Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ficken found strength through adversity

Penn State kicker transformed from villain into hero in one season.

August 24. 2013 11:36PM

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The kick was so perfect, so true, Sam Ficken didn’t even have to look to know it was good.

He watched anyway.

How could he not?

The final field goal try of his sophomore year wasn’t only going to beat Wisconsin for the last hurrah of the most tumultuous season in Penn State’s history.

It was finally going to turn the most vilified player on Penn State’s team into a hero.

“Coming through for your team really feels good,” Ficken said.

It was a world away from when some Penn State fans wanted to put him through a door.

That anger toward Ficken started almost immediately.

It was during the second game last season when Ficken missed four field field goals and had an extra point blocked in a 17-16 loss at Virginia.

It didn’t matter if Ficken was thrust into the role of Penn State’s starting kicker just before the season, when expected kicker Anthony Fera transferred to Texas.

Penn State’s fans were merciless in their critcism.

“One-hundred and five emails saying something about all the crap that’s going on,” Ficken said he received. “Definitely after the Virginia game I was pretty upset. Had a lot of people saying stuff, even around school.”

One social media response said Ficken should hang himself.

“It can’t get much worse than that,” Ficken said.

It didn’t get much better for him afterward.

Ficken missed field goals in each of Penn State’s next two games, starting the season 2-for-8 on those attempts.

“Definitely a growing experience with the struggles early on,” Ficken said. “It was a tough three weeks.”

With his job, and maybe his sanity, on the line, Ficken got some help.

He talked to Robbie Gould.

Now a stalwart and one-time Pro Bowl kicker with the Chicago Bears, Gould went through his own struggles at Penn State.

“He’s definitely been through some tough times, too,” Ficken said. “I’ve talked to Robbie Gould quite a bit. He definitely knew where I was coming from.”

The two talked mostly by phone, but it wasn’t hard for Gould to give Ficken some on-field advice. Ficken is from Valparaiso, Ind., less than an hour’s drive from where Gould kicks in Chicago.

“Not too far from him,” Ficken said.

And Gould lives in Lock Haven, located less than an hour away from Penn State.

“He’s come back a few times,” Ficken said. “He’s been a big help with me mentally and the way I need to practice. He’s definitely helped with my fundamentals — I switched my steps up this season, I’m doing two steps now instead of two and a half, which takes out a little room for error.

“So he’s definitely been a big help.”

He’s not the only one.

Ficken received support from other NFL kickers and punters — including Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh. And his old high school coach Mark Hoffman, who was once in training camp with the Dallas Cowboys, offered Ficken plenty of advice.

“Just seeing them reach out to me — I reached out to Robbie Gould — but other kickers who weren’t associated with Penn State that are in the NFL reached out to me,” Ficken said. “That was pretty cool.”

Suddenly, Ficken got hot.

He hit three field goals on a windy day in Nebraska despite getting debris blown in his eye before the game. He nailed his last 10 field goals and final 31 extra point attempts of the season.

And he punctuated it all with an ideal finish, a 37-yard field goal that beat the Badgers 24-21 in overtime at Beaver Stadium and became his first collegiate game-winning kick

His frustration somehow turned into elation as he left the field for the last time in 2012 to the roar of the Penn State crowd.

“People kind of forget once you start succeeding,” Ficken said.

He wants this year to begin the way last year ended for him.

O’Brien couldn’t help notice it during one day during the spring.

“I was running on the treadmill,” O’Brien said, “and he was out there kicking on his own with his helmet on. Sam’s a great kid, fantastic guy. He’s improved a lot, he’s worked hard at it.”

With each swing of his leg this year, Ficken can’t wait to show Penn State’s faithful just how far he’s come.

“Last year (in camp), if I was 11-for-12, it’s a good day,” Ficken said. “I’m definitely more focused (now). I’m trying to get every kick to be perfect.”

After all, only an flawless start can match such a fabulous finish.

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