Sam Ficken goes from goat to hero

Sam Ficken watched many kicks drift left and right of the uprights last season before righting the ship. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Sam Ficken might've been the most hated man on campus just one year ago.

After missing four field goals and a PAT in a 17-16 loss against Virginia, the Penn State kicker retreated to his campus apartment and refused to leave until the next day. He was arguably the worst kicker in all of college football. And those hateful tweets and Facebook messages came at him like rushers off the edge.

"Just kill yourself."

"You should never dress in a jersey again."

"You are a f---ing joke."

"It was all sorts of stuff," the junior said recently in the players lounge, his bony elbows resting on a wooden table. "There was one joke, like, 'Hey, we don't need to worry about Ficken hanging himself. He can't kick the chair out from under himself.'"

Ficken leaned back and let out a big laugh.

"That one's actually kind of funny."

The skinny kicker with the hawkish nose can laugh about it all now. And he did, repeatedly, during a warm Wednesday afternoon. He spoke as if that day -- maybe the worst in his life -- happened 10 years ago, and almost as if it happened to someone else altogether.

He can do that now because he's parlayed his life's greatest failure into his greatest turning point. He's since set a school record for consecutive field goals (15), and he booted a 54-yard kick against UCF, the longest PSU field goal since 1979, back when gas cost 86 cents a gallon.

Ficken is already 8-of-10 on field goals this season, his only misses coming on a blocked kick and a 57-yarder that came up a college-futon short of the uprights. There might not be a player in college football who has improved more. And, with Ficken's constant grinning, there might not be one who is happier.

And the funny thing, Ficken says, is he owes all that -- his Penn State record, his improvement, everything -- to a Virginia game that haunted him for nearly a semester.

On the morning of Sept. 8, 2012, Ficken awoke in Charlottesville, Va., with the anticipation of a kid on Christmas eve. He hadn't yet attempted a field goal on the season. But he dreamed of an opportunity like this shortly after he stopped playing JV soccer in favor of varsity football.

He didn't have the slightest inkling his dream would turn into a real-life nightmare, witnessed by millions.

He chatted with his teammates before the game, milled around at different points on the field at Scott Stadium, and made 16-of-16 field goals during pregame warm-ups. This seemed to be his lucky day -- at least until the opening kickoff.

First came the missed 40-yarder in the first quarter. No problem, just jitters. Then came the missed 38-yarder in the second. Just need to find a rhythm. Then a wide-right chip-shot from 20 yards. I have no idea what's going on here. Then a blocked extra point in the fourth. This can't be happening. Finally, a converted 32-yard kick. OK, the worst is over. I'm good now.

And then, with one second left and Penn State trailing by one point, he eyed a 42-yarder. Let's just get this, win the game for the team, go home, check the film and fix what's wrong.

Ficken's gaze followed the kick as it veered left. He cringed as orange-clad fans in the end zone leaped up and his opponents embraced. He unbuckled his chinstrap and stared at his feet while slowly shuffling to the locker room.

"That young man must just feel like the heart's been torn out of his chest," ESPN's Mike Patrick told a national TV audience.

Said Ficken: "I realized I had a terrible game to that point. But I thought, 'I'm going to put this one through.' ... Unfortunately, it didn't play out like that.

"And the hate-storm followed."

Ficken didn't talk to reporters after the game. He didn't say much to anybody.

He sat in his apartment, with a handful of teammates, and replayed each miss over and over again. His brain was like a VCR stuck on rewind. About five other players sat with him, patted him on the shoulder, and watched another football game on TV. Maybe, they figured, that would take his mind off things -- but Ficken can't even remember what conference played. He didn't care.

The next day, the curiosity of fan reaction lassoed him in. He logged on to his email and social media accounts and read nearly every message.

"Go die somewhere."

"I could kick better than you with an amputated leg."

"Answer me this, how much is your scholarship? I'm going to take it you weak f---."

"Sam Ficken should really kill himself, that's f---ing pathetic. You have a f---ing scholarship to kick FGs and you can't make any. F--- you."

His teammates comforted him. Some fans told him to keep his chin up. And his head coach, Bill O'Brien, stood up for him during Tuesday's press conference and angrily labeled those fans "ridiculous" and "cowardly." That was an oasis from the hate, but Ficken's saving grace -- the spark for his turnaround -- came in the form of a phone call from a stranger.

On Sunday morning, the name "ROBBIE GOULD" scrolled across his buzzing cellphone. The two had exchanged numbers, and a simple hello or two, a few months earlier. But they had never really talked.

Ficken knew plenty about him, though. He was the Chicago Bears' Pro Bowl kicker, the fifth-most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history. And he was a former Penn Stater, one who finished his senior season by nailing just 7-of-13 kicks.

He figured Gould was calling to offer some solace, a few kind words. He needed that, so he answered -- but Gould took it further than Ficken ever expected.

Hey Sam, why don't we go over some film?

"Absolutely," Ficken told him. "Maybe you can help me get my stuff together."

Over the next week, Ficken uploaded his practice film to Hudl -- a website often utilized by hopeful high school recruits -- while Gould would watch each clip and make notes 600 miles away.

They'd chat for about an hour each day, while Gould played the role of after-school tutor. Ficken looked forward to those calls; they came at the most difficult time of his life.

