New Lions DL Anthony Zettel is just a ‘freak athlete’

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

The more Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer described Anthony Zettel, the more the Lions draft pick started to sound like Bill Brasky, the fictional man whose incredible feats were the topic of bar-room discussions on “Saturday Night Live.”

“You can’t challenge him,” Spencer said, “because if you challenge him, he won’t stop the rest of practice.”

One day, Zettel said he could throw a football 70 yards. Spencer didn’t believe him, but Zettel chucked it to prove him wrong. The 6-foot-4, 277-pound defensive lineman can balance on an exercise ball, too.

On the field, Zettel led the Nittany Lions with three interceptions in 2014 despite playing defensive tackle. In high school in 2011, he set the Division 2 shot put record in Michigan, and earned letters in basketball, baseball, football and track and field. According to former Ogemaw Heights High football coach Andrew Pratley, Zettel is a good golfer, too.

“This guy’s like a freak athlete that he can do all these different things,” Spencer said during a phone interview Monday.

Perhaps the Reading Eagle, a Pennsylvania newspaper, best described Zettel in an August 2015 headline: “Is there anything PSU DT Anthony Zettel can’t do?”

After drafting Zettel, a West Branch native, in the sixth round, the Lions hope performing at a high level in the NFL can become another one of the unbelievable tales on his list.

Plenty of fans have seen video of Zettel tackling a tree or dancing solo to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which he did for a college class instead of writing a paper. But there also are videos of Zettel displaying a lethal roundhouse kick — only a water bottle was harmed — and doing animal impressions — a dying pig and velociraptor among them.

When Spencer visited Zettel in West Branch, Zettel told him bear meat would be on the menu, although Spencer didn’t stay to find out.

And during Penn State’s pro day, Spencer said Zettel ran routes and caught every pass thrown his way.

“There’s a team that called him and asked him if he’d be interested in playing tight end,” Spencer said.

Lions pick up Ansah’s $12.7M option for 2017

Father showed the way

Zettel, however, has experienced vulnerability, too.

Before his sophomore year in high school, his father, Terry, was in a diving accident in which he fractured three vertebrae. After rehabilitation, Terry Zettel walked again, and Pratley said that provided his son with inspiration.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of his father’s medical issues. He was diagnosed with cancer when Zettel was in college.

Terry Zettel died in September. He was 46.

“His dad was a tough (one),” Spencer said. “You didn’t even know anything was wrong with him. They told him he wouldn’t walk again and he started walking. It’s just the way he was.

And one day after his father’s death, Zettel was back on the field, dominating San Diego State with seven tackles, 2.5 for loss, one fumble recovery and one pass break-up.

“He had a couple breakdowns, but he was so strong,” Spencer said. “His dad taught him to be so tough and strong. In the words of him prior to that game, his dad would’ve been (ticked) at him if he didn’t play in the game. He said, ‘This is what he would’ve wanted.’ ”

Spencer, Penn State coach James Franklin and some of Zettel’s teammates joined him for the funeral. Then, Zettel returned to college to finish a senior season in which he was impressive enough to be drafted by the Lions.

“He’d be really happy and proud of me,” Zettel said Saturday on a teleconference. “Words really can’t express how happy and proud he would be of me.”

Lions sign LB Zaviar Gooden, third-rounder in 2013

Versatility will count

In addition to a guy with a unique personality, the Lions found a big defensive lineman with experience playing inside and outside. General manager Bob Quinn said Zettel initially will play defensive end, but with the Lions playing the majority of snaps in sub packages, there’s a chance he’ll contribute at tackle, too.

“He’s going to create a problem for guards,” Spencer said of Zettel.

In many ways, Zettel resembles former Lions defensive end Jason Jones, a big, athletic player with position versatility who played basketball in high school and grew up in Michigan. Zettel had at least four sacks in each of his four seasons, so he should be able to contribute as a pass rusher no matter where he lines up.

And now that he’s in the NFL, Zettel will have to perform to make this dream last.

But, Spencer admits he was teary-eyed when thinking about everything that led Zettel to this point.

“His dad passes, his family’s all there, the Detroit Lions take the guy,” Spencer said. “If you were going to write a movie, that’s the story. Talk about perfect justice. Some things just happen the right way.”

Twitter: @jkatzenstein