AUSTIN, Texas -- The best present Anthony Fera ever gave his parents was coming home.
He didn't receive the gift of the Lou Groza Award this month, but Texas' senior kicker and punter had plenty to be thankful for this Christmas. After all, 2013 ended up being an awfully good year for Fera.
One season after struggling as an injured and frustrated Penn State transfer, Fera emerged as one of the nation's top kickers. He became a consensus All-American and racked up more honors this December than any kicker has in Longhorns history. His stocking is overflowing with awards.
"I wasn't really expecting all of this," Fera said, "but it's definitely a great accomplishment."
All he expected when he arrived in Austin in Aug. 2012 was that his parents would be thrilled. They were finally getting a chance to be there for their only son, and he knew he needed to do the same for them.
In his 3 1/2 years at Penn State, Fera might not have spent more than three weeks at home in Cypress, Texas. Traveling 1,500 miles to catch his games was becoming near-impossible for Tony and Donna Fera -- and not just because of the distance.
Donna has been battling multiple sclerosis for six years. Her husband and son prefer privacy when it comes to her bout with MS. They’re not ready to tell her story yet.
“She’s OK. I’ll leave it at that,” Tony said. “She’s having some surgeries soon and needs some more things done; it’s a process. We’re getting there. Some days are good, some days not good.”
Anthony is relieved to say she’s doing better. His parents recently moved to the Barton Creek area of Austin, 20 minutes west of campus. Both of his sisters are UT grads, and one lives downtown. The Fera family is closer than ever.
“I think it’s been a godsend, especially for my wife,” Tony said. “It just makes life easier for all of us."
Tony and Donna will be in San Antonio on Monday for their son’s final game against No. 10 Oregon in the Valero Alamo Bowl. They haven’t missed a game this season. Had Anthony stayed in State College, spinal issues would’ve prevented Donna from traveling to watch him kick.
“To be honest, she doesn’t tell me all the bad things or whenever she feels pain,” Anthony said. “She doesn’t want me to stress out about it.”
He’s dealt with plenty of stress in the last two years. The abrupt ending of the Joe Paterno era at Penn State in the fall of 2011, amid a child sex abuse scandal that rocked the community, caught Fera and his teammates by complete surprise.
When the NCAA later announced PSU players could transfer without penalty, a door opened. This was Fera's chance to get back to Texas and spend more time with his ailing mother.
Fera was one of 15 Nittany Lions who transferred. The backlash from Penn State fans was instantaneous, profane and long lasting. He was labeled a traitor.
He left strictly for his family, but moving on wasn’t easy. He continues to keep up with his friends on the team. His parents sent him back for a week last year for belated goodbyes and to find some closure.
“He left the teammates that he cared so much about and came to a team that he didn’t even know,” Mack Brown said last month. “He came in late, so his life was really in turmoil.”
And then his first season at Texas got off to a rough start. A groin injury aggravated in his first month in the program hampered him most of the 2012 season.
“Last year was frustrating,” he said. “I was never 100 percent healthy. Every single time I’d warm up, I could always feel it. Something was just off.”
The Twitter and Facebook messages, the emails, even a website -- they didn’t let up. Whenever his successor, Sam Ficken, missed a field goal, Fera got plenty of hate sent his way.
“He’s had to deal with a lot of things that people have no idea about,” his father said.
All that made his 2013 campaign far more satisfying. Fera hit 20 of his 22 field goal attempts, including 15 in a row, and 44 of 45 extra-point attempts. He pinned more than 40 percent of his punts inside the 20. He was essentially Texas’ MVP for much of the season.
He was rewarded with countless All-America and All-Big 12 honors and became Texas’ first Groza Award finalist in school history. Now comes one last game in burnt orange, then a shot at placekicking in the NFL, an endeavor that will once again take him away from home.
Tony and Donna might not be able to make every game, but knowing mom is happy and getting healthy is more than enough for their son.
"She’s absolutely elated," Tony said. "That’s her baby boy."