The Rollercoaster Career Of Sam Ficken
Amid the chaos and weirdness, the incredible wins and the deflating losses, and the emotional highs and lows that have come to define the past four seasons of Penn State football, perhaps no player has encapsulated those unpredictable twists and turns better than Sam Ficken.
For Ficken, it all started on a warm September day in Charlottesville, Virginia two years ago on a kick that would come to define the beginning of his journey at Penn State.
After watching Virginia march down the field to take a 17-16 lead with just under 90 seconds to play, the Nittany Lions found themselves facing a second-straight defeat to start the 2012 season.
The ensuing kickoff return gave Penn State starting field position at its own 27-yard line with one timeout and former walk-on Matt McGloin to lead the offense down the field for a game-winning score.
Just seven days prior, Penn State squandered a 14-3 halftime lead in a loss to Ohio, its first game at Beaver Stadium following the NCAA’s announcement of unprecedented sanctions as punishment for the child sexual abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. It was Bill O’Brien’s first game as head coach, a brilliant offensive mind from the NFL’s New England Patriots who was tasked with leading a program still raw from the death of its legendary head coach and a scandal that rocked the university to its core.
Six completions from McGloin put Penn State at the Virginia 22-yard line, where O’Brien decided to take a knee to center the ball in the middle of the field and call timeout with one second remaining to set up the game-winning field goal.
Out trotted sophomore kicker Sam Ficken, thrust into duty after the transfer of two-year starter Anthony Fera to Texas. Ficken had already missed three field goals from 40, 38, and a 20-yard chip shot that would have tied the game midway through the third quarter. His extra point attempt following Penn State’s go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter was blocked, leaving the door open for Virginia to take a one-point lead.
“Percentages say you have a better chance making a kick from the middle of the field than you do from the hash,” O’Brien said of his decision after the game. “Just center the ball, something we work on all the time. We did a really good job on that drive so we just need to finish that drive.”
The percentages didn’t work in Ficken’s favor. The former Valparaiso High School all-state player pushed the kick wide left as the clock expired, and the Cavaliers rushed the field to celebrate an improbable come-from-behind win. The loss marked just the fourth time Penn State started a season 0-2 since Joe Paterno became head coach in 1966.
Still feeling the fresh scorn of yet another loss, fans took to social media to berate the young kicker, cursing, calling him names, and even threatening his life. Inside the locker room, however, the team remained supportive.
While it would be easy to blame Ficken for the loss, players and coaches chose to take responsibility for the loss and stick up for their struggling kicker. Coach O’Brien adamantly told the media that “Sam is our kicker.” Senior cornerback Stephon Morris said the team told Ficken to keep his head up and refrained from saying anything negative. “It happens, it’s not what won or lost the game,” McGloin said. “A couple plays here and there lost it, Sam did not lose the game whatsoever.”
Incredibly, Ficken would rebound to make 13 of his next 16 field goals, including a streak of 10 in a row to end the season. He led the Nittany Lions in scoring with 81 points, and was ranked second in the Big Ten in kick scoring (8.1 ppg) and third in field goals per game (1.5) in conference games while connecting on his final 31 extra point attempts.
In the team’s final game of the season against Wisconsin, Ficken went 3-for-3, including the eventual game-winning 37-yard boot in overtime. He was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week, just 77 days after his nightmarish performance against Virginia.
“Week-to-week, day-to-day, I couldn’t be prouder of Sam Ficken,” O’Brien said after the game, as the normally stoic head coach showed a rare glimpse of emotion. “To think of where he came from to where we are tonight, kicking the winning kick. I know none of you guys thought he was going to do that. Now we did in the walls of Lasch.”
After struggling mightily at the beginning of the 2012 season, Ficken sought the help of former Nittany Lion place kicker Robbie Gould. After leaving Happy Valley as an undrafted free agent in 2005, Gould signed with the Chicago Bears and became the third most accurate kicker in NFL history. With advice from the nine-year NFL veteran, it seemed a mentally tougher Ficken was ready to finally put the fears of the Virginia game to rest.
“It really helped, and I think mentally now I’m a lot stronger kicker,” Ficken said. “I think I’m a better kicker too, so good did come out of that day.”
Ficken’s hot streak continued into the 2013 season, where he nailed his first five kicks to break the Penn State record for consecutive field goals made with 15. After four games, he was 7-of-8, including a stunning 54-yard kick in the rain against Kent State, setting the record for the longest field goal by a Penn State player in Beaver Stadium history.
And then, just as it appeared Ficken had turned it around for good, the misses began to pile up. Two against Michigan from 40+ in an eventual four-overtime win. One against Illinois in the second quarter that would have prevented overtime, where Penn State held on to win with Ryan Keiser’s game-sealing interception. One miss and one blocked in the final game against Wisconsin, a game Penn State dominated but needed to cling to a slim 31-24 lead in the final minutes with the ball in the Badgers possession.
Against Nebraska, Ficken’s missed extra point in the first quarter wound up to be the difference in the game, as the Cornhuskers kicked a field goal with 4:27 to play to tie it. In overtime, Ficken’s 37-yard attempt went begging, allowing Nebraska to kick a 42-yard game-winner.
