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Kicking around some possibilities

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Tom Brady, QB


Several hours after dressing at Derek Jeter's locker inside Yankee Stadium, Sam Ficken used the final swing of his right leg as Penn State's kicker to drive a game-winning extra point toward the famed Monument Park.

It was, in his words, a storybook ending.

Ficken had gone from occupying Mr. November's space before the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl to walking off as a late-December difference maker in a 31-30, overtime win over Boston College.

"I couldn't have written a better way for it to go," said Ficken, who forced a tie with the Eagles by hitting a 44-yard field goal in the final half-minute of the 4th quarter.

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Nor could Ficken envision a worse way to begin his collegiate career just three years earlier. He was a freshman when former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges of sex crimes against young boys, leading to one of the darkest periods in college football history. Joe Paterno was fired as head coach and the Nittany Lions were left to face severe NCAA sanctions.

While numerous teammates transferred, Ficken remained in State College for the 2012 arrival of Paterno's successor, ex-Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. Penn State lost O'Brien's debut to Ohio -- the Bobcats not the Buckeyes. Then they lost again at Virginia, where Ficken missed four field goals -- any of which would have avoided a 17-16 result.

"I used it for motivation that whole rest of the year," Ficken said Wednesday as one of five kickers invited to this year's NFL Combine. "It kind of put me in the spotlight, so I tried to deal with it the best I could."

Though not entirely on his own. Ficken fought through his inauspicious start with the unfailing help of O'Brien, as well as another one-time member of the Patriots, Robbie Gould.

"[O'Brien] was incredible. He supported me from my struggles on. He never blamed it on me as a single person," Ficken says. "I don't know if I would have made it through that whole ordeal if he didn't support me the way he did.

"[Gould] worked with me like three times a week that whole season. I improved to the point where I think I ended that season making 10 in a row. He was instrumental in my success. It was a motivational factor, for sure. After that season, I moved on from it. After that point, it was kind of out of my mind ... It's way in the past for me."

Regarding the future, should free agent Stephen Gostkowski, the Patriots all-time leading scorer, wind up elsewhere in 2015, Ficken figures to attract New England's interest. Much like Gould, who signed with the Patriots out of Penn State in 2005, before eventually becoming a longtime Chicago Bear.

"[He's] basically been my kicking coach since sophomore year of college," said Ficken, who explained that Gould regularly critiques video of his technique during weekly phone conversations.

Ficken also still bears the influence of O'Brien, who treated his Penn State specialists exactly as Bill Belichick does in Foxborough; not as separates, but as equals.

"It's not always the case in every program, but at Penn State you were required to do every single thing that the rest of the team was doing," says Ficken, a multi-sport athlete in high school who now incorporates kick boxing in his training. "Winter workouts sucked just as much for me as they did the next guy. With that and summer workouts, the guys saw me going through what they're going through."

Ficken is also experienced in harsh elements.

"At least one or two games every year it was below 25 [degrees], with snow. I've had my fair share of that," he said. "The coaches did a good job of making us practice outside, so it provides kind of a platform where if there is a cold-weather team in the National Football League that's not something that is too worrisome."

It may also put teams at ease knowing that Ficken is out here attempting to author the next chapter of his kicking career after weathering the storms of those early days in State College.

"It shows something I went through as a person," he says. "I think it shows my character on a big stage. Hopefully that adds value.

"But at the end of the day, if you kick the ball straight that gets you on teams. That's what I'm focused on."

Not A Snap Decision

Among those meeting the media on Wednesday was a true one-of-a-kind player.

Joe Cardona is the only long snapper attending this year's Combine. As a soon-to-be-graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he's also the lone service academy standout here. Which makes him unique for another reason.

Unlike every other prospect in Indianapolis, Cardona doesn't know if he'll even be allowed to play this season if selected in the draft.

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Cardona is expected to be commissioned as an officer in May, after majoring in economics and making Marine Corps Ground his service selection. Naval Academy graduates typically are obligated to serve at least five years active duty upon graduation. Normally, someone on Cardona's track into the Corps would leave Annapolis for The Basic School in Quantico, Va.

But if Cardona lands on a roster, he might be allowed to forgo TBS for the NFL.

"Ultimately, it's whatever the Navy wants to do with me. I'm ready and willing to do whatever they ask," he said on Wednesday. "All that comes down to the needs of the Navy, what they foresee me doing and how they want me to serve."

Of course, teams considering Cardona have to weigh the unknown against what they do know about him. At Navy, he was extremely accurate, developing a hitch-free delivery that was clocked in excess of 40 miles per hour last summer at a kicking academy in Wisconsin.

Even if the uncertainty of his situation keeps Cardona off draft boards, he should remain on the NFL's radar. Especially -- as both history and current circumstances suggest -- in New England.

In recent years the Patriots signed several Midshipmen as undrafted free agents, including receiver Tyree Barnes, fullback Eric Kettani and running back Shun White. Each was brought into Foxborough despite pending military commitments.

More than an openness, Belichick has a well-documented fondness for Navy players, stemming from his strong personal roots to the Academy and Annapolis.

As most Patriot fans know, Belichick's late father Steve was a Navy assistant for 30-plus years. His love of the Midshipmen was so rich that Bill donated the vast collection of football books he and Steve collected to the Academy in 2006. Cardona knows it well. On Wednesday he recalled frequently visiting the Belichick Library in the football offices at the Academy's Ricketts Hall.

Sentimentality aside, Belichick and the Pats are likely to give Cardona a long, hard look based simply on need. Their long snapper of the last three years Danny Aiken, who survived several competitions for his job before and during 2014, is currently a free agent.

Aiken is also another of the conduits connecting the Mids to the Patriots. His younger brother, Matt Aiken, was a three-year teammate of Cardona and a Navy co-captain in 2013.

"I've gotten to meet Danny a couple of times. He's come down to some of Matt's games," Cardona said. "It's been awesome getting to hang out with him and bounce ideas [off him]. Not many people can really talk about long snapping, I guess. It's good to actually talk to somebody about different things we experience."

Cardona's also relied greatly on Kettani, who spent last season on Jacksonville's practice squad.

"[Kettani's] helped me through a lot of this, just getting ready for the military-NFL combination, I guess," Cardona says. "His biggest advice to me that I've really taken to heart is that you have to be successful in everything you do to even get opportunities like this.

"You have to be successful in football to get an opportunity to play in the NFL and you have to be successful as a Naval officer for them to consider any sort of exemption or early release. You have to be a stand-up individual who's shown that you can represent the Navy at this level, and on this stage."

Despite the uniqueness of his situation, Cardona doesn't see himself any differently from those with whom he shares this stage.

"It's an awesome experience getting to go to the Senior Bowl, getting to go to the Combine and getting to compete and getting to know these guys who are here," he says. "I don't know whether I'll be on the field next year. But neither does anybody else here, really. Any of these guys can get drafted and not make a team. I'm in the same situation as anyone else, that's the way I look at it. I'm either on the field or I'm not."

And if the latter for him?

"I don't think there's a downside of it, sir," said Cardona, politely punctuating his reply like the true Midshipman he is, when asked about possibly deferring his football dream to fulfill a military commitment. "It's a guaranteed job and a career that a lot of people really aspire to and it's a very honorable thing to be a naval officer."

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