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July 12, 2013

Butterworth makes strides through summer

It all looks ridiculously, torturously hard. The tire flipping, the iron pumping, the various other strongman events. But the hardest of all?

"The hardest event for me last year was probably the van push," punter Alex Butterworth said, referring to the competition in which successions of two-man teams grabbed onto the rear bumpers of white Physical Plant vans to see who could shove their vehicle across Penn State Lacrosse Field fastest. "We had to do it four times. That van is heavier than it looks."

This year's edition of Lift for Life, the 11th since the event was first organized by Penn State Uplifting Athletes, will take place at the university's outdoor lacrosse facility beginning at 5 p.m. Friday. About 80 players are expected to participate, and they will also take part in an autograph session afterward.

As always, the event will benefit the Kidney Cancer Association, and attendees are asked to donate to the cause. A minimum donation of $10 for adults and $5 for children is recommended.

Specialists tend to get overlooked at Lift for Life, with most eyes focused on the linemen, linebackers and running backs. But the event offers something for everyone, and part of the fun is what happens away from the field.

"Lift for Life is really cool because kids come in for tours of the [football] building, things like that," Butterworth said. "It's definitely a chance to see all the kids who come out and to do different things for them, like the tours, and throwing a football around with them for a couple of minutes. It's a good time, and I love doing it every summer."

Butterworth is preparing for his final season at Penn State and is working on all aspects of his game after averaging 37.4 yards per attempt as a junior. He was very successful at pinning opponents deep last season, as 19 of his 51 attempts were downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line, but he's continued to experiment with his technique. The NFL punters he likes to watch - Chicago's Adam Podlesh and Cleveland's Reggie Hodges are at the top of his list - tilt the nose of the ball downward when they drop it. Once it's in the air, the ball rotates backward like a kickoff and tends to bounce backward or straight up and down when it lands. It's an NFL technique that Butterworth hopes to be able to use this fall.

He's also adjusted his timing so that the ball is closer to the ground when his foot strikes it, allowing him to generate more power and drive it farther. And he's gotten stronger after more than a year in Craig Fitzgerald's conditioning program, as has fellow specialist Sam Ficken.

To build up strength, the kickers will go through their familiar kicking motions using elastic bands to provide resistance. The bands help develop fast-twitch muscle fiber.

At Fitzgerald's insistence, the specialists also perform the same lifting routines as the offensive and defensive players. "He wants us to know and everybody else to know that we are football players," Butterworth said. "He wants us to do all the workouts that everyone is doing. Then we'll have days where we go by position. So some days, me and Sam will do fast-twitch muscle work and stuff that's specific to our position.

"We've been doing a lot of elastic band work and hip sled work. We've focused on our core and our hip strength, and I think that's helped us a lot."

Butterworth didn't have much competition for the job after Fera left last year, but the Lions recently welcomed highly regarded freshman run-on Chris Gulla, a New Jersey prospect who averaged 42 yards per attempt as a senior at Toms River North. Gulla has said he hopes to compete for punting and place-kicking duties right away. Butterworth is eager for the challenge.

"It's going to be nice to have a little competition," he said. "Last year I didn't really have anybody backing me up, didn't really have anybody who could check me out, see if I'm doing something wrong. So it's going to be nice to have someone else punting the ball with me, and doing it competitively. I'm excited about it."

Butterworth has set some specific goals for himself for his final season at Penn State. He wants to average around 42 yards per attempt, cut down on returns and hopefully put himself in position to get into an NFL camp next summer. "What I really want," he said, "is to go out with a bang."

On Friday, Butterworth and his teammates will have a chance to showcase the results of all the long hours they've put in in the weight room. Of course, the most important aspect of Lift for Life is the more than $700,000 that Penn State's chapter of Uplifting Athletes has raised in the fight against kidney cancer. But one of the main reasons for the event's extraordinary fundraising success is that players and fans enjoy it so much.

"The summer is kind of dull," Butterworth said. "All we're doing is lifting and running. You don't really see any fans or any of the kids, then you get to Lift for Life and all these fans come out and watch you and it's like, 'Oh, here's where they've been the whole time.' It's kind of exciting for us, because we can show off all the hard work we've done."

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