AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a story I wrote a couple of years ago about a very special and unusual scholarship for a football player at Elon. It was first published in the Magazine of Elon in 2019. Ryan Whitehead, pictured above with many of the donors of to the Mark Foley Scholarship, is now an alum. I made a small donation to the Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship on Elon Day last year and will again on this day in 2021.
Ryan Whitehead emerges from the locker room at Alumni Field House after a grueling five-overtime Homecoming loss to William & Mary. He joins members of the Elon University 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 Ryan and his twin brother Eric play one of their final games before graduation.
Ryan turns to another couple. He extends his hand to Floyd and Phyllis Foley, the parents of former Elon football player Mark Foley ’94. He and Floyd Foley share a private moment then the two families pose for a photograph.
Ryan and the Foley family are forever linked through 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. Ryan is the first recipient, earning the scholarship in 2017.
He was the perfect choice. “No one epitomizes what Mark was like more than Ryan. His character, his desire to play and just everything about him. We thought he was the most fitting person to get this scholarship,” Floyd Foley says.
“Me and Mark have such a similar story,” Ryan 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 that 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. We feel like there is a bit of Mark still out there. Mark’s spirit will continue to live.”
He never quit
For Floyd Foley the memory is so strong that in his telling a listener can visualize the moment. It’s a fall afternoon at Burlington Memorial Stadium at Williams High School in Burlington – 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 is 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 Foley, a former football coach himself, will tell often.
“Mark was 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. 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,” he says.
“So, 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. The ball goes flying in the air and Elon recovers and scores. Elon is up 14-0 about two minutes into the game.”
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 freshman 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 was informed that he had 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 Foley says. “Mark was beside himself to earn a scholarship as a walk on.”
It was inspiring for his teammates, too. “As the years progressed, and 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 a guy who 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.”
Current Elon head football coach Tony Trisciani understands the importance or earning a scholarship for a walk-on. “Every walk-on that joins a program has the hope of playing and earning a scholarship. For many of them it validates all the hard work and effort they put into it,” he says.
A friend to all
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, a 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 the throat underneath his chin that wouldn’t heal. His father advised him to see a doctor and the dermatologist sent Mark to a specialist at Johns Hopkins. There, doctors found a tumor in his back. It was removed but the disease had spread to his lymph nodes. “It ballooned from there,” Floyd Foley 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 in Fairfax (Virginia), just before we brought him home for the last time when all hope was gone, 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 Foley 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.”
Establishing a legacy
The Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship was created in 2015 by the friends of Mark Foley. The endowment specifies that “This scholarship will be 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 and with preference going to someone from the Northern Virginia/Maryland/D.C. Area.” To date, 60 different individuals have contributed a total of 266 gifts to the Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship.
“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,” Trisciani says. “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 how many different donors have played major roles.
“When I look at the list of donors it makes me smile. So many people are a part of this,” 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. Floyd Foley participates in golf outings with The Duffers, he even accompanied them on a trip to Ireland. For the Foleys it’s an important connection. Floyd Foley 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 Foley 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. Ryan 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.”
Trisciani believes the Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship will have a long-lasting impact on Ryan 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. He has a relationship with these guys and the people who have contributed to the scholarship. It creates a lasting relationship that will benefit him personally and professionally. 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.”
Contribute to the Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship by mailing a check to Office of University Advancement, 2600 Campus Box, Elon NC, 27244 and write Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship in the memo line; or go online to https://connect.elon.edu/SupportElon?elondesignation=41&elonfund=Other and write Mark Foley Memorial Scholarship in the comments box; or call the Phoenix Club at 336-278-6503.