Nittany Lines

Playing for more: Penn State football’s Anthony Zettel continues to carry his team, family through hardship

Anthony Zettel, left, gets a hug from defensive line coach Sean Spencer after the game against San Diego State.
Anthony Zettel, left, gets a hug from defensive line coach Sean Spencer after the game against San Diego State. CDT photo

Anthony Zettel said, in the waning days of summer, just before his final season at Penn State began, that he plays with a “switch.”

As in, he steps on the field, and it flips on. Something clicks into place for him, biomechanically, mentally, emotionally.

Zettel is able to elevate his game because of this, because of not only the foundation laid by his 6-foot-4, 258-pound frame and his wild-and-weird ability that has him tackling trees, roundhouse-kicking water bottles and training as a mixed martial arts fighter in the offseason, but also because of “the switch.”

“It’s definitely there for me, whenever I get on the field,” he said. “I’m not the nicest guy on the field. I’m 100 percent different on the field. ... I think with football, you have to play with that mentality.

“Something about football players is, we’re very high-energy people. We have that adrenaline rush, we don’t like backing down from people.”

His ability on the field, and his good-natured quirks off it, handed Zettel what appeared to outsiders to be a “fairy tale” preseason. There he was, on countless preseason watch lists, on Bruce Feldman’s “freaks” list, ready to anchor Penn State’s defense one last time. One of the best players in the nation, ready for his swan song. Captain Zettel. The Force and The Fun.

But it wasn’t really what it looked like.

What many did not know, until a touching piece was released by Frank Bodani, of the York Daily Record, just before the season started, is that Zettel’s family was undergoing something serious and traumatic and exhausting, that fearsome, ugly, intrusive word: Cancer.

Terry Zettel, the man who, Anthony said, was self-made and blue-collar, who worked in a factory and reconstructing houses until he and his family bought a diner in West Branch, Mich., who raised his kids to be tough and proud and strong, was suffering. Zettel’s family was suffering with him.

As the season began, Zettel kept flipping that switch. He’d play each weekend, and then make the nine-hour drive in his white pickup truck to his family’s home to spend time with his father. He also was able to see Terry when he made the trip to Philadelphia to see his son and the Nittany Lions play Temple in Week 1.

“I got to go up and see him in the hotel,” he said. “That was the moment that will stay with me forever.”

It was the last of Zettel’s football games his dad saw in person.

On Sept. 25, Terry passed away. He was 46.

On Sept. 26, Zettel put on his blue-and-white uniform, and played against San Diego State. Statistically, it was the best game of his career.

Again, something had clicked into place.

“I think everything was on point,” he said two weeks later. “I was more focused than I’d ever been. I knew what I had to do. I felt like (my dad) was with me every step of the way. It felt different. ...

“It was an emotional little spurt there for me. But at the same time, that’s what (my dad) would have wanted. When I would come home, when he was going through chemo sessions, he was always yellin’ at me to get back to college.

“I think me not playing that game was not even in question. I’m playing that game no matter what, for him.”

And after it ended, he made the drive again to West Branch, to speak at his father’s funeral service on that Sunday.

Zettel was back at practice the next week and has not missed a snap since.

Two weeks after his father’s death, Zettel sat in front of a quiet, somber room of people whom he barely knows, to talk about Terry publicly for the first time since losing him.

He was quiet when he spoke, and his eyes were full. Still, he did not break down. A media relations member confirmed later that the captain elected to speak to media that day, despite certainly knowing the direction and difficulty the conversation would take.

Zettel spoke of his best memories of Terry.

“I mean, there’s so many memories,” he said, laughing. “My best moment with my dad, I said this at his memorial service, and the two happiest moments I ever had with him was a couple months ago, when he walked my sister (Jenna) down the aisle. There was a special vibe in that whole room that you just can’t match.

“And also, a couple months ago, when I hit that hole-in-one in golf, I think that was just, to have him there with me, was something special. To see how excited he was for me, plus with him being there with me (despite) the fact that he’d just got off a round of chemo, could barely even walk and he’s still out there golfing ... is something special.”

Zettel said he had support, not just from the “thousands” of letters from the community, but from his teammates as well.

Senior Ben Kline, one of Zettel’s best friends, keeps track of what he calls “Zettel-isms.” Those are the quirky moments Zettel seems to constantly find himself in that are well-documented on Twitter, like videos of velociraptor imitations on national television or the time he was asked, if he were a vegetable, which would be be?

“A salary,” Zettel responded, per Kline’s tweet.

Teammate and friend — and fellow big-bodied freaky-athletic defensive lineman — Austin Johnson and Zettel also constantly tease each other.

“Ask him about his ‘lazy knee’ — he hates that,” Zettel laughed over the summer, referring to his friend’s slightly knock-kneed way of standing, which hardly gives any hint to the athleticism of which Johnson is capable. They smack-talk and compete constantly, as Zettel does with all of his close friends.

Now, that’s a lifeline for him. Because when they’re around him, and they act like they always do, like his brothers, goofing around and ribbing each other, that’s what has helped Zettel find some semblance of normalcy in his life.

“I live with a bunch of guys that are great dudes,” he said. “We always have a good time, playing video games or sitting there hangin’ out, talkin’. It makes life a lot easier for me. ... Obviously at night, when you start thinking, it gets hard. But I have a good group of guys around me, makes it easier.”

And remarkably, his teammates said Zettel was the one who lifted them up as they mourned.

“I think anyone who is close with Anthony just takes a tremendous sense of pride in how he’s handled himself these past few weeks,” said Kline on Tuesday, quietly, eyes brimming, like Zettel’s were just minutes earlier.

“It’s been an incredibly difficult time for him, it’s been hard on all of us who are his teammates, and he’s been stronger than anybody that has been involved in this situation. He’s been stronger than I would ever expect anybody to be in this situation. To see him take the load, not only as a member of this team, but as a member of his own family, take the responsibility that comes with that, makes me really proud to be his friend, and really proud to be his teammate.”

Zettel has just a few games left before he’s finished at Penn State. He’s throwing himself fully, wholeheartedly into each of them, for the people who have helped carry him through the good times, and, most recently, the bad.

“It’s amazing to think I’ve been here that long, that I’ve played in this great stadium for that many games, and I only have a few left, because it’s really a special place,” he said. “Looking into these next couple of games, I really want to do this for the Penn State football family, this town, this community, my teammates, my coaches, my family back home.

“I have a lot to play for.”

So now, more than ever, when it’s flipped as Zettel takes the field each week, “the switch” carries a good deal of weight.