Zentner’s College Football Story Coming Full Circle

By: D. Scott Fritchen

Arlen Zentner, who used to watch his son kick the soccer ball and football in the back yard in Topeka, who witnessed the rise of his son through Shawnee Heights High School, then Butler Community College, and now at Kansas State, couldn’t dare watch. Ty Zentner, his son, was lining up for a game-winning 31-yard field goal against No. 3 TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game in Arlington, Texas. The lights, oh, so bright, and the game, oh, so important, but, oh, the nerves, yes, the nerves caused Arlen to sit in the stands surrounded by players’ parents, who all stood and cheered wildly, as Ty jogged onto the field for the pinnacle moment of his college career.


Sunni Zentner, dressed in her No. 8 jersey, would have none of it. The father would not sit and miss his son’s kick, not after the long journey.


“You need to stand up and see this or you’re going to regret it the rest of your life,” Sunni told her husband.


Arlen stood and Ty sent the football through the goal posts, the 31-yarder, which gave K-State a 31-28 overtime victory against No. 3 TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game.


“Everyone went into full meltdown mode,” Arlen says.

K-State teammates stormed the field and carried Ty upon their shoulders before he fell to the ground and kissed the turf — “Coach always tells us to be where our feet are, and make the most of every opportunity,” Ty would later say — and Arlen and Sunni hugged and hugged along with all of the players’ parents around them.
Although there have been longer field goals in K-State lore — Martin Gramatica’s 65-yard field goal in 1997 was the longest in Division I-A history without use of a kicking tee — arguably none might be as memorable as “the kick,” and thus Ty will forever be linked to the Big 12 Championship Trophy, the two proverbially meshed together as one — a chrome trophy and an incredible leg (“Legatron,” is what Will Howard calls him) — as Ty and the Wildcats amble toward one more (“one more” is the theme to this remarkable K-State season), until there is no more, and Ty, a sixth-year senior, takes off his white No. 8 K-State jersey one final time after battle at Caesars Superdome.
It’s No. 9 K-State, 10-3, against No. 5 Alabama, 10-2, in Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff (ESPN) in New Orleans. It’s the Allstate Sugar Bowl, K-State’s first New Year’s Six bowl in 10 years. It’s an opportunity for K-State to tie the school record for wins in a season. And it’ll be the one to remember for Zentner for so many reasons.

“Wow, I get to play against Alabama in my last college game,” Zentner says. “It’s just incredible. You can’t write it up much better.”
Why? We’re glad you asked. Because this story zigs and zags from Topeka to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, about a 13-hour drive down Interstate-22, where Zentner got his shot to shine in June 2018. His excitement level rose when father and son crossed the Alabama state line. See, Zentner had just completed his freshman season at Butler Community College. He had never received a piece of mail. Then Butler head coach Tim Schaffner phoned Zentner and told him to come collect his mail in his locker. And it was there that Zentner saw the Crimson Tide logo, the wavy “A,” and that sent him spinning. And the invitation, yes, the invitation, personalized and all, which signified that this was special, and it was a request for him to visit the University of Alabama for a kicking camp.
“I told the coaches I’d be there,” Zentner says. “We hopped in the car and drove down. I loved being in Tuscaloosa and seeing all their facilities. I was just excited to get there and show what I could do.”
Zentner, current Alabama senior kicker Will Reichard, and a couple other kickers, held a kicking competition.
“Tyler earned an award for that,” Arlen says. “They held a kicking exhibition in front of the whole camp. Nick Saban was there and Tyler was named one of the top kickers of the camp.”


Zentner left without a scholarship offer. And he wasn’t invited to walk-on.
“They had their recruits figured out,” Ty says. “I was just excited to get there and show what I could do.”
Zentner is standing inside the Caesars Superdome on Tuesday after K-State bowl practice as he rehashes his brush with Alabama. He smiles. And oh, has that smile gotten mileage across social media over the past few weeks, how he smiled so, so wide, as he exchanged an all-knowing glance with starting quarterback Will Howard, that this 31-yard field goal was a mere chip shot, so much confidence oozing from that smile, that there was absolutely no doubt the game was won — the kick serving more as a formality.

