Mercurial Season Leads to Newfound Motivation for Penn State Kicker
The moment is still ingrained in Bill O'Brien's memory.
As the Penn State football coach ran on a treadmill earlier this summer, he looked outside and saw Sam Ficken kicking field goals on the practice field. Ficken was alone, and despite not having any defenders in his way, the junior wore a helmet (more on this later).
A year removed from a mercurial season in which he missed four field goals in an early-season loss to Virginia but lifted Penn State to an overtime victory in the finale against Wisconsin, Ficken was clearly motivated.
"He was trying to get some work just on his own, and that says it all about Sam Ficken," O'Brien said. "Hopefully, he'll come back and have a strong year for us. He sure has worked at it."
Not counting his 1-for-5 performance in the 17-16 setback to the Cavaliers, Ficken made all but three of his other 16 attempts, including a perfect 3-for-3 day against the Badgers.
"It definitely helps, being in a position where I got to play the whole season and really gained some experience and then really kind of, I think, met my potential at the end of the season," Ficken said. "I had the early-season struggles but it really helps to gain confidence throughout spring ball. I did really well then, and through camp so far it's been going really well."
Ficken said the season couldn't have ended any better and added the on-campus vibe he felt afterward "was definitely different from the start of the season — in a good way."
As Ficken mightily struggled over the first half of last year, missing six of his first eight attempts, he ignored all of the negativity directed at him on social networking sites. Instead, he continued to kick, even if he sometimes missed out on opportunities for more attempts as Penn State continually went for it on fourth down when many other coaches would have tried a field goal. Ficken attempted just two kicks his freshman season but finished strong last year, making his final 10 tries.
"I feel a lot more comfortable going out there in front of the whole team, that doesn't really bother me anymore," Ficken said of how he's a different kicker this season. "Last year, I was still kind of nervous. It was my position, but at the same time, until you gain that game-time experience, you don't really know exactly what it's like."
Just like last year when he encountered the on-field hiccups, Ficken has spent the offseason by connecting with people who better understand the pressures hoisted upon a Division I athlete at a school that receives national exposure.
He ran into former Penn State letter winners as he and three teammates visited Wall Street recently. Ficken, a finance major who's interested in a career in banking or trading after football, said it was reassuring to hear their advice. He also spoke with his cousin Robbie Hummel, the former Purdue basketball standout who overcame his own share of adversity after suffering multiple ACL tears in college. The two got together to play a round of golf earlier this summer when Ficken was home on vacation.
"I think because he has been in a situation, similar to where I was, not in the sense that he's a kicker, but college sports, he's been through good times, bad times,” said Ficken, who attended Valparaiso High School in northern Indiana. “It was good to hear from him."
Ficken also reached out to former Penn State kicker Robbie Gould, who told him to slow down and focus on the fundamentals. Simple advice, but Gould knows what he's talking about — the Lock Haven High School graduate ranks sixth all-time in NFL field goal percentage, making nearly 86 percent of his attempts during his eight-year career.
Gould's message: Just because it's summer and no one else is around doesn't mean you can't create the type of atmosphere that will make you a better kicker.
"Every time I go out here and kick, one thing that Robbie Gould taught me was, you try and make it as game-similar as possible," Ficken said. "So when I go out there with my helmet on, it's a different feeling than just kicking without your helmet on, and focusing on every kick, making it perfect. Not just, 'Hey, I went 10-for-12, that's OK.' I need to go 12-for-12 every time and that's really the mentality that carried over from camp."