UNIVERSITY PARK — The wide windows in Bill O'Brien's office offer a sweeping view of Mount Nittany — a picturesque background to the Nittany Lions' three outdoor practice fields situated just below the coach's second-floor corner office.
Those fields remained quiet for much of the summer months. But every few days, the repeated thuds of foot-on-pigskin lured O’Brien away from his desk and to the balcony where he peered down at the fields below and the man toiling away. There was Sam Ficken — kicking football after football through the uprights.
“In the summer, I was always trying to kick two or three times a week,” Ficken said. “So sometimes my whole unit couldn’t make it out there, but I needed that extra work on my fundamentals. I think that work’s really paying off at this point.”
Often without the aid of a holder or snapper, Ficken ventured out with just a few footballs and a tee. He had plenty of time to hone his craft.
And he had plenty of reasons to do so. His sophomore season was a roller coaster ride from hell that turned into a steady drive to success.
Early excitement gave way to a nightmare beginning. But with the public’s glare fixated on him, Ficken transformed his game and himself in the process.
In just a few football weekends, the man from Valparaiso, Ind., went from beleaguered scapegoat to late-season hero.
Now, Ficken’s redemption song has nearly reached its crescendo.
Should his next kick split the uprights at Beaver Stadium — it could happen Saturday when Penn State hosts Eastern Michigan — Ficken will become Penn State’s all-time leader in consecutive kicks made with 14. Craig Fayak holds the current mark of 13, a record Ficken tied when he drilled all three of his kicks at MetLife Stadium, helping Penn State to a 23-17 win over Syracuse last week.
It was quite the turnaround from last season, when Ficken was dreadful to begin the year, unable to pick up where All-Big Ten kicker Anthony Fera left off when Fera transferred to Texas after Penn State was hit with NCAA sanctions.
Ficken got the job by default with little forewarning, then hit just four of 11 tries and missed four field goals and an extra point in a loss to Virginia.
The backlash found its way to Ficken through social media. One nameless, faceless critic created a phony profile masquerading as the real Ficken and regurgitated hateful comments tweeted by other users.
It got bad, including these messages:
“Ficken tried to hang himself but couldn’t kick the chair out from under himself”
“What do you want from me? Oh, field goals? Oh. Anyone willing to kick the chair for me?”
Ryan Keiser, who serves as Ficken’s holder, is one of the kicker’s closest friends on the team. Keiser saw his friend struggle immediately after the Virginia game. But eventually, Ficken snapped out of his shell-shocked daze and returned to practice in good spirits.
“He was going through a tough time,” Keiser said. “With the social media, he was attacked pretty hard. But he kept a good attitude and just wanted to get better and he had confidence that he could be a great kicker. It’s all about what’s going on in his head, but I think he did a great job.”
It helped that Ficken’s teammates had his back. His coach did, too. A few girls in his dorm baked him cookies and tacked an encouraging note on his door.
Nothing meant more than the texts he exchanged with Chicago Bears kicker Robbie Gould — a former Nittany Lion who also struggled in college. Gould, whom Ficken had met before his sophomore season began, walked Ficken through a few film sessions over the phone.
Gould pointed out how Ficken’s approach steps were inconsistent. He taught Ficken how to watch his follow-through and adjust based on where his plant foot landed during a kick.
“He can really kind of judge how the ball is kicked, too, on film,” Ficken said of Gould. “With the film, it’s really like I’m kicking in person with him.”
Ficken responded to his critics with results.
He nailed his last 10 kicks of 2012, including a 37-yarder against Wisconsin that was booted off a frozen field into a swirling wind and through snow flurries that held up as the game-winner in the first overtime game at Beaver Stadium. He also excelled in the classroom, making the dean’s list.
“At the end of the day it was maybe one of the best things that happened to him,” O’Brien said of Ficken’s struggles in the Virginia game. “He went through that, took the criticism to heart. Obviously, that hurts when people that are anonymous, go on (Twitter).”
But Ficken is his own harshest critic, he said.
“I think (O’Brien) understands that I hold myself to a high standard,” Ficken said, “so he knows that I want to make every kick and I get a little mad at myself if I don’t make it.”
That’s why he went to work in the film room with Gould and in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald.
Ficken said he learned long ago how to earn the respect of his teammates. Although his job is to kick the ball, Ficken insists on doing every exercise all the other players do.
He credited Fitzgerald’s free-weight system for increase his leg strength. Specifically, Ficken has been squatting more and more weight and his added power was evident at MetLife Stadium. He banged a career-long 46-yarder with ease and added kicks of 36 and 35 yards to help Penn State overcome Syracuse. Pulling weighted sleds and doing power cleans have helped him strengthen his back, which would tighten up on him during games last season
Ficken refused to blame back tightness as a reason for missed kicks.
And Ficken made more adjustments in the offseason. In addition to his increased weightlifting regimen, he eliminated a half-step from his approach that he said was providing room for error. Now he takes two steps back and two to his left before making two long strides to the ball before contact.
In one of Penn State’s final training camp scrimmages, the fate of his squad rested on his foot and his ability to nail a 57-yarder. Ficken drilled it.
“I try and make it as game-like as possible, so obviously I want to make every kick I take,” Ficken said. “There is some pressure there, but it’s not identical to a game situation. But it’s good that Coach O’Brien gets me out there with some pressure on the line in practice.”
Gould, who politely turned down an interview request, was in the stands at MetLife Stadium on Saturday. He sent Ficken a good luck text before the game and a congratulatory message afterward.
There could me more congratulations in order for the kicker who faced nothing but scorn just a year ago.
“I think he came through that with flying colors and he ended up absolutely helping us win games at the end of the year,” O’Brien said. “And now he’s picked up where he left off and hopefully he can continue to do it.
“It’s a fine line. He’s working extremely hard to do it, and we will be with him every step of the way.”