No one on the Penn State football team has had more ups and downs than senior kicker Sam Ficken.
He missed four field goals in a one-point loss to Virginia in 2012, but he made the game-winner in overtime 10 games later against Wisconsin. He’s been the “goat,” and the fan favorite.
Ficken, perhaps more than anyone else on the team, has been through it all. That’s why, during this offseason, he is using his experiences from the last two seasons to become mentally stronger than he has ever been.
Ficken received a crash course in mental toughness after that infamous Virginia game, when fans from all over the country directed hateful messages toward him. He said he’s over that now, and he’s figured out how to block out the outside world.
“You can’t listen to the media, to Twitter, whatever. What matters is within the program, what matters is what the coaches think, what matters is what your teammates think,” he said. “And obviously, with what I’ve gone through, to see the support system around you, there’s no need to even think about what’s written in the papers, there’s just no point to it.”
Ficken, with help from former Penn State kicker and current All-Pro Robbie Gould, turned it around toward the end of the 2012 season and made 10 straight to finish the year, including this game-winner against the Badgers on Senior Day.
His hot streak continued into the 2013 season, where he made 7-of-8 to start the year and set a Beaver Stadium record with a 54-yarder against Kent State. Two misses against Michigan and a hand injury to holder Ryan Keiser began to “throw him off” towards the end of the year, however, and he finished the year just 15-of-23 overall. His nadir in 2013 was a missed extra point against Nebraska that resulted in overtime, and a missed 37-yarder in that overtime to seal the Lions’ fate in a 23-20 loss. But Keiser is healthy this year, and Ficken thinks things will be back to normal to start this season.
“Keiser coming back is very big,” Ficken said. “I had him all my sophomore year, and then he went down with a hand injury midway through last year and my percentage kind of tailed off towards the end there. But he’s back, and he’s done an incredible job. He’s unbelievable.”
There’s only so much a holder can do, however, and new coach James Franklin knows that. That’s why he’s been doing his part to help prepare Ficken for high-pressure situations during camp. At the end of practice, Franklin will set up a single kick. If Ficken makes it, the team doesn’t have to run. If he misses, the whole team does sprints.
“He squirts a water bottle at me or blows an air horn in my ear,” Ficken said. “But he’s a player’s coach for sure. I couldn’t ask for a better coach right now.”
A mentally tougher Sam Ficken can only help the 2014 football team, but he wants to leave a lasting mark on his program when he graduates in December.
And with four freshman special teamers — including three placekickers — waiting in the wings, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“This offseason I’ve put a ton of work into getting stronger mentally, and preparing myself for the season,” Ficken said. “I obviously have a ton of experience — good and bad — so I can speak to both of those. I know not to get too high on myself, and not to get too low on myself. My mindset is that I have to go out and earn my job every day, keep working at it, and keep getting better. You can never be complacent.”
“I’ve tried to compel the young kids that don’t have experience to attack every day like you’re going to be the starter, because you never know what might happen. I’ve tried to do everything I can to instill the experiences I’ve had, how I’ve handled them and how I’ve struggled through them, and try to help them adapt so they can see what they can do for themselves. You only get 12 opportunities, and one isn’t different from the other. You’re out to compete and win.”
With the graduation of punter Alex Butterworth, at least one special teams starting spot will be open for the freshmen to battle for.
“We obviously have a position to fill at punter,” said Ficken, “and I’ve seen three kids that can definitely compete for that starting spot. They’ve shown me that they’re ready to step up. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they can do.”
As Ficken has learned first-hand, younger players can struggle during their first few games as a starter. That’s why he’s already started to give them advice on how to handle the inevitable adversity, and is teaching lessons that can be passed on for years to come.
“[Adversity is] out there. You see it. You just have to try and let it float over your head. In my experience, that’s the best way to handle situations where there’s negativity. It’ll come, and it’ll go.”
“Players struggle. It happens. It’s college football. So you have to be able to tell them, ‘Hey, I’ve been there. It’s gonna get better.'”