A hand injury to holder Ryan Keiser, Ficken’s battery mate since he arrived in State College, forced punter Chris Gulla into action to tee up his kicks. Unfamiliarity and a lack of preparation between the two special team players contributed to Ficken’s kicking woes, and he blames himself for the mistakes.
“A lot of my struggles last year came when Ryan went down,” Ficken said. “I don’t think I handled that well, and that’s my own fault. I didn’t prepare as if I was going to lose Keiser, so I was thrown into a situation where I was uncomfortable.”
Despite his late-season struggles, Ficken led the team in scoring for the second consecutive year with 86 points, earning honorable-mention All-Big Ten recognition.
Even after showing signs of improvement, there were still some who doubted Ficken’s ability. Despite a strong start to the season, Ficken finished 15-of-23 (65 percent), a worse percentage than his sophomore season by one point. After a shaky performance in the 2013 Blue-White scrimmage, one ESPN writer said, “It’ll be difficult for fans or coaches to trust Ficken again, even if he remains the starting kicker.”
Enter the 2014 season, and a matchup against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland. Having just watched UCF’s backup quarterback Justin Holman run for a touchdown to give the Knights a 24-23 lead with 1:13 remaining, Ficken was given another shot at redemption.
A seven-play drive orchestrated by a calm and collected Christian Hackenberg set up a 36-yard field goal with just three seconds on the clock. Having already nailed three field goals, a confident Ficken took the field to line up his game-winning attempt.
“There was only a minute or so left in the game, and I looked across the sideline and there wasn’t doubt in anybody’s eye,” said Franklin. “Everybody believed. They believed in Hack. They believed in Ficken.”
Their belief was assured. Ficken’s kick was true, sending the large contingent of Penn State fans in Ireland’s historic Croke Park into an uproar, as blue and white confetti rained down from above. His teammates, the ones that have stood by him through the ups and downs, mobbed him at midfield. James Franklin wrapped him in a bear hug as the senior leaped into the first-year coach’s arms.
Remaining ever so humble, he chose to pass the credit to his teammates. “That was a team effort all the way,” he said. “Honestly, I didn’t hit it great, but it went through and that’s all that matters.”
“I’m just happy for him,” Franklin added, whose air-horn blowing and squirt bottle antics in preseason workouts helped shape a mentally tougher kicker. “He’s a perfect example of people in life and in this program that if you stay positive, persevere, and keep working, good things will happen.”
And good things did continue to happen. While Penn State has lost four straight after winning their first four, Ficken has remained the team’s most consistent player. He’s connected on 17 of 19 field goals this season, including his last nine. The only two blemishes on his score sheet were blocked.
In Saturday’s crushing last-minute defeat to Maryland, Ficken tied a career-high with four field goals, including a season-long 48-yard boot late in the fourth quarter that gave Penn State a 19-17 lead. He was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for his efforts, outshining Maryland’s stellar kicker Brad Craddock.
Now third all-time on Penn State’s scoring list with 239 career points, Ficken looks to finish his Penn State career as one of the all-time greats. Early in his career, he could have let his agonizing four misses against Virginia become a career-defining low point. Instead, it taught him how to deal with adversity, a trait that’s come in handy as one of the team’s captains and senior leaders.
“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 told Onward State before the season at Big Ten media day. “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.”
With Penn State in the midst of a frustrating four-game losing skid, there’s no doubt he’ll be called upon to help the team’s special teams unit, particularly a punting game that has been struggling mightily with Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello. Combined, the two punters are averaging less than 37 yards per punt, as Penn State has been woefully poor in winning the field position battle.
“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,” Ficken said. “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.”
Ficken’s unique experience throughout an up-and-down career puts him in a position to offer some of the best advice about dealing with adversity. After the Maryland game, Franklin pointed to Ficken as a veteran player who’s done everything right both on and off the field. The first-year coach said he and his staff are going to work hard to develop players and recruits so they can have more senior leaders like Ficken.
“[Adversity is] out there. You see it,” Ficken said. “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,” he added. “So you have to be able to tell them, ‘Hey, I’ve been there. It’s gonna get better.’”
Ficken’s message resonates with teammates, but as a soft-spoken presence on the sideline, he prefers to lead by example. A regular at the Nittany Lions’ community service events, Ficken also excels in the classroom. A two-time Academic All-Big Ten honor, the Dean’s List student owned a 3.59 cumulative grade-point average in finance entering the summer, and he is a potential Academic All-American candidate. This past summer, he worked as an intern with Merrill Lynch, communicating with the company’s main headquarters in New York via a branch in State College.
“Right now, Ficken could run for mayor of State College,” joked Franklin on Tuesday. “Everybody loves him. He’s the whole package. But a few years ago, people weren’t really feeling that way.”
Franklin touched on the impressive scope of Ficken’s progression from his sophomore struggles, and how as a senior he’s become a confident player, a weapon in the kicking game, and the type of leader the football team needs.
For a program that has endured so many trials and tribulations these past few years, perhaps there’s no better player to illustrate the strength and perseverance of a Penn State student-athlete.
“I’m really, really proud of him,” said Franklin. “I can’t say enough what a great example he is for all of us.”