Checking into his first professional football training camp was a pretty big deal, but it wasn't the only thing on Eagles rookie Nate Gerry's mind Sunday.
Gerry also needed to phone Gerald and Jill Foltz, the parents of Sam Foltz, Gerry's friend and former Nebraska roommate, the 2015 Big Ten punter of the year who had died in a car crash exactly one year earlier.
"I think about Sam every day. He's the reason I play football," Gerry said after rookies, quarterbacks and veterans coming off injury completed their first workout of camp Monday at NovaCare.
Gerry would like to wear Foltz's No. 27 as an Eagle, but that's Malcolm Jenkins' number, and in any event, it couldn't have been available to Gerry, since he is converting from college safety to outside linebacker. So he wears 47, an NFL-approved linebacker number, with at least a nod toward Foltz.
"That's my best friend … I know he should be here right now, too, so I play this game for him," Gerry said. "I talked to his parents (Sunday). I talked to some other guys on the team."
Gerry, a fifth-round pick, was the only Nebraska player drafted this year, but he said he feels that if Foltz had lived, "he would have been drafted before me," even though punters often end up being signed after the draft.
Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler were in Wisconsin, driving to a friend's house from a nearby kicking camp they'd attended as counselors. Just before midnight last July 23, just a few miles from their destination, Sadler lost control of his Mercedes on wet pavement. The car ran off the two-lane road, plummeted down a ravine and rammed into a tree, killing Sadler and Foltz and injuring the other passenger, LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye.
Gerry noted that Gerald Foltz last weekend visited the Wisconsin kicking camp where his son had spent his final days, and spoke to the campers.
"Had to do it," Gerald Foltz told the Land of 10 Nebraska football blog. "Felt better afterwards. Hurt like hell, but it helps the journey.
"I didn't choose to be in this thing. But apparently I was chosen to be in it, so you've got to make the best of it. There are a lot of people who haven't dealt with their kid dying for 10, 15, 20 years. So if you can say something to lighten their burden, or make this acceptable where you can go on with life? Hell, yeah."
Gerry said: "Stuff like that shows how strong they are. … They're extremely tough. They're very humble people. … They were at every single (Nebraska) football game last year. As a team, for Nebraska, a lot of us built off that last year. That's kind of helped us grow as friends and family.
"Sam was just like his parents – his motto every day was 'Be humble, work hard.' He did it every day. Every day when he came into the stadium, he always had a smile on his face, always picking people up. Even if he didn't know you, he'd still say hi to you. He'd always go the extra step to make you smile."
Gerry was one of four Cornhuskers attending the Big Ten media days in Chicago when Nebraska coach Mike Riley called with the news about Foltz.
"We didn't go to media days. We flew home. One of my buddies, his parents were fortunate enough to get us a private jet back (to Lincoln, Neb.). We got back real quick," Gerry said.
Memorial-service attendance "just wrapped around the stadium … That's the type of person Sam was, and that's how many people he impacted," Gerry said.
The Cornhuskers commemorated Foltz throughout their 2016 season, as did opponents. They lined up for their first punt without a punter and took a delay-of-game penalty, which Fresno State declined. The Ohio State marching band spelled out "SF27," and Buckeyes punter Cameron Johnston – currently in camp with the Eagles – gave Jill and Gerald Foltz an Ohio State helmet decorated with 27 pride stickers. Illinois had players autograph an Illini uniform with Foltz's name and number.
Before overtime in the Cornhuskers' game against Wisconsin, Gerry had to call the coin toss. The teams were using a special coin that featured Foltz on one side and Sadler on the other. Gerry called "Foltzy," won the toss, and credited Foltz for coming through, though Wisconsin wound up winning the game.
Gerry hopes to honor Foltz by making an impact with the Eagles. He turned in an impressive spring, especially for a guy changing positions. There has yet to be tackling or hitting, which is pretty important for evaluating linebackers, but Gerry, a 6-2 former state high school champion sprinter in South Dakota, glides effortlessly into coverage, even though he says he's bulked up from 212 at rookie camp to 230 for training camp. He intercepted 13 passes in four seasons at Nebraska.
"I think I've done pretty good with the transition so far," Gerry said.
Gerry said he has worked mostly at WIL but goes to SAM in the nickel. The Eagles lack linebacking depth, and it still isn't clear if starter Nigel Bradham will incur an NFL suspension from his two arrests last year. Then there's Mychal Kendricks, who couldn't win a nickel role last season, spent the off-season on the trading block, and will count $6.6 million against the salary cap this year.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz seemed wary of heaping too much praise on Gerry when Schwartz spoke with reporters Tuesday — again, you evaluate linebackers when there's hitting — but Schwartz clearly likes what he has seen thus far.
"The big thing with him is going to be filling the run inside when the pads come on. … He put the weight on that we wanted. … He's very instinctive in the pass game," Schwartz said. "You can see the safety in his background; he's got really good eyes for the football. … We really haven't been able to evaluate his 'thump,' and his ability to step up and fill interior holes yet. When the pads come on, that'll be the telltale for him. He's a little bit like (first-round defensive end Derek Barnett): It's not going to be perfect all the time, it's going to be a work in progress, but he's a really hard-working kid, he's really smart, and he's got good instincts."
Schwartz said he needs to see Gerry take on a guard to free a defensive tackle from a double team, or "step up and thump" a running back: "When he's done that in the past, it's generally been on the perimeter — it hasn't been in the 'A' gap or the 'B' gap."