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Receiving yards for Cowboys’ Amari Cooper during Sunday’s 29-23 win over Eagles

Pride of the Lions

Posted by Eric Fisher On December 31

Fisher column logo2Sam Ficken turned and ran like his hair was on fire.

Fueled by the potent combination of excitement and celebration, Ficken appeared to be shot out of a rocket as, riding a tidal wave of emotion, he blazed a trail across Yankee Stadium, with his teammates in hot pursuit.

His teammates couldn’t catch Ficken until he slowed up. And who says kickers aren’t athletes?

When Ficken allowed his Penn State teammates to catch up to him, they hugged him and picked him up in the air, celebrating the extra point that lifted the Nittany Lions to a 31-30 overtime victory Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, a moment many thought they would never experience.

One of the ironies of Ficken running away after making the game-winning kick is that he hasn’t run away from anything during his Penn State career.

He didn’t run away when the Jerry Sandusky scandal hit and legendary head coach Joe Paterno was fired. He didn’t run away in the summer of 2012 when the NCAA imposed Draconian sanctions, which, if left intact, would have eliminated any opportunity for Ficken to play in a bowl game. And he didn’t run away when he missed four field goals during a 17-16 loss to Virginia on Sept. 8, 2012.

Ficken rebounded to kick the game-winning field goal in an upset win over Wisconsin in the final game of his sophomore season. At one point during his junior season, he made 15 straight field goals.

Ficken’s senior season was bookended by two moments that seem scripted in a hokey plot for a sappy made-for-television movie. He started his senior season with a 36-yard field goal as time expired to lift Penn State past Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland. He finished his senior season with a 45-yard field goal with 20 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game into overtime, and with the game-winning extra point in the extra session.

Making Ficken’s career-ending moment more far-fetched is that he didn’t expect to have the opportunity to play in a bowl game, let alone make the game-tying and game-winning kick.

The expectations weren’t absent because Ficken lacked confidence. They were absent because the NCAA sanctions included a postseason ban that was supposed to last through the end of his college career.

But Ficken didn’t leave, as some of his teammates did, when, in an unprecedented move, the NCAA opened the door for Penn State players to transfer without losing a season of eligibility.

The importance of the players who remained at Penn State can’t be overstated. From seniors at the time of the sanctions, such as linebacker Mike Mauti and running back Michael Zordich, who helped hold the team together during the first year of the crisis, to those, like Ficken who have stuck with the program even when there seemed no possibility of bowl glory.

When Penn State’s postseason ban was rescinded at the start of this past season, first-year head coach James Franklin called all the players who had been with the program when the sanctions were imposed to the front of the room and thanked them for sticking with the program. Franklin publicly thanked the seniors again on the Yankee Stadium field, saying they “stayed with this program when we needed them most,” and thanking them for “restoring the hope.”

The hope survived extremely bleak times. There were questions about the survival of the Penn State’s program. Would it be decimated by the scholarship reductions, postseason ban and the school’s tarnished reputation? Many believed it would.

Although the Nittany Lions aren’t championship contenders, they’ve survived the worst of the storm. And they never dropped below .500 for a season along the way.

The program survived because of players such as Ficken, linebacker Mike Hull and guard Miles Dieffenbach, who battled back from an ACL injury in the spring to play the final three games of the season before being injured again in the Pinstripe Bowl.

And it wasn’t just the seniors. Where would the Nittany Lions have been if quarterback Christian Hackenberg hadn’t remained committed to Penn State after the NCAA sanctions were imposed?

You know there had to be questions and concerns in Hackenberg’s mind when the bowl ban, scheduled to expire during his senior season, was imposed. You know there had to be family and friends this season who suggested the sophomore quarterback, bruised and battered behind a patchwork offensive line and without a consistent running attack, would be better off transferring to another school.

But Hackenberg remained as unwavering in the face of this year’s difficulties as he was in the face of the sanctions. He emerged from all the poundings and interceptions to throw for 371 yards and four touchdowns in the Pinstripe Bowl as he led the Nittany Lions back from a 21-7 deficit, hitting tight end Kyle Carter for the tying touchdown in overtime.

The difficulties aren’t over for Hackenberg and his teammates. Yes, 15 starters on offense and defense return next season, but offensive tackle Donovan Smith and defensive end Deion Barnes, two of the mainstays on the offensive and defensive lines, are leaving for the NFL draft. In typical Penn State fashion, both Smith and Barnes have earned their degrees.

The commitment to education hasn’t changed at Penn State. That was one of the ironies and tragedies of the NCAA’s attempt to paint Penn State as an out-of-control football program that was bigger than the university.

In the end, though, the more accurate image has re-emerged.

The face of the program is no longer the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

The new faces of the program are the faces of perseverance: Hull, Dieffenbach, Hackenberg and, perhaps most of all, Ficken.

After an incredibly difficult start to his Penn State career, from the NCAA sanctions to the debacle at Virginia, Ficken continued to believe in himself and the program. The result was a storybook ending.

Ficken was a team captain.

He used Derek Jeter’s old locker at Yankee Stadium.

And he basked in the moment he thought he might never experience, making the game-winning kick in a bowl game.

Ficken’s shattered dreams were transformed into the euphoria of redemption, both for Ficken and Penn State.

As Ficken raced across Yankee Stadium, he not only symbolized the restoration of hope, as Franklin said, but also the restoration of pride in a program that has gone through hell and emerged on the other side with its character and integrity intact.

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