Penn State's Zettel honors memories of late father by continuing to play
It's a picture Anthony Zettel won't forget.
Taken on a golf course in Michigan in late July, the Penn State senior captain has his left arm around the shoulders of his father, Terry. In Anthony's left hand is a golf ball — the second hole-in-one of his young life.
Father and son are both signaling No. 1 with their right index finger with Terry clutching his own driver in his left hand.
What the photo doesn't show is how the chemotherapy had been affecting Terry.
"He could barely walk," Anthony Zettel said this week. "And he's out there golfing."
It remains, Zettel said, one of his happiest memories of his dad, who died Sept. 25. Cancer that began in his appendix had spread throughout his body.
Stage four. He fought it for a year-and-a-half.
"To have him there with me was something special," Zettel said. "Just seeing how excited he was for me and plus him being there. He just got off a round of chemo.
"I spoke at his memorial service, and I think the two happiest moments I ever had with him was that and when he walked my sister down the aisle. That was special. There was a special vibe in that whole room that you can't match."
Terry Zettel was able to travel from West Branch, Michigan, to see his son play football one last time — the opener against Temple.
After that, it was Anthony making the trips to see him, making the eight-hour drive home after the home opener against Buffalo.
Continuing to play: He continued to play. Against Buffalo. Against Rutgers. And against San Diego State, the day after his father's death.
"It was emotional," Zettel said. "It was an emotional little spurt for me there. But at the same time, that's what he would want (me to do). When I would come home and he was going through chemo sessions, he would be telling me to 'get back to college and go do your thing. Because sitting here with me, you're not doing anything you want to do and bettering yourself.'
"I think me not playing that game was not even a question. I'm playing that game no matter what. For him and for my career, too. That's what he would want me to do."
So he did.
He had a career-high seven tackles to lead the defense in a 37-21 win. He split a sack, finished with 2.5 tackles for loss, forced a fumble and broke up a pass.
"I think everything was on point (that day)," Zettel said. "I was more focused than I've ever been. I knew what I had to do and I felt like (my father) was with me every step of the way. It just felt different."
He impressed Kline: No matter how it felt for him inside, his Nittany Lions teammates insisted he remained the same in the locker room, in practice and on the field.
"I think anyone who is close with Anthony takes a tremendous sense of pride in how he's handled himself these past few weeks," fellow senior Ben Kline said. "It's been an incredibly difficult time for him. It's been hard on a lot of us, as far as his (friends), and he's been stronger than anybody that's been involved in the situation. And he's been stronger than I would ever expect anyone to be in a similar circumstance.
"To see him take on the load, not only as a member of this team, but as a member of his own family, and take that on the responsibility that come with that? It makes me proud to be his friend and makes me really proud to be his teammate. I couldn't be more proud of the guy."
Kline is a Dallastown High School graduate.
Lots of support: Zettel's family — his mother, his brother, his sister, his grandparents — came to State College for the San Diego State game and were all there to hug him in the stands before kickoff.
Afterward, they drove back home together for Terry's memorial service the following day.
Penn State coaches moved around their usual Sunday practice schedule so that a handful of people could take a quick trip to Michigan and offer their support in person.
On top of that, Zettel said he has received "thousands of letters" from people in the Penn State community.
That, along with the busy athletic and academic schedule of a major college football player, has helped Zettel keep his mind occupied.
Nights, he conceded, have been difficult for him. But one thought about his father continues to carry him.
"I know every game I play from here on out, or whatever I do in life, he's going to be with me," Zettel said. "That's the mindset I have to have. And I truly believe that."