All he had to do was get the ball in the air and the angel on his shoulder would take care of the rest.
That’s what Rafael Gaglianone told himself as he lined up for a 47-yard field with less than four minutes remaining in the University of Wisconsin football team’s 16-14 win over Louisiana State University Sept. 3.
That angel is Sam Foltz, who would have been a senior punter at University of Nebraska this season. Tragically, he and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler died in a car accident the night of July 23. LSU kicker Colby Dellahoussaye was also in the vehicle that night, but escaped with stitches and burns to his legs.
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That afternoon at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, the angel heeded Gaglianone’s desire. The ball sailed through the upright to give Wisconsin the lead with 3:47 on the clock and capped Gaglianone’s day of perfection by converting all three of his field goal attempts (30, 47, 48).
“That one was for you brother,” Gaglianone tweeted after the game. “I know you were looking down and helping me make those kicks.”
That one was for you brother, i know you were looking down and helping me make those kicks!! pic.twitter.com/wzyezQ1xF2
— Rafael Gaglianone (@rafagaglianone) September 5, 2016
When Gaglianone saw the referees signal that his kick was good, he galloped for a few steps, leaped in the air and pointed to his jersey. He wasn’t pointing to the motion “W” or the new Under Armour logo, but his number — 27. It was Foltz’s number, and before training camp began Gaglianone changed his own number to honor his friend.
Gaglianone donned No. 10 his first two seasons for the Badgers. He went viral in that jersey after making his first collegiate kick and celebrating the 51-yard kick against LSU in 2014 with with a little shimmy. He even enjoyed winning-kicks against Foltz’s Nebraska team in 2015 while wearing No. 10.
But to Gaglianone, the gesture was a no-brainer.
“Wearing 27 is just a good reminder that you gotta be thankful for everything,” Gaglianone said. “All the things that you do — to see the big picture. Yeah, sometimes you don’t have a great day in practice but we’re still blessed to see another day. You’re still blessed talking to your parents at night. The little things. He was such a great guy, I was so fortunate enough to get to know him. I just wanted to kind of spread the word and just give a reminder to be a better person off the field.”
Gaglianone is a member of a community of specialists (punters and kickers) that operates like a fraternity. It’s a small group, but very tight-knit. The friendship between Gaglianone and Foltz began three years earlier at Kohl’s Kicking Camp in Waukesha, Wisconsin — the same camp both players were coaching the weekend of Foltz’s death.
It had been a fun weekend, Gaglianone said, with all of the specialists hanging out. Another coach at the camp was former UW punter Drew Meyer, who usually hosted Gaglianone during the camps along with Foltz and a host of others. This time, though, Gaglianone opted to stay with Wisconsin redshirt freshman Connor Allen so the new guy wouldn’t feel left out. Allen is Gaglianone’s holder now.
“It could’ve happened to anybody,” Gaglianone said of the accident.
It could have been him.
That night, Meyer called him: “Did the guys leave?”
“Yes, they left right after you,” Gaglianone said.
That’s when the concern set in for Gaglianone, and after Meyer didn’t call him back that night, Gaglianone fell asleep unaware of the tragedy.
When Meyer and Drew Brown, the Nebraska kicker, showed up the next day without the other three, Gaglianone knew something was wrong. Meyer told Gaglianone there had been an accident. Still, they didn’t know the status of their friends.
Gaglianone was working a field goal station at the camp with Brown, who received a phone call from his parents. Gaglianone watched Brown drop to his knees in anguish.
“They’re both gone,” Brown told him.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Gaglianone said. “With so many bad people in this world, why are we taking the good ones?”
Gaglianone attended Foltz’s funeral in Nebraska, where he realized the impactf Foltz had on his community. The service focused on celebrating his life, Gaglianone said, rather than a tearful farewell. Nebraska honored Foltz during their season opener last Saturday by sending only 10 men out on the field in punt formation to reveal the void Foltz left both on the field and in Nebraska’s heart.
If Foltz’s death has affected Gaglianone’s kicking abilities, it has only been in a positive way. The Brazilian native was spectacular during camp and it showed in the season opener. A good sign for Gaglianone as he looks to rebound from an inconsistent sophomore campaign.
“He’s been consistent for us,” UW head coach Paul Chryst said. “He had a really good camp and I think that we’ve got confidence in him. He knows his role in the sense that all eyes are on him.”
Foltz’s passing has helped Gaglianone realize that life is much more about relationships with people rather than football.
“It’s funny, because he was a guy that was going to go to the [NFL] and was going to go pro,” Gaglianone said. “But that’s the last way people describe him. That’s kind of where I want myself to be at too. It doesn’t matter what I do on the field, I just want to be that right dude off the field that people like.”
The next time Gaglianone lines up for a kick, roughly 80,000 people will set their gaze upon No. 27, and millions more will see No. 27 on their television.
And one, from above, will see his friend wearing his old number.