to be worried about me?

“They showed me that I have to be positive in my life. There’s no reason for me to ever to be in a bad mood. I’ve been given another chance. I know Mike and Sam wouldn’t want me to feel bad. I want to live my life to honor them. And now when I wake in the morning—and I hope this sounds OK—I’m happy. I really am. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

Delahoussaye is asked why he feels so lucky. He answers in a heartbeat, in a clear and strong voice:

“Because I have two new families now,” he says. “Two new families.”


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