On Saturday night, there was a Sam Ficken sighting on my TV. That’s right, THAT Sam Ficken. Our Sam. The one that ushered us into the dark tunnel with four missed FG’s and death threats at UVA and the one that helped lead us out of that same tunnel with the game-winning kick in the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl. His feats as a Nittany Lion were just about tucked away into the distant-memory lobe of my brain, yet here he was prime-time on a Saturday night, going 2-2 as the LA Rams emergency kicker. In doing so, he became the third player of all-time in the NFL to kick a field goal in the playoffs with only two regular-season games or less experience. The greatest underdog story of Penn State-lore this side of Carl Nassib is still grinding away to keep his dream alive.
The Ficken-sighting could not have come at a better time as I sat down to ponder this year’s edition of what’s become my annual ‘Tis The Off-Season wrap up and report. It’s that time of year we all loathe and never look forward to, but year in and year out its arrival is inevitable. Having such a fond memory of Sam Ficken to look back on makes it just a little easier to come up with some off-season cheer. It’s a hefty reminder of just how far we’ve come in a few short years. I was there that rain-soaked day in Charlottesville, Virginia back in September 2012. I lost my voice doing everything I could to cheer Ficken and the boys on to a victory that wasn’t meant to be. Yet, there I sat this past Saturday night, still basking in the glow of a whirlwind trip to Arizona to watch our Nittany Lions be crowned Fiesta Bowl Champs, watching Ficken once again. Yep, my voice is still a little raspy and recovering from that thriller of an ending as well.
In Dallas, as I waited to board the flight home to Virginia last week, I was greeted by a tall, built kid decked out in Penn State gear like me. Turns out he was a redshirt-freshman linebacker waiting for a quick trip home himself before classes started back up. His first words to me were quote, “Sorry we made it so close for y’all yesterday,” unquote. I reassured him several times how proud we were of the team and their accomplishments and wished him well, but what he said stuck with me all week. It just goes to show the mentality inside the locker room for this football squad. In 2017, I labeled it the ‘Season of Great Expectations’ early on. We fell short by four measly points. Bah humbug. The season of great expectations may be over but with 2018 in its infancy, the expectations of our Nittany Lions are as bold as they’ve ever been. Something to ponder as we all settle in for our long winter’s nap.
There’s no need to sugarcoat it, we lose a lot of talent this year; a handful of guys will find themselves on NFL rosters next season. The prospect of playing without names like Barkley, Allen, Gesicki, and Cabinda, among others, is a daunting one, to say the least, but for every player we lose, head coach James Franklin has been busy doing what he does best by restocking the shelves. Names we only know by player bios and short high-school clips will rise to the occasion, including that hungry linebacker I met at the gate in Dallas, whom I won’t mention by name out of respect for him, but who I personally can’t wait to see on the field myself.
For the record, there are 101 days till the annual Blue/White game in April, 186 days till Arts Fest and Lift For Life, and 270 days till we open the season against Appalachian State. ‘Tis the off-season indeed, but let Sam Ficken be this year’s reminder that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. We may lose players off last year’s squad but we will be tougher up front on both sides of the ball, and if you think the Heisman hype came and went with Mr. Barkley, think again, we have a Wizard on our side locked, loaded, and ready to take his final stand in Blue and White. Just a couple things to look forward to as we hunker down for Mother Nature’s yearly version of the WhiteOut. ‘Tis the off-season, but before you know it we’ll all be gathered together once again in Happy Valley!