It was exactly 3:03 p.m. on December 3 that life changed for Zentner; Zentner, who handles kickoffs, punts, field goals and extra points for the Wildcats; Zentner, who went to Butler Community College after playing one year of high school football; Zentner, who got an assist from former Shawnee Heights teammate Wyatt Hubert when Hubert told former K-State special teams coordinator Sean Snyder to take a look at Zentner back in 2017; Zentner, a two-time all-state soccer goalie; Zentner, a starter on the Class 5A state championship basketball team his high school senior year; Zentner, who played travel baseball as a kid; and Zentner, who grew up kicking soccer balls and footballs in the backyard, dreaming dreams far out of reach during formidable youth, yet realized as a 24-year-old in the twilight of his collegiate career.
“It was like with the kick I’d become the guy I always knew I was,” Zentner says, looking around at the bright lights inside the Superdome. “As a kicker, you dream of being in situations like that, where you kick a game winner. There is no great way to explain it. It was such a magical moment.
“Yeah, it was a great moment for the university and it’s cemented in history.”


And the aftermath, man, the aftermath that ensued was pure pandemonium. Zentner was lifted upon his teammates’ shoulders and paraded around the field, then he kissed the turf, then he had an on-camera interview with Howard, then he was mobbed heading into the locker room, then he tried to explain his feelings to reporters, and then he finally dressed and flew with this teammates to Manhattan. Arlen and Sunni departed AT&T Stadium and headed to Texas Live, an entertainment district, with some friends. Perfect strangers suddenly became best friends, and Sunni stole the show with her No. 8 Zentner jersey shining in a different light — “It was pretty neat,” Arlen says. Ty had 150 text messages waiting on his phone in his locker — a number that would exceed 300. Arlen had close to 300, including texts from old high school friends and grade school friends.
“So many players’ parents who I didn’t know came up and shared their story of Tyler’s interaction with their sons,” Arlen says, “and it was the coolest thing ever.”
Do you know what is almost as cool? Zentner’s eyes, how they become glossy as he stands inside the Superdome after practice on Tuesday. Zentner wears a gray Sugar Bowl ballcap and a purple Nike t-shirt. He sits down his helmet and purple practice jersey and shoulder pads. They sit next to his cleats. And Zentner points up into the rafters of the Superdome, to the Super Bowl XLIV Champions banner.
“The Saints,” he says, “are my favorite team.”
It’s a story that zigs and zags to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. It’s November 16, 2008. Halftime nears. Ty is sitting with Sunni behind the visitors bench.
“I was in the third grade and we were doing a Jazzercise halftime dance on the field,” Zentner says. “I was just walking up and down the sideline getting as many autographs as I could. The Saints kicker at the time gave me the ball. Ever since then, I’ve been a huge Saints fan.
“Now I’m here. This is my first time in here. It’s crazy. It’s an unbelievable way to finish it off, you know?”
The Saints kicker? Garrett Hartley, the first kicker in Super Bowl history to kick three field goals of 40 or more yards. Hartley helped lift the Saints to a 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

