Penn State's Ficken lives the ups and downs of a kicker

Penn State coach James Franklin embraces Sam Ficken after he booted the winning field goal against Central Florida. "He's been money," Franklin said of his kicker. York Daily Record
Penn State coach James Franklin embraces Sam Ficken after he booted the winning field goal against Central Florida. "He's been money," Franklin said of his kicker. York Daily Record
Posted: September 06, 2014

To say that Sam Ficken has seen it all in his four seasons at Penn State is not an overstatement.

NCAA sanctions thrust him into a starting role. He missed four field-goal attempts in a game and received death threats. He made a school-record 15 consecutive field goals. He had some rough sledding late in the 2013 season.

And on Saturday, he went 4 for 4 on field-goal attempts, including the game-winning 36-yarder that saw him run like a frightened jackrabbit away from the celebratory hordes of teammates but not a crushing bear hug from coach James Franklin.

"It's been a roller coaster," Ficken said a few weeks ago at Big Ten Football media day. "It's had its ups and downs. But at the end of the day, I wouldn't change my experience in any way. I think as a team we've gone through a lot and it's made us more of a cohesive unit. I'm very close with the guys on the team, which I think is the key to success.

"There have been some challenges along the way, but with the way we're heading and the way Coach Franklin is leading this team in the direction that it's going, I'm really excited for the future."

The fact that Penn State took Ficken along as one of its three representatives for media day spoke to the respect he holds within the program. Named as one of seven team captains last month, Ficken is a dean's list student (3.59 GPA as a finance major) and active in community service.

Franklin has been a fan from the start. He admired the way Ficken ignored distractions - being squirted in the face with water, having an air horn blown near him - to kick the field goals that would end spring practice sessions and keep his teammates from having to run. He loved the way Ficken carried out his kicking duties in the preseason.

"He's been money," Franklin said after Saturday's win over Central Florida in Ireland. "I'm just happy for him because he's had an interesting career. He's a perfect example in this life and this program that if you just stay positive and you persevere and you keep working, good things will happen."

The ride for Ficken to this point has been anything but smooth. He had been ticketed to back up Anthony Fera in 2012 for a second straight season before the NCAA handed down sanctions against Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Fera transferred to Texas and Ficken suddenly was first-team kicker.

Two games in at Virginia, Ficken missed four field-goal attempts, including the potential game-winner on the final play. Social-media critics were vicious, as were the 100-plus e-mails he received, messages that included death threats. He called it "a low point in my life . . . a very tough time."

Still, coach Bill O'Brien and his teammates maintained their support. Ficken also received advice and counsel from former Penn State kicker Robbie Gould of the Chicago Bears, exchanging weekly texts with Gould telling him, "Slow down and don't think too much."

After Saturday's game, Ficken received congratulatory texts from Gould and other former Nittany Lions such as Craig Fayak, Brett Conway, and Matt Bahr.

"When I was struggling, they were in touch with me, so obviously it was great to hear from them," Ficken said Tuesday. "Robbie sent me a text message directly after the game. He's been so instrumental in my success."

Ficken, whose school record of 15 straight field goals spans 2012 and 2013, made just four of his last eight attempts in 2013. He had been successful on 65.9 percent of his attempts in the last two seasons before his perfect start to the new campaign.

He won't, however, allow the early success to go to his head. He knows how sentiment, especially for a kicker, can change.

"Obviously, when you succeed, people are going to jump on your back and love you," he said. "When you struggle, people are going to let you know. That's the reality of sports. You can't focus on the highs and lows. You've just got to keep focusing on what you're doing to get better every week."


jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq

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