STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State defensive tackle Anthony Zettel is still grieving after the death of his father, who passed away two weeks ago from cancer, but he explained his mindset Tuesday afternoon with a smile and a somber tone.
“Me and my family went through a hard time; we still will,” Zettel said. “But when you have a group of guys in the locker room that I have and a group of guys at home -- family and friends -- that surround me with support, that really takes the edge off everything and really helps me to fight through it and deal with it better.”
Zettel didn’t have to speak Tuesday. Nobody would’ve blamed him for skipping a press conference, especially this early. But he took the dais, folded his arms and offered a raw, honest look at what he’s going through and how grateful he’s been toward the community.
He said he’s received “thousands” of letters from fans and expressed his sincere thanks for both them and his teammates. But he also didn’t hold back about the challenges, either, about how he still thinks about his dad when he’s alone, about how he still misses the avid 46-year-old golfer.
“Obviously, at night, when you start thinking, it gets hard,” he said. “But I got a good group of guys around me. It makes it a lot easier.”
Zettel’s father, Terry, died on Sept. 25 after a 19-month battle with cancer. Zettel still played Sept. 26. And he still spoke at the memorial service Sept. 27.
Before his father’s death, Zettel endured eight-hour drives back home to Michigan after some games. But his father would just turn to him and, lovingly, tell him to turn right around. “He’d always kind of be yelling at me to get back to college because, ‘You’re just sitting here with me. You’re not doing anything you want to do; you’re not bettering yourself.’ ”
So, when Zettel’s father died on a Friday night, that’s why he still played at noon the next day. That's why he dominated San Diego State to the tune of a team-high seven tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, half a sack and a fumble recovery. That's why he was the co-Big Ten defensive player of the week and earned the weekly Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award.
Hole in 1!!!! 2nd one ever. pic.twitter.com/fu5vG622Ab
— Anthony Zettel (@Zettel98) July 28, 2015
“I was more focused than I have ever been. I knew what I had to do,” Zettel said. “And, also, I felt like he was there every step of the way. I felt different. And I know every game I play from now on – or whatever I do in life – he’ll be with me.”
Zettel wasn’t his normal, cheery self Tuesday -- which was more than understandable -- but he still managed to smile and laugh at times, like when he mentioned seeing the movie “Black Mass” on Monday night and offered a brief aside -- “It was an awesome movie, by the way.”
That unique attitude wasn’t something lost on his teammates.
"It's been a tremendously difficult time for him," said friend and Penn State linebacker Ben Kline. "And he's been stronger than anybody that's been involved in the situation, and he's been stronger than anyone would ever expect. I'm really proud to be his friend, and couldn't be more proud of the guy."
Zettel also recalled with a smile some of his more memorable moments with his dad, like how he walked Zettel’s sister down the aisle a few months ago or how excited he grew in July when Zettel nailed his second career hole-in-one.
Despite the chemotherapy treatments and barely being able to walk, Zettel’s father still managed to spend time with him on the golf course. He couldn’t hit the ball far -- maybe 170 yards off the tee -- but he still tallied a 52 over nine holes.
“Yeah,” Zettel mused. “There’s a lot of good moments.”
Zettel said he just wants to make his father proud. But given his attitude on and off the field, he likely already succeeded long ago.