The legacy and indomitable spirit of Mark Foley ’94, a walk-on member of the football team, live on thanks to a scholarship endowed by his Elon classmates and friends.
Ryan Whitehead ’20 emerges from the locker room at Alumni Field House after a grueling five-overtime Homecoming loss to the College of William & Mary. He joins other members of the football team who are meeting family and friends on the terrace overlooking Rhodes Stadium. He finds his mother and father, Mary Beth and David Whitehead, who traveled from Virginia to watch him and his twin brother, Eric, play one of their final games before graduation. Then Ryan turns to another couple. He extends his hand to Floyd and Phyllis Foley, the parents of former Elon football player Mark Foley ’94, and then the two families pose for a photograph.
That moment captures a link that will forever unite Ryan Whitehead and the Foley family, thanks to the collective efforts of a group of teammates, fraternity brothers, classmates and friends of Mark Foley, who died May 31, 2015, at age 44.
Together they joined to endow the Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship, which goes to a walk-on member of the Elon football team. Whitehead is the first recipient, earning the scholarship in 2017. He was the perfect choice. “No one epitomizes what Mark was like more than Ryan’s character, his desire to play and just everything about him,” Floyd says. “Mark and I have such a similar story,” Whitehead says. “We’re both walk-ons from Virginia. We’re both linebackers. We were both able to find some success. We both have a passion for the game.”
Mark Foley’s dedication, toughness, loyalty and humor define him to a group of Elon alumni and friends who will never forget him. “Mark was undersized; he battled. His
former teammates will tell you he was as hard a player as anyone on the team,” says Garrett McKnight ’94, a Kappa Sigma fraternity brother who helped lead the effort to endow the scholarship. After graduating from Elon, the two remained close through their association with The Duffers, a group of Kappa Sigma alumni who enjoy golf, Elon athletics and camaraderie. “We have the ability now through Ryan and the rest of the recipients going forward to keep Mark’s memory alive. It gives all of us a great sense of pride.”
For Floyd Foley the memory is so strong, one can visualize it just by listening to him. It’s a fall afternoon at Burlington Memorial Stadium at nearby Williams High School, where Elon played its home football games until 2001. Mark Foley, a junior walk-on who made the roster without a scholarship, is finally getting his chance. At 5 feet 9 inches tall and just 160 pounds, he was considered too small and slow to play for a college football team. Discouraged and nearly at the point of quitting, Mark talked to then-coach Leon Hart about letting him perform on a special team. Hart put him on the kickoff unit, setting the stage for a story Floyd, a former football coach himself, will tell often.
“Mark is lined up right beside the kicker. Down the field they go. Mark is by no means the fastest guy, but I see him wide open running down the field and he’s five yards ahead of everyone else. He never had that much speed in his life. I’m thinking they’re going to knock him down and create a hole for the runner,” he recalls. “Well, the guy catches the ball at the one- or two-yard line, takes a few steps and Mark hits him wide open. The player goes flying, the ball goes flying and Elon recovers it at the four-yard line. Elon quickly scores a touchdown.”
When Elon kicks off again, Mark is five yards ahead of everybody, again. “This time the guy catches the ball at the eight-yard line and Mark levels the guy, pulverizes him,” Floyd says. “The ball goes flying in the air and Elon recovers and scores. Elon is up 14-0 about two minutes into the game.”
“Mark was the one guy I experienced in my life who would never, ever quit.”
The story sums up Mark Foley. “Mark was the one guy I experienced in my life who would never, ever quit,” says Thad Gulliford ’94, a teammate at Elon and a fraternity brother. Gulliford, a defensive end, met Mark Foley at training camp their first year. They became close friends through Kappa Sigma. After that game, Mark became a regular on special teams and sometimes entered games at outside linebacker on defense. When a starting linebacker was injured, he played more regularly. Just before entering his senior year, Mark earned a scholarship, a coup for any walk-on. Mark’s high football IQ as the son of a coach and his ability to make plays kept him on the field. “Mark recognized that players on scholarship get to play, and then he got a scholarship. That recognized his contribution,” Floyd says. “Mark was beside himself to earn a scholarship as a walk-on.”
It was inspiring for his teammates, too. “Him starting off not having a scholarship and then being awarded a scholarship says a lot about a guy persevering through the hardships of sports even though he was undersized and a little slower than the next guy,” Gulliford says. “It says a lot about who he was and who his parents are. They raised a fantastic, special son.”