Zentner came to K-State after the 2018 season. He looks back on his path to joining the Wildcats.
“Going from Topeka to Butler was a shock because I’d only spent one year playing football,” he says. “It was all a shock. I had teammates from almost every single state in the United States and other guys who hadn’t played a lot of football, either, and guys who’d spent a couple years at Division I and transferred down. I thought Butler was super cool. I learned so much about the game, you know? It was just a big learning curve.
“(Sean Snyder) was excited I was going to Butler. He knew I’d get to play early. The first year I wasn’t the starting kicker or punter but I got reps at both and I was the starting kickoff guy, so I got a lot of kickoff experience that way. That transformed into my sophomore year when I did kickoffs, punts and field goals. That’s how I started doing all three. I learned so much.”
He also left Butler as the No. 1-rated junior college kicker in the Class of 2019 by ESPN. K-State had a scholarship available. Boom. In 2019, Zentner served as kickoff specialist for four games and retained his redshirt. In 2020, he handled primary kickoff duties and split punting duties and ranked third in the Big 12 in averaging 40.8 yards per punt with 14 punts landing inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Last season, he handled punts and kickoffs and earned Honorable Mention All-Big 12 honors. His 43.7 yards per punt ranked fifth in K-State history. He totaled 36 touchbacks on his 67 kickoffs (53.7%), the most by a K-State kicker since 2004. He booted through all six extra-point attempts in the Wildcats’ 42-20 win over LSU in the Texas Bowl.
And now? And now, Zentner is standing in front of his K-State teammates days before the Wildcats face the Crimson Tide. He’s speaking to his teammates at midfield at the Superdome. He has some words to share, so let him share them.
“My message to the team was really that at some point in your career it’s going to get tough,” Zentner says. “Freshmen figure that out early when they’re on scout team and they’re having to lift early every single morning. Other guys will figure it out through injury or something personal. I just told the guys if something hasn’t happened that’s going to make it difficult for you — it’s going to happen.
“You just have to keep your head down through those tough times and keep your foot on the gas and keep moving forward. Tough times don’t last but tough people do.”
Years from now, people will recall the kick and those I-was-there-when moments, but people might not remember this: Zentner didn’t even start the 2022 season as the starting place kicker. When sophomore Chris Tennant experienced an up-and-down first half of the season (he was 9-for-14), Zentner stepped up after the 38-28 loss at TCU on October 22.
“We were on the way back from the TCU game and I sent coach a text. I said, ‘I want the ball on my foot,'” Zentner says. “I had enough confidence in what I’d been able to build through the offseason and I’d still been kicking a little bit in practice throughout the weeks. I was really confident in my ability to kick and Chris needed a little pressure relieved from him. Chris and I talked about it and that’s what he wanted.
“From there on, the rest is history. Coach gave me the opportunity.”
Today, Zentner, a Second Team All-Big 12 punter and Ray Guy Award semifinalist, is the only player from a Power 5 Conference team to handle a majority of the team’s punting, kickoffs, and field goal/extra points during the 2022 season. He enters the Sugar Bowl ranked second in K-State history in punting average (44.7) in a single season. His 72-yard punt against Kansas was the longest in the Big 12 this season and the longest by a Wildcat since James Garcia had a 78-yarder in 1998. Zentner ranks second in K-State history in averaging 43.42 yards per punt. Zentner has made all nine field goal attempts and 29 extra-point attempts since taking over placements during the Oklahoma State game on October 29. He had a career-long 53-yard field goal at West Virginia, which tied for the longest ever by an opponent at Milan Puskar Stadium, and the second longest in the Big 12 this season. He has totaled 49 touchbacks on 82 kickoffs (59.8%) this season and is 129-of-217 (59.4%) over the last four seasons.


“Over the past five or six weeks, there may not be a more valuable member of this football team than Ty Zentner,” Klieman says.
Arlen bursts with pride on the other end of the phone.
“I’m really happy for Tyler that all the work and effort that he’s put in has meant something and it’s something tangible that he can look back on for years and years to come,” Arlen says. “The kid has scraped and worked. He’s never been the biggest kid or fastest kid, but he’s very athletic, and he’s always been a part of a winning team. I’m just very proud of the young man that he’s become.”
Over the past several years, and over the past few weeks in particular, Zentner has received an outpouring of support from family, friends, neighbors and K-State fans.
“The support I’ve received from our fan base and around this program has been incredible,” he says. “There were times when I wasn’t even playing that great of football and our fans had my back. So many people have reached out and shared their story of why the kick was so special to them and how our paths have crossed. It was all so special.”
He pauses.
“I can’t even tell you how many messages I’ve read that have brought a tear to my eye knowing what I meant to that person who saw that moment. I’m just super blessed and super thankful. I’m just so glad I’ve gotten to experience this.”
Arlen and Sunni will make it to New Orleans — eventually. They were notified on Tuesday that their flight, scheduled for Wednesday morning, had been canceled.
“We’re scrambling,” Arlen says. “We’ve rented a little SUV and we’re going to hit the road Wednesday. It wasn’t the plan but we’ll start our drive down there Wednesday. We’ve found an alternate route.”

The route will zig and zag from Topeka to New Orleans. It’s about a 13-hour drive. It’s been darned near half a decade since Arlen and Ty took the road trip to visit the Crimson Tide at the kicking camp. Now Arlen and Sunni are heading south, not to Tuscaloosa, and not to AT&T Stadium, but to the Caesars Superdome, to watch K-State play Alabama in the final game of Ty’s career.
“It’s just ironic how all this comes full circle,” Arlen says. “I mean, it’s such a great full-circle story. I love that. Tyler is so looking forward to it.”
The father, after a lengthy journey, is determined to watch the son’s last kick.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *