Falcons Rams Football

Rams kicker Sam Ficken, a Valparaiso High School grad, kicks a field goal against the Falcons during the second half of an NFL football wild-card playoff game Jan. 6, 2018, in Los Angeles.

Kelvin Kuo, File, Associated Press

There are many interesting stories and sidebars revolving around today's AFC and NFC title games.

Valparaiso's Sam Ficken hopes to be one of them in the 2018 season.

It would be foolish to argue this.

The undrafted Penn State place kicker, who went from goat to hero there, signed with the Rams Dec. 20 to replace injured Greg Zuerlein.

But first, Ficken had to survive a grueling tryout with 11 other kickers from around the country. He got the call while working at a brokerage firm in Connecticut and was so excited, would've hitch-hiked to Thousand Oaks, California, if needed.

The story gets even better.

Ficken's first NFL game was a 27-23 win over the Titans Dec. 24. He missed his first field-goal, a 36-yarder, and was 3 for 4 in PATs.

In the regular-season finale, a 34-13 loss to the 49ers on Dec. 31, he converted from 23 and 21 yards, and had a PAT.

Afterward, Ficken posed for a photo alongside the 49ers' Robbie Gould, another Penn State grad and his favorite kicker of all time.

While with the Bears, Gould became Ficken's long-distance mentor and is credited for helping in his development, physically and mentally.

Immediately after the 49ers game, Rams' coach Sean McVay said Ficken would stay with the team.

The door of opportunity had opened.

Next came the Jan. 6 wildcard game with Atlanta, last year's Super Bowl runner-up. Ficken was steady as a surgeon's hand, connecting from 35 and 32 yards and adding a PAT in the Rams' 26-13 loss.

Now they have a decision to make.

Do they keep two kickers, though Zuerlein has greater range -- hitting 38 of 40 this season with a long of 56 yards -- and 18 of 19 from beyond 40 yards.

If the Rams let Ficken go, he is certain to be signed elsewhere. Throughout the kid's short tenure with L.A., McVay was impressed by Ficken's poise.

That came during his three seasons as Penn State's full-time kicker.

Ficken missed seven of his first 11 field goal attempts in 2012 and got death threats from some angry fans. He then set a school record with 15 straight conversions and fans were now making cardboard signs in his honor. That's the fickle world of sports.

"You learn quickly how to handle adversity," he said.

Ficken's senior year, he was 24 of 29, with four of those misses blocked and the other from 51 yards.

He made nine kicks between 40 and 50 yards. It was enough to later earn tryouts with Jacksonville (2016) and Kansas City (2017).

This time around, he finished just three wins from kicking in a Super Bowl with the Rams.

"He seems like he's a mentally tough guy that's unfazed," McVay told reporters. "He has a nice way about himself. He doesn't seem like any moment is too big for him — and I love the way he responded in Tennessee."

A YouTube interview Ficken did after signing with the Rams was quite revealing.

"Team to team, the kicker has one job to do and that's to make his kicks at every opportunity. It's not something I haven't done before. I've kicked in preseason games," Ficken said.

"I did pretty well in the preseason but there's only 32 spots open. A lot of it is timing and things you don't have control over."

Watching Ficken perform, McVay had said it was obvious this Region kid had no "bad mental scars" from his shaky Penn State beginning.

"The day-to-day job stays exactly the same; put it through the uprights and take care of business," Ficken said.

You will see the kid from Valpo on your TV screen next season. That door is wide open now.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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