With a black bandana tied around his eyes, Anthony Zettel could no longer see the man standing in front of him. But he could still sense what was coming next.
Jab to the shoulder. He deflected the attacker’s left hand. Punch to the left pec. He pushed away the attacker’s right hand a bit faster. Blow to the sternum. Will the punches never stop? For more than a minute, maybe 60 strikes in all, sweat rolled off Zettel’s forehead until the attacker relented.
This wasn’t a mugging or a hazing. For Zettel, a Penn State defensive tackle who’s already racked up seven tackles for loss, this was exactly what he signed up for.
During the past two springs and summers, Zettel drove from his off-campus apartment to a gym sandwiched between student housing and late-night food haunts. There, he’d throw on a pair of sparring gloves and, for 75 minutes at a time, alternate between conditioning and hand drills. As part of his mixed martial arts training, he’d spar for three minutes a round so fourth quarters wouldn’t seem so draining. He’d practice his hand speed -- even blindfolded -- so offensive linemen would struggle to keep their hands on him.
“I can’t tell you what my status would be now if I didn’t train like that,” Zettel said. “I know it helped; it definitely didn’t hurt. I feel a lot more comfortable out there now.”
Nobody's arguing with the results. The first-year starter is an early candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year, and he was so dominant against Rutgers last month that Scarlet Knights head coach Kyle Flood said afterward, “He controlled the second half of that game.”
“He’s really turned into a pretty dynamic and explosive D-tackle,” said Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. “And a lot of it is because he’s such a unique athlete. He’s quick, he’s fast and he’s aggressive.”
Zettel grew up in the small town of West Branch, Michigan -- a community that proudly features two bowling alleys -- where he’d rush home after school and log on to YouTube to watch the latest clip involving the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). He attended a couple cage matches, and he tried to convince his parents to order every UFC pay-per-view event.
Football was his life, but UFC was his hobby. While his peers clamored for the latest video game, he’d replay submission-hold videos until he grasped the technique well enough to attempt it on his smaller, braver friends. He can still excitedly rattle off his favorite fighters' backgrounds, too, the way Penn State die-hards wax poetic on defensive greats. There’s George St. Pierre. He’s humble, he’s unreal. He’s just pure technique. And Anderson Silva. His hand-eye coordination is amazing. And Clay Guida. He’s a lighter guy, but he’ll take 200 hits to the head and it’s not even going to faze him.
Coaches and teammates describe Zettel in the same way Zettel describes his heroes. He’s undersized but tough. Humble and quick. Strong but energetic. He’s a fighter in the trenches.
“He’s only 280 pounds and he’s playing the middle, not the edge, so you’re smacking somebody every single play. His conditioning is unbelievable,” Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. “Because of that, it allows him to play at a high level. He goes hard every snap.”
He goes just as hard in his MMA training, which seemingly played right into instructor Bruce Lombard’s plan to break Zettel's spirit so he could build him back up.
But that never quite happened.
"When you have an athlete like that, you can do some cool stuff. This was like 'Karate Kid' kind of stuff." Bruce Lombard, on what he's able to do with Penn State DT Anthony Zettel.
Zettel would unassumingly hop into the octagon and Lombard would throw jabs at full speed to the newcomer. Other times, Lombard would have Zettel run in place, keeping his knees high, before miming different punches. Nothing fazed him. Zettel would leave the workouts with a smile and, a day or two later, would drive right past bus stops and downtown bars to return to the Lionheart Fitness gym.
“I was trying everything I could to break him; that was my goal,” Lombard said. “But you just couldn’t do it. I was like, ‘Show me you’re suffering or something so I can pat myself on the back.’ He was doing the same conditioning drills that 150-175 pound fighters in great shape could do. I was like, ‘Aren’t you tired?’”
So, partly because he was running out of ideas and partly out of curiosity, Lombard decided to throw a blindfold into the mix. It was the first time Lombard had tried it in his 13 years of teaching eight different disciplines. Why the heck not? Maybe Zettel would finally struggle for once.
Lombard started out slowly, so Zettel could find a rhythm, but then he progressed faster and faster until the punches reached a crescendo and Zettel began to sweat. But Zettel, or “Z-Bone,” as his teammates call him, caught on to that routine quickly. Lombard tries the same exercise with other athletes in the MMAFx program (Mixed-martial arts/football cross-training) but without the blindfold -- and they can only go for 30-seond or 45-second sets. Zettel has already surpassed the two-minute mark with the blindfold.
“When you have an athlete like that, you can do some cool stuff,” Lombard said. “This was like ‘Karate Kid’ kind of stuff.”
Added Shoop: “He’s a weirdly unique athlete. They say he can drive a golf ball 300 yards, and he can throw a football 75 yards. I’ve seen him throw. Other than Hack (Christian Hackenberg), he can throw the football the farthest on the team. It’s legendary stuff.”
One day, Zettel mused, he might become a UFC fighter. But, until then, he plans to focus on football while taking both obsessions seriously. Iron sharpens iron, after all.
“Since God has gifted me with this athletic ability, I just feel like I should take advantage of it wherever I can,” he said. “I don’t want to be one of those people where you look back and say, if they did this or that, they could’ve been something.”