Penn State’s Zettel perseveres after losing father

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Penn State’s Anthony Zettel ranks fourth on the team with 10 tackles for loss, including three sacks.

The videos have become legendary.

Anthony Zettel in the Penn State locker room with a roundhouse kick of a water bottle suspended in the air by a teammate (and almost taking out another teammate, Saquon Barkley, whose quick reflexes allowed him to avoid bottle-to-face impact), and then Zettel in the woods tackling a tree (that had no reflexes and never had a chance).

Penn State’s senior defensive tackle, who grew up in West Branch, Michigan, is inventive, to say the least.

“I got a lot of crap for that,” Zettel said in a telephone interview with The Detroit News. “I still do the tree-tackling stuff. I have no fear.”

Zettel, the 6-foot-4, 284-pound senior and an All-Big Ten selection last season, will have a large number of family in attendance Saturday when Penn State faces Michigan at Beaver Stadium.

He was, he said, although the past tense doesn’t seem quite accurate, “a wild child.”

Zettel grew up in West Branch, attended Ogemaw High, his parents, Terry and Carrie, didn’t allow their children to play video games, and there were a lot of woods to explore and energy to vent.

“My parents forced us to not sit inside and not play video games, so that forced us to be outside playing something,” Zettel said. “I was always a wild kid, just relentless. I liked to get my hands dirty, whether I was catching snakes and turtles, I just enjoyed being adventurous.”

Even now, Zettel only occasionally plays a video game and then is reminded of his father’s reaction years ago.

“It was a Sunday afternoon, seventh grade, and me and my brother had gotten an Xbox and we were playing it,” he said. “It was 2 in the afternoon. Dad walked in and threw it in the trash. In the dumpster. He was super serious. He and mom worked really well together, and believed in their parenting. They never questioned each other. Having both of them support each other’s decision was important for us.”

'I'm very blessed'

Zettel lost his father, Terry, 46, to a 19-month fight with cancer on Sept. 25. The next day, with his mother, older sister and brother in attendance, Anthony Zettel played against San Diego State and, saying his felt his father’s presence the entire game, had seven tackles and a fumble recovering in the Nittany Lions’ 37-21 victory.

Father and son were as close as could be.

Anthony Zettel

“We did everything together,” Anthony Zettel said.  “I’m biased, but I don’t think anybody has had a relationship like me and my dad. For 23 years, it was a relationship that was so meaningful. I’m honored to have known him. I’m very blessed.”

He finds being with his teammates and playing football have allowed him some sense of normalcy in the wake of such a profound loss.

“When you have a loss like that, especially someone so important, just trying to get into a routine again is a big thing,” Zettel said. “I never will forget my dad and never want to. He would want me to stay on track and keep going.

“During the daytime it’s a lot easier with the guys and going to practice. At night when you’re sitting there thinking about yourself, there have been so many moments the last couple weeks I want to pick up the phone and call him. I can’t call him, but I know he’s with me. I know he’s there. I just wish I could hear his voice.”

Terry Zettel kept his son on track.

“Not having a lot of sports facilities and competition in a small town, he pushed me to be great and challenged me," Zettel said. "We’d go fishing and take a trip to Canada once a year. He coached me in basketball, football, wrestling and baseball. He was a good coach and would keep everyone positive. Everyone loved him for that. He didn’t know X’s and O’s of everything, but he kept morale high.”

Staying together

Zettel, who will graduate in December with a degree in kinesiology and will then train for the NFL draft, and his teammates have dealt with the unique challenge Penn State faced in the wake of NCAA sanctions in 2012 as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Scholarship reductions were among the sanctions and many college football analysts believed it would take the program the better part of a decade to recover.

But Penn State has not had a losing season since.

“The NCAA kind of screwed us giving any player the option to leave right away and not count against the other schools' scholarships,” Zettel said. “The initial emotional response was, ‘We’re leaving,’ and everyone thought this program was going to go back to ancient times. They thought this program was going to fall off forever and never rebuild. The senior class did a good job to keep us together.

“Penn State players are different, different than any other school I visited. There’s a camaraderie and we’re close-knit. The sanctions really tested our character and all the things I went there for. Us keeping the program together and sticking to everything I believed in since I came to Penn State, very few programs that could have handled it like we did. Penn Staters are stronger.”

If you don’t believe him, Zettel would like to show you what he can do to a tree.