Every time Ficken checked his university email, 25 messages would be awaiting him -- at least half of them angry and hateful. Twitter might have been even worse.

"You're trash."

"You ficken suck."

"I could do better."

On Ficken's way to class, some faceless stranger would inevitably stop him or yell back after passing him. "Way to kick, d----- bag!" was one of the tamer responses. But Ficken didn't need tweets or emails to remind him of that game.

He tacked the Virginia game-day program to his bedroom wall, near his Michael Jordan poster. He planned to look at it every day. He wanted this time with Gould, this game against Virginia, to turn into something good.

"I just kind of put my head down and was like, 'It can't get any worse,'" Ficken said. "It's just going to get better. So I just put my head down and I was like, 'I'm going to work to shut these people up.'"

The more Gould watched, and the more the two spoke, the more a pattern emerged.

Ficken was practicing differently than when he played come game time. Timing is everything in kicking, not unlike golf, and Ficken was speeding up his swing, so to speak. His adrenaline had become his worst enemy.

He took too many steps. Gould told him the key was to eliminate a half-step -- go from two-and-a-half steps to just two.

Changing that technique was about as easy as telling John Daly to back off his driver. The move felt foreign, unnatural, but Ficken knew -- to really put those hateful messages and that Virginia game behind him -- he had to perfect that new style.

"I was like, 'Wow, people hate me,'" Ficken said. "And I wanted to show them."

He spent hours on the practice field, a place situated in the mountains and valleys of central Pennsylvania, and kicked ... and kicked ... and kicked. A normal kicker might attempt 50 field goals; Ficken was nearing 80. Every day.

His leg grew sore so often that O'Brien actually had to address the issue with the media, but Ficken didn't care. He simply embraced hot tubs and ice baths. He'd feel that sting in his legs when he'd throw off the covers in the morning, look at that Virginia program -- and feel a sense of determination wash over him like an autumn breeze. Then he'd do it all over again.

Change came slowly, but he continued under Gould's guidance. Ficken missed more kicks -- he was 2-of-8 on field goals through five games -- but something clicked during Week 9 against Ohio State. That new style didn't feel so new anymore. He wouldn't miss another field goal until the next season; he made his last 10 field goals in 2012.

Last October, reporters gathered around him in a scrum and asked if he had moved past the nightmare in Charlottesville, Va. He bit his tongue and nodded. But that wasn't the total truth.

"You like to say you are," Ficken said recently, pausing, "and it's not like you're thinking about it all the time. But it was there."

On the final game of the 2012 season, inside a cavernous Beaver Stadium, Ficken placed an exclamation mark on his turnaround. His Nittany Lions had bounced back from obstacles and adversity that caused everyone to discount them, and here was Ficken's chance to do the same.

With the game on the line, in overtime, Ficken nailed the go-ahead 37-yard field goal. One possession later, after a defensive stop, the crowd erupted -- and that kick became the game-winning field goal. Some players cried. Cornerback Stephon Morris threw his helmet up so high that he couldn't find it 30 minutes later. That conversion glued a smile to Ficken's face, and he embraced his teammates. If one player symbolized Penn State's rebound, it was Ficken.

He removed the tacks from that Virginia program on his wall and, in its place, affixed his Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week award. The Virginia game, finally, was behind him.

Ficken, who looks more like a golfer in a blue Penn State polo, shakes his head and smiles when asked if talking about that Virginia game bothers him nowadays.

Several feet from two billiards tables, the kicker says that game is a part of him. It's like a mole, a small blemish, that might be seen -- but, ultimately, means nothing. "It is what it is," Ficken says with a shrug.

"You know," he continues. "People still bring it up. And I realize if I kick in the NFL for 10 years, I'll still probably field questions about it. But when I get on the field, I'm not like, 'Oh no, what about that Virginia game? Am I going to do that again?' I'm completely over that."

This isn't feigned sincerity, not like that time last October when he swore to reporters that the Virginia game didn't enter his mind anymore. The more he talks about vicious tweets and emails -- how he replied to one vile message with a sarcastic "Oh, thank you!" and regretted it afterward ("I was immature," he says) -- the more he smiles and laughs as if he's in a comedy club. It's an unusual sight.

He reflects on several death threats so nonchalantly that he's asked if he really just said "death threats." Ficken gets a kick out of the reporter's expression and laughs again.

"Death threats -- plural, yeah," he says. "Those were kind of eye-opening, but I didn't take any of them seriously."

Life and football have changed for Ficken since that Virginia game. He boasts his own T-shirt now -- "Sticken with Ficken" -- and a few of his harshest critics even emailed him back a few weeks ago to apologize for their hateful rants. Even Nittanyville campers, the students who spend nights in tents leading up to home games, battled over who had the right to make the one Ficken sign this season.

"Usually, when it comes to picking a banner, everyone fights over someone like Allen Robinson," Nittanyville president and PSU senior Allen Sheffield said. "This year, it's funny. People were fighting over who would do Ficken. ... He's been on fire."

Sometimes, it's been said, God works with a crooked stick. But the story of the nation's worst kicker at this time last year isn't finished just yet.

He smiles once more, the widest all afternoon, on the final question. About what comes next.

"I'm shooting for All-Big Ten," he says while walking off to practice. "All-American wouldn't be too bad either."