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Encouragement from Gould, Manca, family, others helped PSU's Ficken stay positive
September 22, 2012 - Cory Giger
UNIVERSITY PARK -- Sam Ficken had a big smile on his face after the kick, and even though it was just a 21-yard field goal, it must have felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.
"It's a sense of relief, to get one through there after the whole mishap at Virginia," Ficken, speaking for the first time since his nightmare day against the Cavaliers, said Saturday after making a chip-shot field goal in the fourth quarter and three PATs.
Ficken missed four field goals and an extra point in the 17-16 loss to Virginia two weeks ago, including a 42-yarder on the final play that sailed left.
Even though he'd had a bad day up until that point, Ficken said he felt confident going into the final kick at Virginia.
"I was actually pretty happy to redeem myself," Ficken said. "I think I missed four kicks my whole senior year [of high school], so I'd never experienced missing that many kicks in one game.
"So I was kind of happy to get out there and try and be the hero. And unfortunately that didn't happen. But I was pretty excited for that opportunity."
The immediate reaction to Ficken's bad day was a vicious backlash from some fans on social media. Coach Bill O'Brien called that "absolutely ridiculous," and Ficken did notice.
"I have a Twitter, and I don't really care what people say," the 19-year-old sophomore said. "They can say whatever they want. It doesn't really affect me."
But wasn't it hurtful?
"You kind of take it and roll with the punches, I guess," he said when asked. "I did miss four kicks, so I understand fans being pretty upset. But you've got to move forward."
No one said anything derogatory to his face.
"Not really, no," he said. "Everyone that pretty much recognized me or knew me was pretty much, 'Hey, keep your head up. We're going to need you the rest of the season.'"
Several former PSU kickers -- including Robbie Gould, Kevin Kelly and Massimo Manca -- contacted Ficken to offer words of encouragement, as did Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh.
"I got a lot of messages from previous kickers here at Penn State saying, 'Hey, we had a rough game against so and so, and we bounced back from it. Don't worry about it. You're obviously pretty good being the starter. Don't worry about it. Go on to the next kick,'" Ficken recalled.
Gould has become one of the elite place-kickers in the NFL for the Chicago Bears, but he wasn't always reliable at Penn State, making just 39-of-61 field goals. He also missed from 25 and 51 yards in the infamous 6-4 loss to Iowa in 2004.
"He said he'd been there," Ficken said of Gould's advice to him, "and I've heard from other players Robbie had a bad game -- I think it was against Iowa -- and now he's one of the best kickers in the NFL."
Ficken's family also continued to give him great support.
"They were pretty upset for me," he said. "They realized I was pretty disappointed. But they were there for me. They called me right when I got off the plane. And when they came up for the next game, they gave me a big hug and said, 'Hey, we're here for you, we love you, keep your head up, you're a good kicker, don't worry about it.'"
The issue at Virginia, Ficken said, was that he was pulling his head up too quickly after his first miss.
Many people blamed him for the loss, but O'Brien and the PSU players made sure to point out it was a team defeat, rather than pinning everything on the kicker.
"Do I feel responsible a little bit? Yeah," Ficken said. "But it's a whole team sport, so I'm not going to say it was solely my responsibility."
Initially, he admitted, he worried about losing his job. But he met with O'Brien, and the coach told him, "The sun will come up. Don't get too down on yourself."
"I've performed really well in practice. ... I think I missed like one or two kicks last week and this week combined," Ficken added.
Prior to last week's game against Navy, the Beaver Stadium crowd cheered loudly each time Ficken made a kick during warmups.
"I thought it was kind of funny," he said. "I mean, it was an extra point, and they were acting like it was a 60-yard field goal."
The Lions had a fourth-and-goal situation at the Navy 8-yard line last week, and instead of giving Ficken a chance to kick, O'Brien decided to go for it. The coach said the decision had nothing to do with Ficken, but was based on the fact that he liked the play call, which didn't work and the Lions turned the ball over on downs. Ficken didn't let on that the decision bothered him in the least.
"It's a coach's call," he said before adding, "I missed the extra point before that, but I'm not going to question his call at all."
At some point during the Big Ten season, the Lions are going to need Ficken to make one or two big kicks to win a game. Saturday just might have been the confidence boost he needed in order to do that.