Mark Foley made a lot of friends and he shared good times with nearly all of them at Elon and after. He liked few things more than a round of golf, a great steak and a hand of poker. He loved family, friends, Elon and especially Elon football. “Everybody on the team loved him,” Gulliford says. “Well, just about everybody who met him loved Mark.”
Mark moved to Ashburn, Virginia, and began a career in banking. He got serious about golf and became one of The Duffers, an Elon alumni golfing group created in 1993. The Duffers hold an annual four-day tournament at different locations, including sites in Ireland and Scotland. Mark returned often to Elon to attend football games or Kappa Sigma events. He played annually in the Duffers Cup and visited his buddies. Gulliford says his children called him Uncle Foley. “They just adored him.”
In late 2013 or early 2014 Mark noticed a spot on his throat underneath his chin that wouldn’t heal. After some tests, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital found a tumor in his back. It was removed but the disease had spread to his lymph nodes. “It ballooned from there,” Floyd says. In early 2015 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died four months and 13 days after the tumor was removed. “When Mark was in the hospital, just before we brought him home for the last time, his friends showed up at his hospital room. We walked in and there were 17 people in that room. All those guys, they called each other and came,” Floyd says. “They were all in there telling stories and laughing with Mark. It was a short time but a good time for Mark to see those guys.”
The Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship was created in 2015 by the friends of Mark Foley. The endowment specifies the scholarship is designated for a deserving member of the football team, with first preference being a player who entered the program as a walk-on and worked his way to a scholarship, particularly if the student was from the Northern Virginia/Maryland/D.C. area. To date, 60 individuals have contributed a total of 266 gifts to the fund.
“Having this scholarship gives us the opportunity to reward a player who has had a similar experience to Mark’s experience at Elon, to come into the program as a walk-on player and earn a scholarship,” says Elon head football coach Tony Trisciani. “I know that Ryan Whitehead is very grateful for this opportunity to be the first recipient of the Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship.”
The idea for a memorial scholarship came about after McKnight, Gulliford and other friends approached Elon and asked how they could pay tribute to Mark. An endowment as a memorial was among the recommendations. While teammates, Kappa Sigma alumni and The Duffers led the fundraising, McKnight is quick to point out many donors have played major roles. “When I look at the list of donors, it makes me smile,” McKnight says. “This scholarship doesn’t belong to one group of guys. It may have been driven by one group, but it belongs to us all. There are a lot of people who really care about Elon and about seeing Mark’s legacy go forward.”
Creating the scholarship has generated stronger relationships between Mark’s friends and his parents. For the Foleys, it’s an important connection. Floyd calls Mark’s years at Elon the best time they had as a family. They attended every game at home and on the road. “The fact that all these people would get together and sponsor a scholarship for Mark has been one of the most rewarding things that has ever happened to us,” Floyd says. “We can’t tell you how much it means.”
The scholarship has also cemented the legacy of Mark Foley, not only for his friends and family but for Ryan Whitehead and players who will receive it in the future. Whitehead calls earning the Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship “a huge honor.” His first reaction was to learn more about Mark Foley. “First I met one of his old teammates and he walked me around campus. Later at Homecoming, I met all The Duffers and Mr. and Mrs. Foley,” he says. “It was awesome. They told me some amazing stories about him. The Foleys are such good people. I just hope I can honor their son in any way I can. I want to make them proud the way I want to make my own parents proud. I want to continue the tradition that Mark left behind.”
“The fact that all these people would get together and sponsor a scholarship for Mark has been one of the most rewarding things that has ever happened to us.”
Trisciani believes the Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship will have a long-lasting impact on Whitehead and future recipients. The rewards extend beyond football and their time as students. “The scholarship has given Ryan a great opportunity to connect with this group of alumni and the people who have contributed to the scholarship. It creates a lasting relationship that will benefit him personally and professionally,” he says. “It is important for Ryan to develop this relationship with the alumni and the Foley family.”
McKnight and the friends of Mark Foley hope that happens. “This is what the Elon community is all about. Our guys all know who Ryan is. As it continues to go forward it will create a fraternity of people, of football players who embrace what we feel is important and fill out that bond for the next person,” McKnight says. “Mark loved football. He loved Elon football. Those things will resonate into the future.”
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