Berkley Lucas’ yard in Cave Spring was a popular spot for his grandson, Zac Foutz, to catch passes and work on his route running while he was growing up. Those moments in the brisk autumn air gave Lucas a chance to work with his grandson on receiving passes, and on the minute details.
Lucas worked diligently with Foutz on toe-tap drills for the times his grandson was near the sideline and needed to keep his feet inbounds to complete a catch. Foutz was a physical player in the trenches, but the added element of finesse could come in handy down the line.
The lesson paid dividends for Foutz two weekends ago when Liberty played at BYU. Foutz, a tight end, initially stayed in to block on a pass play before leaking out across the line of scrimmage and hauling in an over-the-shoulder catch, while getting his feet down in the end zone near the goal line, for a 13-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that cut the Flames’ deficit to one score.
The time between those lessons in Lucas’ yard and Foutz’s highlight-reel grab in Provo, Utah, wasn’t smooth sailing for the 23-year-old Roanoke native. He overcame a serious illness while in high school, has undergone seven surgeries during his college career and frequently played through pain.
The struggles to reach this point have made Foutz more appreciative of the success he is enjoying this season as the Flames (6-4) hope to become bowl eligible in the regular-season finale in two weeks.
“I wouldn’t be here without God,” Foutz said Monday. “There’s a lot of things that have worked throughout my life that I’ve never understood. When something like this happens where I’ve had a full, healthy season — it’s what it feels like — I just sit here and smile because I’m just thankful. It’s my last year, and I want to go out with a bang, and I feel like I’ve been just pushing, putting everything into this last season, especially for these guys.”
Foutz has appeared in every game so far this season, a testament to his durability and the trust the coaching staff placed in him — which has been rewarded with a breakout season in which he has set career highs of 146 receiving yards and three touchdowns, highlighted by his first career two-touchdown performance at BYU.
“I love the way that he approaches the game,” tight ends coach Ben Aigamaua said. “We’re going to keep finding ways to use him in the offense.”
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Foutz has played this season after developing plantar fasciitis in his right foot during spring practice, one in a long list of injuries he has suffered during his time at Liberty.
He has undergone seven surgeries since arriving at Liberty, and that doesn’t include his 15-day hospital stay in 2012 after contracting fungal meningitis from a tainted steroid injection.
Foutz has had four surgeries on his right knee alone. He also has had surgeries on both his shoulders to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff (right) and broken collarbone (left).
“I’m just proud of Zac; his story is amazing with every injury he’s been through,” Aigamaua said. “I just love his mental toughness and everything he’s been through.”
Foutz missed two straight games last season with three slipped discs in his back but returned to play at Virginia, finishing that matchup with three catches for 26 yards. The injury worsened on the flight to Auburn the next week, and then-coach Turner Gill benched him for the game and the final two of the season.
“I think it’s just like a relief, finally catching a break. I have been injured a lot, and I feel like I’ve fought through a bunch of it,” Foutz said. “It’s fun to wake up and not have to worry about something hurting all the time, something being wrong all the time. I think one of the things is when I wake up, I’m thankful and I’m happy and I give all the glory to God.”
Foutz, and the tight ends group as a whole, wasn’t involved much in the passing attack during the previous three seasons. He totaled 16 catches, 186 yards and two touchdowns in that span.
This season, the group has accounted for 19 catches, 266 yards and six touchdowns.
“I feel like to have those opportunities, it feels good because I want to have those opportunities, I want to make those big plays,” he said. “Everyone dreams of being on SportsCenter and making those great catches and stuff.”
Lucas, whom Foutz said has only missed one of his sporting events since he began his athletic career at the age of 6, made the trip to Provo to watch his grandson play against BYU.
“He came up to me [after the game] and he was like, ‘I guess all those times we’ve been catching paid off,’” Foutz said as a smile crept across his face. “I had never had that opportunity in my 23 years I’ve been alive, and sure enough, all that practice came to fruition.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.