Northwestern punter organizes tribute to Mike Sadler and Sam Foltz
Hunter Niswander managed a smile at the bittersweet picture in his head, the wide, toothy welcome to East Lansing, Michigan, he received as a high school student from northeast Ohio in 2012.
"Mike Sadler was the first guy I met when I visited Michigan State," said Niswander, a Northwestern junior who is preparing for his second season as the Wildcats' punter.
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Their connection, Niswander said, was immediate.
Sadler, whose Michigan State career ended in 2014, was not ultimately successful in recruiting Niswander to succeed him as the Spartans' punter, but he did make a friend.
"I could text him," Niswander said, "and ask him anything."
Sadler, a four-year starter and the first four-time academic All-American in Michigan State history, and Nebraska punter Sam Foltz were in the news last month for the most tragic of reasons.
After a kicking camp in which they served as instructors, the 24-year-old Sadler and Foltz, a 22-year-old senior who led the Big Ten in punting last season, died in a single-car crash in Wisconsin on July 23.
Niswander nearly attended the camp, but opted for another in the Chicago area that weekend. Influenced by both Sadler and Foltz for different reasons, he came up with a way to honor them.
"I thought all the punters in the Big Ten probably knew them one way or another, and a lot of the punters were at that camp," Niswander said. "I decided to create a (Facebook) group and send out a message to all the other punters."
What they came up with, fittingly, is a tribute on their feet.
"All the Big Ten punters, we are going to write, 'RIP MS' on our left (shoe) because Mike was a lefty and 'RIP SF' on our right because Sam was righty," Niswander said. "Everyone was all in. It was a little something we could do to honor them.
"We wanted to make sure they are remembered because they were two unbelievable guys on the field and off the field. I think it is cool to come together through rivalries and through competition and say these guys need to be remembered."
College punters have their own fraternity, a group whose members are more likely to refer to themselves as specialists than football players.
Sure, they play an important role on their team, but they don't always feel connected the way offensive and defensive players do.
"It is a little different," Minnesota punter Ryan Santoso said. "It is a brotherhood.
"... We go to camps to learn from each other. We don't keep secrets. We are all in it together, so it is like a fraternity. We are all chasing the same goals, the same dreams."
This game is bigger than on the field. Just look at the impact @samfoltz27 & Mike Sadler had off of it! Great men who will be remembered!— Hunter Niswander (@HunterNiswander) July 24, 2016
In his final Facebook post, Sadler announced his plans to attend Stanford's law school in the fall, finishing his message by writing: "We did it, Mom."
Foltz, who averaged 44.2 yards per punt as a junior, was an NFL prospect.
"The way he got up through the ball was remarkable," said Niswander, who had a 42.8-yard average last season. "He was my motivation this offseason. He was the best in the league. ... I definitely think he was going to the NFL."
Niswander's connection with Sadler was more personal.
When he chose Northwestern over Michigan State and others, Sadler was quick to congratulate him, and they remained in touch.
"I don't want to talk about everything we would discuss, but obviously we would talk about punting in general," Niswander said.
Niswander had something else in common with Sadler and Foltz, something that has allowed him to come to terms with the loss.
"(They) were men of faith and I'm also a Christian. I was able to connect with them on that level," Niswander said. "... They died way too young, but I know they are in a better place now."
This article was written by Mike Helfgot from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.